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Remote-control war

Sven Ahnert / sad
March 29, 2013

Unmanned aircraft continue to gain an ever more vital role in conflicts around the globe, as well as in domestic security. Germany is no exception. But as one drone pilot reports, the work can be tremendously taxing.

A prototype of the Eurohawk drone
A prototype of the Eurohawk droneImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Unmanned drones continue to gain an ever-bigger foothold in the strategic and tactical planning for armed conflict and domestic surveillance. But, for pilots who remotely fly the aircraft, the job can be surprisingly arduous, even though he or she is not actually sitting in a cockpit over "enemy territory."

Lieutenant Colonel Carsten Endemann worked for three years as a Heron drone pilot in Afghanistan. The pilot, trained in Israel, would start off the drones from a container just 50 meters from where he worked in Afghanistan. On the video recorded from the drone, houses and market squares are visible.

"This is the area where rebels are alleged to be," Endemann said. The drone could confirm this. "It's partially visible on the images, that weapons are being carried here," he added. The German patrol then shot off a sort of signal flare in order to let the rebels know that they were seen. "And that was enough to chase them away," Endemann said.

Drone attack protesters shout slogans and hold banner during a protest rally against US drone strikes in central Pakistan
Pakistanis have protested against US drone attacksImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Psychic strain, ethical dilemma

What looks like a highly realistic video game, with its joysticks and monitors, is actually the cold, hard reality of war. And an experienced pilot, like Endemann, knows this all too well.

"The people I'm seeing right now on the screen, I was talking to last night," Endemann said. When he has to watch people get injured, the psychological strain is "immensely high."

While Germany to date has only deployed reconnaissance drones, the United States has used armed drones since 2001. Needless to say, this has sparked quite a debate.

Jutta Weber, a technology scholar at the University of Paderborn in Germany, researches automated war. She described as "highly problematic" the lacking legal framework for both the military and intelligence services sending drones into countries that have no air force with the express purpose of killing people.

Weber pointed to how so-called "signature strikes" have targeted and killed civilians simply because their behavior may have indicated that they belonged to a target group, such as militant Islamists.

According to the medical peace organization Medact, 3,000 to 4,500 people in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have been killed by armed drones since 2001.

Heron to predator

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizaire stated in the German parliament this past January: "I consider the deployment of drones within our existing legal framework as ethical." He stated that the German army maintaining drones is simply "security-oriented, alliance-oriented and technologically sensible."

De Maiziere speaking to a soldier in Afghanistan
De Maizaire has deemed drones to be ethically acceptableImage: Reuters

Until now, the German army has used a drone type known as Heron 1. Germany has had three of these, made by the Israeli weapons firm IAI, deployed in Afghanistan since 2009.

The Heron 1 has both infrared and daylight cameras, and can remain in the air for up to 18 hours.

In the fall of 2014, the leasing contract with IAI expires. Signals indicate that the Herons may be replaced by a pared-down US attack drone known as Predator. As to whether the US can or will sell its tried-and-true drone technology to Germany remains unclear. The German parliament is slated to debate the issue in September.

The planned purchase of the Eurohawk surveillance drone has been canceled. Although the figure of more than a billion euros was cited for the purchase of four drones, including their base stations, experts believed the price would have been considerably higher.

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