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No armed drones for the German army — for now

December 14, 2020

The Bundeswehr has called for approval for armed combat drones for military use. But the controversial technology has been blocked in the German parliament. What does that mean for German defense?

Heron TP drone on a sandy runway in Israel
The Bundeswehr will receive Israeli Heron TP dronesImage: Israeli Ministry of Defense/dpa/picture alliance

For the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, the timing could not be better: In the next few months, the German armed forces will receive five new Heron TP drones. The drone can circle in the sky for more than 30 hours, controlled remotely from a station on the ground. Even in bad weather, the Heron TP, which is being built by the Israeli defense company Israel Aerospace Industries, can send images of houses, cars, or people to earth in real-time.

The Bundeswehr is calling for weapons to be procured to arm the drones as quickly as possible. These are missiles that can engage targets on the ground. The plan was for the German parliament to give the green light for the purchase of these missiles before Christmas. The Ministry of Defense had already prepared the purchase contract.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaking in parliament
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has argued in favor of armed drones for the BundeswehrImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

SPD has doubts

But for now, the drones will not be armed.The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who are the junior partners in Germany's ruling "grand coalition," had initially indicated they would agree to the plan, but have now refused to support it.

"The line between defending the lives of our soldiers and killing with a joystick is extremely thin," explained SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans. He also criticized the fact that the issue had not yet been sufficiently debated in the Bundestag, the German parliament.

This statement was met with widespread incomprehension among German politicians — both by supporters and opponents of armed drones. Many pointed out that the controversial topic had been under discussion for years.

"The arguments on this issue have already been exchanged," Tobias Lindner of the Green party said in early December during a debate on the defense budget. He told the SPD that they could be for or against the weaponizing of drones — but they must pick a side.

Heron TP on airbase in Mali
The Bundeswehr uses unarmed Heron 1 in its missions in Afghanistan and MaliImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

'Condemned to be observers'

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) also reacted frostily to the statement by her coalition partner. Her ministry, partly at the request of the SPD, has organized rounds of discussion on the topic in recent months. Soldiers, international law experts, defense experts, and politicians were invited to debate the issue.

In these hearings, soldiers described how they used unarmed reconnaissance drones to observe attacks on Bundeswehr camps or patrols — without having the power to do anything about it. The Bundeswehr currently uses the unarmed Heron 1, the predecessor of the Heron TP, in its missions in Afghanistan and Mali.

In this way, the drone pilots are put in a "particularly stressful situation" by being "condemned to be observers," Andre Wüstner, chair of the German armed forces association, said in an October hearing. With the help of combat drones, field camps, convoys and patrols could be better protected on foreign missions.

Until now, in dangerous situations, fighter jets had to be requested and fly to the scene of the incident. This wastes valuable time. If the Bundeswehr does not receive combat drones, "we are negligently putting the lives of our soldiers at risk," Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer said. The CDU has long advocated for the arming of drones.

Better protection for soldiers

The argument for better protection has many supporters in the German parliament. CDU defense policy spokesman Henning Otte said it was "immoral to deny our soldiers technology that protects people and lives." In Europe alone, France and the UK use armed drones, as do Serbia and Ukraine.

Eva Högl, the German parliament's defense commissioner and member of the SPD, said that armed drones increase the safety of soldiers on the ground "because drones offer more flexible options for responding to threats." The prerequisite, she said, was that the rules of engagement for the drones were clearly defined and controlled by the Bundestag.

'Not a cure-all'

But does the argument for the protection of soldiers hold water? That depends entirely on the deployment scenario, according to drone expert Anja Dahlmann from the Berlin-based think tank the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. For national defense, which is the main role of the Bundeswehr, there is no need for combat drones.

"In the case of national defense, the airspace would probably also be contested," Dahlmann told DW. "And then small, slow drones would be shot down very quickly." The Heron TP has a maximum flight speed of 400 km/h (249 mph), making it relatively slow, just like the other drones in its class.

But Dahlmann believes it is a different story in foreign missions where the Bundeswehr is threatened by insurgents or terrorist groups. In cases like this, drones could be useful to be able to directly combat an identified threat.

"But they are not a cure-all," Dahlmann added. She believes the impression is sometimes given that German soldiers are "wonderfully protected by armed drones and that nothing can happen anymore. That is not the case." A total of five Heron TPs, which may have to be divided over several missions abroad, are simply too few to make a difference.

Targeted killings

It is not without reason that combat drones have such a bad public image. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a recent example of the destructive potential of these weapons. The debate in Germany was primarily shaped by the excessive use of drones for targeted killings by the US, for example in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Critics refer to this practice as an "execution of suspects without trial" and point out the high number of civilian casualties.

explosion in the sky, possibly image of a rocket hitting a drone
The Armenian Defense Ministry released this image allegedly showing the shooting down of an Azerbaijani unmanned aerial vehicleImage: Armenian Defense Ministry

The German government has unequivocally stated in its coalition agreement that it rejects "killings in violation of international law" by drones. But once armed drones are actually procured, some skeptics fear that these restrictions could be relaxed.

And the issue is not only divisive among the ruling coalition, but also within parliament as a whole. Two main opposition parties — the business-friendly FDP and the far-right AfD — are campaigning for the arming of drones. The Greens and the Left Party are against it.

More dangerous foreign missions?

Critics of the acquisition of combat drones have another argument: Could these weapons lead to the Bundeswehr getting involved in more dangerous foreign missions in the future? Currently, Germany prefers to contribute military trainers, surveillance capabilities, or logistics to multinational military missions, but not send combat troops. Increased use of combat drones could change that, and pressure from allies on Germany could grow.

Even if the Bundeswehr does not receive weapons for its new drones now, then the path for this technology has long been laid out in Germany. In Manching in Bavaria, private company Airbus Defence and Space is developing the Eurodrone, which will be armed. In the defense budget for the coming year, which the SPD has green-lit, millions of euros have been made available for this purpose.

So it is only a matter of time before the Bundeswehr gets combat drones.

This article was translated from German.