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The Latecomer: Germany's Debate on Armed Drones

Lydia Wachs
Commentary, 11 December 2020
Aerospace, Germany, Technology
Only days before an expected decision by the German parliament on arming Germany’s drones, the drone debate is polarising national politics.

Security and defence policy is not a subject which attracts much attention, let alone sympathy, among the general German public. Yet, the past year has seen two defence-related topics stirring public debate. While in May Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing led to controversies within the governing coalition, recently another issue has caused a lively debate – whether Germany’s UAVs, or ‘drones’, should be armed.

A Decade-Long Debate

Even though Germany is a latecomer to armed drones in comparison to the UK and France, the debate over the possible weaponisation of its UAVs is not new. Germany has been using drones since the 1970s. Hitherto, these have all been unarmed types used exclusively for ISR. However, strike-capable UAVs have long been on the wish list of the Bundeswehr. In 2012, then Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière called for the procurement of armed UAVs. His successor Ursula von der Leyen repeated his calls two years later, advocating the leasing of arms-capable drones Heron TP model from Israel until Europe developed its own model.

Yet, it took another four years until the issue was placed on the agenda of German lawmakers. In 2018, the Bundestag approved the lease of five Heron TP drones made by Israel Aerospace Industries for a duration of nine years. These drones, belonging to the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) class, are supposed to replace the Heron 1 UAV which the Bundeswehr has been using for surveillance in Afghanistan and Mali. But while the Heron TP is a weapon-capable model– in contrast to the Heron 1 – the question of whether it would be ‘weaponised’ was not part of the deal. Instead, the Social Democrats (SPD) – the junior partner in Germany's coalition government – made it clear that armaments would require a separate decision. In their coalition agreement, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD had agreed that the Bundestag would decide on arming its drones only after a comprehensive assessment of international and constitutional law as well as ethics.


As the third German defence minister to press this issue, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reopened the debate in late 2019 after visiting German troops in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, and listening to their experiences. Under the slogan #DrohnenDebatte2020, the Ministry of Defence set up a series of panel discussions and events earlier this year. By involving experts, politicians and representatives of civil society the drone debate was meant to shed light on the issue of armed drones not only from a military perspective but also legal and ethical standpoints. Yet, the arguments voiced at the events were hardly new.

Opening Pandora’s Box?

Those in favour of procuring armed drones – first and foremost the CDU – have repeatedly underlined that these systems would be about the ‘right to the best possible protection’ for deployed German forces in hotspots around the world. By accompanying troops on patrol armed drones could provide close air support and better protection in an emergency. Furthermore, due to their greater precision, armed drones – if used – would cause fewer civilian fatalities.

Within the critical and largely pacifist German public, drones, however, conjure up images of American extraterritorial targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Turkey’s drone operations against Kurdish groups since 2016 and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which re-erupted in September, generating numerous publicly available videos of Azerbaijan’s drone strikes on Armenian military vehicles and buildings, have further contributed to this picture. Resistance to the procurement of armed drones mainly comes from the Greens and the Left Party. These raise concerns that the deployment of military UAVs may lead to a growing distance between the drone pilot and the battle ground, risking emotional indifference as well as a lower threshold for warfare on an operational as well as political level. Also, the high number of civilian casualties from US drone strikes in their view undermines the precision argument. Last but not least, procuring armed drones would be the first step towards autonomous weapons. Thus, the Bundeswehr should refrain from opening Pandora’s box.

Reaching the Tipping Point

Nevertheless, in the last couple of months Germany seemed closer to joining the club of countries with armed drones than ever before. Shortly before parliamentarians went into summer recess, the Ministry of Defence published a report that laid out principles for the deployment of armed UAVs by Germany. It thereby met a demand by the SPD, which has shown greater reluctance to the armament question than its coalition partner. Even though the principles remain vague, they address several concerns raised by drone critics. Instead of being deployed thousands of miles away from the battlefield, German drone pilots will be based in Bundeswehr camps on the ground in Afghanistan or Mali. Furthermore, the use of armed drones will be subject to parliamentary approval, underlining the statutory nature of the Bundeswehr as the German ‘Parliamentary Army’.

Following an expert debate in the parliament’s defence committee in early October, the SPD appeared just one step away from endowing the five Heron TP with their destructive power. With the election year looming in Germany, a final decision on the procurement of armed drones by the German Bundestag’s budget committee was expected to take place before the end of 2020. Yet, to the dismay of its coalition partner, the left wing of the SPD disrupted these plans now, demanding to postpone the decision again, as in its view there has not been sufficient debate. After almost a decade of discussions, this indetermination seems not only bizarre but also raises questions against the backdrop of Germany’s engagement in several European weapons programmes.

From a Handful of Drones to Autonomous Swarms

Leasing Heron TP drones is only supposed to bridge an existing capabilities gap until the so-called ‘Eurodrone’ becomes available in the mid-2020s. In the framework of the programme under the official name ‘European Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft System’ – EURO MALE RPAS 2025 – Germany, together with France, Spain and Italy, will construct an unmanned aircraft to boost the continent’s strategic autonomy. Around 20 of these Eurodrones will be procured by Germany. While they come in two configurations – a strike-capable one and one for reconnaissance purposes only – it might seem absurd to the government to spend taxpayers’ money on the expensive drone and then not to make the best of its capabilities for the protection of German soldiers.

What is more, together with France, Germany is also a prime mover in the continent’s most expensive weapons programme, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a system of systems involving teaming between a manned sixth-generation fighter and swarms of autonomous drones. Even though 2040, when the system is supposed to become operational, may seem a long way off, it is already clear today that there are stark differences when it comes to the military use of artificial intelligence (AI) between France and Germany. France sees great potential in the military use of AI. German politicians and the general public, on the other hand, are more reluctant regarding the use of AI in warfare. Illustrative of this difference is the Expert Commission on the responsible use of technologies which Airbus – one of the main defence contractors involved in FCAS – has set up in Germany to consider the ethical and legal challenges posed by AI and its use in the project. France still lacks a similar commission. If France and Germany’s views, however, do not align, future coordination on the programme might become difficult.

Being unable to take a decision on armed drones, it is questionable how Germany wants to pursue a shaping role in those major weapons programmes and influence how Europe will approach the next generation of drones. With challenging coordination on the military use of AI looming ahead, a clear stance on armed drones would be a good starting point.

Lydia Wachs is a Research Assistant at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, working on the military use of emerging technologies, arms control and international humanitarian law. Prior to this, she worked as a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt

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