Germany has reopened a controversial debate over whether its armed forces should be trusted to operate armed drones. While an agreement seems far off, the debate could soon get a European twist.
The question, whether the German Bundeswehr should be able to fight with armed drones and kill remotely, was initially excluded from the German coalition agreement in 2018.
Back then, the coalition partners agreed to let an extensive international, constitutional and ethical assessment precede the procurement of such equipment, stating that “we categorically reject killings that contravene international law, also using drones”.
A first step was made earlier this week on Monday (11 May), with the defence ministry inviting experts, representatives of civil society and members of parliamentary groups in the Bundestag to a public hearing on what it said was meant to be an “open debate on potential armament”.
At present, the Bundeswehr owns military drones deployed in foreign missions, but are unarmed reconnaissance birds only. Armed drones on the other hand can be used to accompany and monitor troops on the ground, and, in case of an armed attack, support troops with firepower.
In 2012, former defence minister Thomas de Maizière supported procurement of the Israeli drone Heron TP, while his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, also campaigned in favour. The desired model is the Heron TP, but a debate in the Bundestag ended without a decision.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who took office last summer, positioned herself in favour when visiting troops in Afghanistan in December.
The Bundeswehr is currently replacing its Israeli-made observation drones, which are in principle weapon-capable. Airbus has also announced it is developing its own European drone, which is also said to be armed.
Armed drones in the future would be about the “right to the best possible protection” for the soldiers in action, junior defence minister Peter Tauber said, but made it clear he is in favour of armed drones under the condition of a clear legal framework, which would exclude targeted killings “without immediate threat or out-of-area operations”.
The SPD’s Hans-Peter Bartels, outgoing armed forces representative in the Bundestag, said armed drones would be a useful purchase for the Bundeswehr.
Without explicitly mentioning the US, there is no interest in an American-style drone war in which pilots on one continent kill suspected terrorists on the other.
“Nobody in Germany wants to use the American use of armed drones for targeted killings,” Bartels said in an interview with RND.
“But if necessary, the opportunity for a close air support from an accompanying armed reconnaissance drone for a German patrol in action makes sense and maybe better in an emergency than having to wait for the attack helicopter or fighter-bomber requested,” he added.
Although there were no hard counter-arguments in the kick-off debate, doubts were raised regarding the distance between the “drone pilot” and the conflict zone, as it would lower the threshold for warfare.
It is, however, unclear whether there will be any decision on the procurement of armed drones in this parliamentary term as many politicians reject their use on ethical grounds. The FDP, CDU/CSU and AfD are in favour of the acquisition, the Left and Greens clearly reject it.
SPD defence expert Fritz Felgentreu said it was first necessary to determine “black on white”, what drones should and should not be used for.
The German centre left’s recent move to reopen the debate about whether to remain under Washington’s protective nuclear umbrella, prompted a backlash from Christian Democrat ministers, the dominant partner in the governing coalition.
EU common position
“We urgently need an EU-level legal framework to prevent the abuse of armed drones,” Green MEP Hannah Neumann told EURACTIV.
Asked whether there should there be a European approach to regulate the use of armed drones, Neumann said “a strong European position, stressing the importance of human rights and international humanitarian law, would be an important kick-off for a global regulation.”
In 2014, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the use of armed drones, pointing to the need for a common EU position, and stressing the importance of ensuring compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
“Unfortunately, in 6 years, nothing has happened in this respect. Investments in drones are made, but there is no EU legislation on when and how they can be used,” Neumann said.
Beyond the drone topic, the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee is currently preparing a report, led by Renew MEP Urmas Paet, on a framework of ethical aspects of artificial intelligence, robotics and related technologies, including their use in the military domain.
“If we send our soldiers into a conflict, we need to do everything to protect them the best way possible. Armed drones might be part of this, but we must refrain from an approach that makes war easier and more deadly,” Neumann said.
While there is currently no agreement between member states to pursue the matter at EU level, progress has been made recently in agreeing a joint EU position on lethal autonomous weapons.
According to Neumann, a European regulation on this issue has to rule out the use of lethal weapons which work without human control in the selection and elimination of targets.
“This is why the debate about armed drones is so difficult. Once we have them, it is just a small, and not very complicated step to turn them into lethal autonomous weapon systems,” she said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]