German defence minister backs ‘European armed drone’

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen speaks in Berlin. 2014 [Sebastian Wilke/Medien Bundeswehr/Flickr]

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Berlin, 2014. [Sebastian Wilke/Medien Bundeswehr/Flickr]

Procurement of so-called fighter drones to protect German armed forces remains controversial, but Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has finally disclosed her plans for the aircraft: The German military should receive drones, she said, but these can only be deployed with parliamentary approval. EURACTIV Germany reports.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday (2 July) set out her position regarding the controversial issue of equipping German military forces with drones, and whether or not the latter should be armed.

The German military should receive drones, she said, but they can only be deployed with the approval of the German parliament.

Von der Leyen gave an interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung where she said that if German troops were to be sent on a combat mission, the parliament could decide on whether or not to equip the drones with rockets.

With the mandate, the Bundestag has the opportunity “to make case-by-case decisions and also choose whether or not to arm the drone to protect deployed troops”, the politician from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said.

The defence minister also spoke in favour of developing “a European armed drone”.

NSA spying

“Once again, the NSA affair has made it clear to me what it means to lie dormant through 10 to 15 years of technological development and suddenly face the bitter reality of how dependent one is on others,” the defence minister said.

She indicated that now is the time to search for partners in the project, which is expected to take at least a decade.

“Europe needs the capabilities of a reconnaissance drone so it is not permanently dependent on others”, von der Leyen emphasised.

Technology for a reconnaissance drone, is not only beneficial for Europe from a military point of view but more importantly for civilian purposes, said von der Leyen. But she indicated, no European partners can be found for the development of an unarmed drone.

Last December, the EU Summit was the starting signal in the preparation of a European drone programme up to 2015. Until then, only the United States and Israel have constructed large unmanned aircraft.

To bridge the gap until the European drone is developed, the “leasing solution” has proven its effectiveness, said the defence minister. “It comes with the advantage that domestically it does not require its own approval.”

In this way the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) can be more flexible in its reaction to future deployments, she said, but at the moment no mission seems to require such unmanned aircraft. Many politicians from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have also said that there is currently no demand for a deployment of armed drones by the Bundeswehr.

“Drone procurement programme for the Bundeswehr” was the title of a question and answer session in the Bundestag on Wednesday (2 July). The event, where von der Leyen spoke, was initiated by the Left Party (Die Linke) faction.

Drones to protect soldiers?

It became clear just how controversial the procurement of so-called fighter drones for the Bundeswehr was during a hearing of the defence committee on Monday (30 June). The Committee invited nine experts to consult on international and constitutional law, security policy and ethical aspects related to the deployment of “unmanned aircraft that could have further-reaching combat capabilities in addition to reconnaissance.”

Two international law experts, Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and Thilo Marauhn from the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, explained that in principle there are no concerns regarding international law a deployment of combat drones. Under international humanitarian law, deployment of drones is not assessed any differently from the deployment of a manned combat aircraft, they said.

Force Commander in the Operations Command of the Bundeswehr Hans-Werner Fritz, Chairman of the Bundeswehr alliance André Wüstner, and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hellmut Königshaus were all in agreement over the procurement of armed drones.

All three argued that it is a duty of the state to deploy such drones to protect the soldiers. If the parliament sends combat forces in a foreign deployment, it must ensure that soldiers be equipped and protected as best as possible, they said. This includes not only capabilities for reconnaissance against enemies, the three argued, but also for combat with the enemy ensuring the lowest danger to soldiers themselves.

But opposition came from Christoph Marischka from the Information Centre on Militarisation (IMI) e.V., Niklas Schörnig from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and Marcel Dickow from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

In the end, any weapons system can be justified by protection for soldiers, Schörnig criticised. The deployment of drones will revolutionise and drastically change warfare.

Marischka said he doubted whether soldiers can really be more effectively protected by the use of drones. This has not yet been proven in practice, he said. Soldiers from US combat troops in Afghanistan still suffered ambushes despite massive deployment of drones, Marischka pointed out.

He also warned that supposedly harmless drone deployments for own soldiers will lower the threshold of restraint for military operations.

Dickow reminded the committee that drones are designed to be more and more autonomous, for example to evaluate the large amount of surveillance data they collect. He called on the German government to push for a ban on drones that can automatically engage in combat with possible opponents in the area of deployment. As a matter of principle, the Bundeswehr should only deploy reconnaissance drones and not combat drones, Dickow said.

Von der Leyen followed the session for several hours: “The seriousness of the debate also shows how difficult the issues are,” said the CDU politician.

“But one thing is clear: It is not about autonomous killer drones, but about protecting Bundeswehr soldiers in action,” she added. Von der Leyen said the army is right to expect answers from politicians on this issue.

Drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) as they are also known, have been long identified as a shortfall in European defence, which relies completely on American and Israeli technology in this field.

The war in Libya in 2011 exposed once more the limits of the European capabilities, especially for drones and air-to-air refuelling.

Last July, the European Commission presented a paper aimed at strengthening the EU defence industry which is facing serious risks of technological losses due to deep cuts in defence budgets. Drones were included in the paper as eligible for EU funding for prototypes and for research projects with a dual use, both civilian and military.

An October report issued by the EU High Representative for Foreign and Defence Policy, Catherine Ashton, reiterated the appeal to member states to develop drones with cooperative projects.

Subscribe to our newsletters