The SPD party leadership has the decision whether the Bundeswehr their new Heron-TP-Drones are allowed to arm, postponed to the next legislative period and thus cause trouble in the Union, but also in one’s own party. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Armed Forces Commissioner Eva Högl, for example, are in favor of arming. What is the matter about?
What kind of drones is the Bundeswehr currently using?
In Mali and Afghanistan, it uses unarmed Israeli-type drones Heron for clarification and for situation reports. These drones do not carry weapons. Especially the newer ones Heron TP but could carry missiles that would be fired from the control center. Unlike jets, however, drones are unable to carry heavy bombs because their payload is quite small.
Will the security of German soldiers suffer in their current missions abroad if the air force does not receive combat drones?
Limited. In Afghanistan, the current “Resolute Support” mission is only used to train Afghan government forces; the NATO combat mission has been over since 2014. In Mali, the Bundeswehr is also actively patrolling the area against Islamist terrorist militias as part of the UN blue helmet mission Minusma. A threat is conceivable here in which an accompanying drone could detect and shoot at attackers. So far there has been no such incident, also because often Heron-Drones probe the terrain. In addition, the French who are also active there have armed drones; in 2017, seven jihadists who attacked a French unit killed seven.
For which missions does the Bundeswehr intend to arm drones?
For combat missions like in Afghanistan until 2014, where German soldiers often got into combat. In 2010, during the infamous “Good Friday Battle” near Kunduz, three paratroopers died when their convoy fell into a trap of the Taliban and it was not clear where the enemies were hidden. US fighter jets could therefore initially not intervene without endangering the Germans. An accompanying drone might have cleared up the Taliban’s positions from the air and targeted them to combat them, without any major delay. That is why the Bundeswehr wants combat drones for use that is limited to combat situations.
What military advantages would combat drones offer? What can they do that the Bundeswehr cannot do without them?
Precision and Surprise. Drones can orbit unnoticed over a battlefield for many hours. Unfortunately, through artillery shelling or the dropping of bombs on Taliban positions near villages, the danger of killing bystanders has all too often become a reality, especially during the many missions of the US Air Force. One example is the fatal bomb attack on the Kunduz River ordered by the German Armed Forces in 2009. At that time, American bombs F-15-Jets two tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban. Around 100 people died, including the Taliban, many civilians who came to the river out of curiosity or to siphon off gasoline. The wrong decision for the attack was based on incomplete information, the force of the bombs was so enormous that people died in a wide area. Proponents argued that a drone would have shown the evaluators on the screen immediately that many civilians had joined the Taliban, so a much more limited blow would only have been carried out when no bystanders were at risk.
May the Bundeswehr, like the US military, specifically kill people abroad using drones?
No. The Basic Law forbids the death penalty as well as killings contrary to international law for good reasons. The legally extremely problematic “drone war”, in which the US has Islamist terrorists deliberately executed using rockets fired by drones, would be illegal for Germany. The provisions originally agreed between the SPD and the Union on combat drones even imposed restrictions on their use in combat in order to avoid cases of doubt. Of course, there would still be a risk of abuse.
Did the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in autumn rekindle the debate about combat drones as they were used there?
In any case. Azerbaijan and its allied Turkey had combat drones, but the Armenian military, which is powerful in itself, did not. This is how the sighted fought against the blind. The drones took out Armenian tanks from the air and destroyed them with precision missiles. Military experts speak of the “first drone war” between states. The drone, which fires rockets and is invisible in the sky, is a new weapon, just like the bomber, the attack helicopter and the jet. And if you don’t have it, it’s hard to defend yourself.
What then is the correct response to the use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh war?
It depends on the point of view. The SPD leadership has in fact drawn the moral consequence that Germany should rather not take part in the arms race for such weapons. Proponents oppose that combat drones are now becoming the standard for modern armies and that Germany will weaken its currently limited ability to defend its country and alliances if it voluntarily renounces such defenses without preventing other states from acquiring this weapon. From this point of view it would be as if the French military had decided in 1910 for ethical reasons not to purchase any of the aircraft that had just been invented, while the German Empire was quickly building an air force.
Critics fear that combat drones are the entry point into the dreaded “killer robots”, ie autonomous weapon systems that operate independently using artificial intelligence (AI). Right?
A lot speaks against this assumption, at least today. Hardly any other weapon system is controlled by as many people as a drone of the current design. A crew of two sits in the ground station, the pilot or – more and more often – the pilot flies them by hand by remote control, the other analyzes the images from the high-tech cameras (which are nevertheless not as razor-sharp as in the Hollywood Movie). At the same time, evaluators on the ground see the same images, discuss with the crew and, if there was a possible reason to fire, would initiate a chain of command that extends to the top of the ministry. Like chemical weapons, killer robots should rightly be outlawed under international law. But of course, drones could also be converted into autonomous weapon systems, such as aircraft or tanks. This would be a horror vision, the dangers of which have so far been underestimated.