COLOGNE, Germany – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he supported the use of armed drones to protect the lives of soldiers and was getting into a heated debate in Germany about buying such technology for future operations.
Stoltenberg informed the German press agency DPA that the alliance would use unmanned weapons aircraft in accordance with international law and to support the troops deployed. “These drones can support forces on the ground and reduce the number of pilots we put in danger,” he was quoted as saying.
His comments come from the fact that the issue of arming drones has led to a major conflict between the CDU and the SPD parties that make up the German coalition government. In particular, the question is whether the German Armed Forces can lease Heron TP drones equipped with rockets from Israel. In a broader sense, however, the debate is about different visions for Germany as a participant in the military structure of the West.
At the beginning of this month, the SPD leadership decided to reject the acquisition of armed drones in principle, arguing that there had not yet been a broad debate about the ethical aspects of their use, as prescribed in the government’s coalition agreement.
The party’s surprising move came after Defense Department officials formally investigated the issue as part of a public campaign for most of the year, held hearings with experts from various backgrounds, and sent a final report to lawmakers.
The SPD parliamentary speaker on defense, Fritz Felgentreu, who supports the use of drones with weapons under limited conditions, resigned from his job in protest, arguing that the party leadership’s claim of a lackluster drone debate was dishonest.
After Stoltenberg’s remarks to the data protection authority on Wednesday, Felgentreu joked on Twitter that the secretary general would make an “intelligent social democrat”, a reference to his own party.
It is unlikely that Stoltenberg’s stance influences any opinions here, as those who oppose armed drones for the Bundeswehr are unlikely to be glowing NATO supporters from the start.
It remains to be seen how the German drone debate of more than seven years will develop before it reaches the relevant decision-making phase for the Franco-German Eurodrone. In addition to espionage and surveillance, one of the tasks of the unmanned aircraft is to fire weapons in combat under certain conditions. Similarly, the Future Combat Air System, a Franco-German-Spanish project, is said to include a number of so-called “remote carriers”, some of which will have kinetic effects.
The US administration’s anti-terror drone wars since the Bush administration, often waged somewhere in the gray area between military and paramilitary operations, still play a major role in the collective conscience of the German anti-war left.
Proponents of armed drones for the German armed forces have accused the SPD skeptics of distrusting the government and their own parliament with a more responsible use of these weapons.
Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, whose company manages the Heron TP lease and co-directs the Eurodrone and FCAS programs, told reporters earlier this month that he was betting on a “shift” in German public opinion around the idea of armed drones in the end. “Our people recognize that we are seeing more volatility and more crises and that the largest economy in Europe cannot shirk the accountability and responsibility that comes with that role,” he said.