In the aftermath of the recent clash in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the effectiveness of drones in a regional and limited conflict setting were showcased and countries have begun to readdress the importance of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) and anti-UAV capabilities.
Alongside the United Kingdom, where the Ministry of Defence is eager to expand its own drone programme, and Spain, which recently announced the purchase of swarm drones for intelligence gathering, surveillance and target acquisition, Germany is the latest European nation to revisit the issue of drones in the months after Nagorno-Karabakh.
Andro Mathewson is a Capability Support Officer at the HALO Trust and an International Relations MSc student at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in international security and military technology. Andro has previously contributed to The Bulletin Of Atomic Sciences and The Texas National Security Review.
Before his current studies, he was a Research Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received his Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy, & Economics, and German. Find him on Twitter @Andro_Mathewson. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The HALO Trust.
Yet with a resurgent Russia to the East, the lack of the United Kingdom in the European Union and increasing regional conflicts, Germany can no longer afford to remain without a clearer international security policy and must develop its own armed drone capacity and strategy.
At the end of 2020, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, voted against the armament of Israeli-made Heron TP drones, citing that ‘more debate’ was needed on the matter. However, current defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer noted that the armament of UAVs is crucial to provide adequate support and protection for soldiers on deployments. Currently, the German Armed Forces, or Bundeswehr, only use UAVs for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Yet opportunities for the successful deployment of armed German drones are starting to appear.
With the recent reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, there are, for the first time, more NATO soldiers, than American in the country. This offers the opportunity for Germany to take a leading role in the region with the provision of strategic, tactical and training support to government forces, especially in their fight against terrorist groups which still have a presence in the region such al Qaeda and Islamic State militants. UAVs would prove highly beneficial in providing that support and an additional layer of defense from and pose a threat to enemy combatants.
In further opposition to German armament of UAVs is the Green party in Germany, which over the past couple of decades has seen a steady increase in support. Jürgen Trittin, a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently stated that “it is nonsense to pretend that combat drones are equivalent to bulletproof vests to protect the soldiers. Combat drones are used to establish air superiority in combat missions in asymmetrical conflicts”.
Yet this is factually incorrect.
UAVs are not used to establish air superiority, since they lack built-in self-defence mechanisms, but rather necessitate air superiority before they are able to effectively contribute to missions. Nevertheless, the establishment of air superiority (the continuation of which is aided by combat drones) is a form of protection that decidedly saves lives: a side that wins air superiority in the decisive battle of a war suffers approximately 1.5x fewer casualties per casualty inflicted upon the opposing side.
Many in Germany also see armed UAVs simply as tools for targeted airstrikes against terrorists in the Middle East, which have frequently been criticized for killing nearby civilians during such missions, but UAVs are versatile military systems, which can and have been used for internationally legitimate purposes. The problem lies not with the technology, but rather with how UAVs are used. In an example of beneficial usage, France has recently deployed armed drones in Africa’s Sahel region as part of Operation Barkhane supporting nations in their fight against Islamist extremist groups.
In a recent strike, a Reaper drone opened fire to support ground troops under fire from a group of terrorists on motorbikes in central Mali. The drone strike resulted in the death of seven enemy combatants and the successful seizure of armed vehicles and weaponry. This legitimate use of an armed UAV undoubtedly contributed not only to the success of the mission but also to the safety of the French and allied troops on the ground. If Germany is to move ahead with its own armed drone programme, it should do so under the traditional rules of engagement and within the limits defined by international law. Thus it will be able to provide adequate protection and support to its troops, while minimizing the chances for indiscriminate deaths of civilians.
With the continued diffusion of armed drones and precision strike capabilities on a global scale, it is clear that drone warfare is here to stay and is almost an integral part of any modern military force.
Regardless if Germany should purchase armed drones from the United States or other allies, or develop its own indigenous drone industry, its current contentious stance on armed drones is a hindrance to both its own foreign policy goals and that of its allies across NATO and the EU.
On the stage of 21st century warfare, a Bundeswehr with armed drones will only positively contribute to Germany’s foreign policy and international security goals.