The Trouble with Drones: A Brief Overview of Problems Surrounding German Drone Usage and Armament.

Bolton Smith

Bolton Smith is a full-time intern at AICGS during the summer of 2014, where his duties include writing the AICGS Notizen Daily, assisting with the contact database, summarizing AICGS events, and contributing to the AICGS Notizen Blog. He is particularly interested in the Foreign & Domestic Policy and Society, Culture & Politics Programs at AICGS, focusing on defense policy as well as party politics in Germany.


Mr. Smith is currently a rising junior at Davidson College, where he is a double major in Political Science and German Studies. Mr. Smith will spend his junior year in Berlin at Humboldt University studying Politics and Literature, and hopes to gain working fluency in German. Mr. Smith intends to eventually pursue a J.D., focusing on International Law, specifically in regard to the European Union.

Drone technology has come to the forefront of defining modern and future warfare, helped in part by its efficiency in ongoing American military campaigns. But compared to the United States, German drone capabilities are abysmally low, stymied by a combined lack of drone production experience/capability as well as anti-drone feelings pervasive in German public opinion. Ethically, the impersonal killing abilities granted by drones have experts and observers worrying that drone use in Germany will lower the high threshold for the use of violence, a principle that has great historical significance for postwar Germany. This lowered threshold, critics claim, can lead to unnecessary or excessive military intervention vis-à-vis  what they see as excessive—and illegal—drone use by the Americans. Currently, Germany only has unarmed reconnaissance drones deployed in the field, relying solely on the Israeli-manufactured Heron-1 drones for intelligence gathering operations in Afghanistan. The upcoming expiration of the Bundeswehr’s lease on these drones is prompting a new discussion on the way forward for the German drone fleet.

While current Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) argues for increasing the quality and modernization of the army, including more drone integration, her coalition partners in the SPD are not too keen to give up the political capital coming with their anti-drone stance. It could be argued that advocating this position was a political tactic by the SPD that came about after former Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière (FDP) made a critical misstep with the German drone program just last year.  The scandal began to develop around a deal with Northrop Grumman, an American avionics and defense corporation, which was offered a contract by the German government to build and deliver four Eurohawk class drones that would help modernize the German arsenal. However, because the Eurohawks would require millions of additional euros spent in making the drone legal to fly in German airspace, with the additional issue that the drone lacked critical technology that would have allowed it to be outfitted with weapons,  the German government was forced to back out of the deal.  This early contract termination cost the German government dearly—upward of € 500 million—with no real benefit to German defense assets. Following the break of this story, Mr. Maizière was flooded with demands to resign and a left-wing committee comprised of members from SPD, Bündnis 90/Grünen, and die Linke formed an inquiry committee to investigate claims that the defense minister perhaps had knowledge of the deal’s flaws before he made it. This all occurred in the early months of 2013, an election year in Germany, during which the FPD was voted out of parliament and replaced as coalition partner with the SPD. In the coalition agreement, the SPD kept its anti-drone campaign promises by inserting a clause in the agreement stating that the new government “categorically rejects illegal killing with armed drones.”

But  intra-German political barriers are only one part of a larger problem in the European framework, namely how to reconcile EU law, or lack thereof, dictating the use of drones—for example, where they can legally fly, what payload can they carry, what safety measures they must feature, and much more.  As of today, the only European military power that is legally allowed to arm its drones is the United Kingdom; however, this is bound to change as nations, such as France and Italy, have been filing motions to be able to arm their Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as well. Even Germany, despite the aforementioned issues with its drone fleet, is considering purchasing or leasing the U.S.-made Predator class drone when its Heron-1 contract lease with Israel expires. While the Germans would certainly not utilize the offensive capabilities of the Predator at first, the potential for armed drones in the future for either the Bundeswehr or the European Union would certainly put Germany at the forefront of this complex question.

While there is certainly room for strife among EU member nations during drone policy negotiations, there is also opportunity for increasing European unity in matters of defense as well as the potential to create a European-only drone system that is not dependent on hardware and software imports from the United States or Israel. Progress is already being made toward a “Eurodrone” with firms potentially rolling out the new product to member states as early 2020. While some critique this move as simply creating a less effective Predator-style drone and believe that the European Union states should focus on technology such as stealth fighter planes, the independence and experience granted by an exclusively European drone system may be well worth the slightly lower quality of the product. Politically, there is a potential to utilize the drone issue as a building block for something resembling a cooperative EU-wide program; allowing the EU and its member states to gain administrative experience and simplify the myriad of different national regulations that have mired drone usage. Furthermore, by separating the drone question from the United States, European countries can possibly turn public opinion away from condemning drones as simply a weapon for illegal killing—as implied by the German coalition agreement—to accepting a more palatable message of Unsere Drohnen, unsere Weg (Our drones, our way). By moving forward together on this project, EU member states can become more cohesive in defense policy, more streamlined in drone avionics law, and better equipped to project power and support tactical operations at home and abroad.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.