When it comes to weaponized flying robots, the German army is determined not to be left behind - if only it weren't for those inconvenient German laws.
On Tuesday, a state court in Düsseldorf stopped the Defense Ministry's plans to lease "Heron TP" Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), who had won the Bundeswehr's bid along with the European aerospace giant Airbus.
The ministry had hoped to get the deal done before parliament goes into recess in July, but US drone-maker General Atomics sued on the grounds that it had not been fairly handled by the government, and that the "Predator" drones the US uses are cheaper and better.
Even though the Defense Ministry had failed to produce the necessary cost-efficiency comparison, the court found in its favor. But an appeal from the US firm has now delayed the deal again - cutting things fine for Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
The Israeli Heron TPs would add a new dimension to the Bundeswehr's drone program - because they are meant to be armed. Germany is one of the few countries that still harbors moral quibbles about armed drones, which is the main reason why the Bundeswehr's request for winged killing machines has been left unanswered for around five years.
The Bundeswehr uses five different types of UAVs - the LUNA, the KZO, the ALADIN, the MIKADO (all German-made), and the Israeli-built Heron 1 - all of which can only be used for reconnaissance, target location, or area imaging. They have been introduced into combat areas since the beginning of the century - supporting US air strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere - with the last of them, the Heron 1, first flown in 2010.
But German public opinion is largely against military drones, mainly because of their use for extra-judicial targeted killings by the US government. It is still not known what exactly the German military wants to do with its Heron TPs if and when it gets them, since a variety of weapons could be attached to them, but Ulrike Esther Franke, research assistant and UAV specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), thinks its very unlikely they would be used for extra-judicial killings.
"That's somewhat similar to saying they're going to buy tanks, so they're going to commit war crimes," she told DW. "There is no indication whatsoever that Germany is planning anything like this. There has been a lot of criticism of the US drone program among the German public and even in the political realm."
Franke says the German drone debate has been "poisoned" by the US drone program and the attendant human rights concerns. While that discussion is important, she says, killing people outside official battle zones is "a tiny, tiny, tiny part of how drones can be used in military operations."
According to her research for ECFR, around 90 countries have military drones, and 11 of these have armed drones (Germany would be the 12th). "And they don't all carry out targeted killings with them," said Franke. "One of the things the Bundeswehr is acquiring them for is what we call armed overwatch. So you have these drones flying over troops or a convoy, and if they are attacked, then the drone is armed and can react to that attack."
Franke added that, because drones carry much smaller missiles, they can also be better in "close combat situations" than manned war planes.
Sebastian Schulte, Germany correspondent for the military publication Jane's Defence Weekly, thinks the world's militaries have barely begun to explore all the possible uses for drones. "There are already vast possible applications for unmanned vehicles on land, air and sea vehicles in all sizes, from the personal companion bot to the unmanned missile cruiser or the strategic bomber, and further research and development into the matter will advance," he told DW. "Military planners worldwide are currently figuring out if and how drones could and should replace manned combat aircraft, for example. The era of the manned fighter aircraft could come to an end in the foreseeable time."
But Schulte was also confident that machines wouldn't actually take over decision-making. "The future will likely see drones as a supplement and complement to existing military forces rather than truly autonomous machines that make life or death decisions on their own, as this would require a level of human-to-machine delegation that would equal a loss of control," he said.
The Bundeswehr, like most militaries, prefers to buy weapons from home-grown arms makers, so Israel's involvement would be a departure in Germany's drone program. "German companies currently don't have the capability to produce American-type armed drones," said Franke. "Though if they wanted to they probably could. They are now investing more into future technologies - the next generation of drones."
That's why - Franke believes - the Bundeswehr is looking to lease rather than buy the Israeli drones - since, when the Heron TP leases expire in 2025, "there should be a European armed drone system."
If so, it would mark a new achievement for European aerospace technology. In 2013, then-German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere scrapped the Euro Hawk project because of spiraling costs and problems getting the huge UAV approved for German airspace. In the meantime, the armed drone market is dominated by the US, Israel - and increasingly, China.