PARIS --- In Germany, since Helmut Schmidt, Defence is no longer a bone of contention among political parties, but the final mandate of Mrs. Merkel has eroded the defence consensus in the political circles, being the witness of three major clashes: (1) the weaponization of military drones; (2) arms export policy, and (3) the nuclear mission of the German Air Force.
Under regular attacks from the SPD, the Bündnis90/die Grünen and die Linke, on these issues, Mrs Merkel has often abdicated on the first two to save the last one. The most important to her eyes was indeed to preserve the nuclear mission of the Luftwaffe on behalf and for NATO to be still considered as a trusted partner inside the Alliance. The weaponization of military drones and arms export policy have thus been both victims of the German commitment to NATO and transatlantic link (‘Westbindung’ in German).
The 2013 coalition contract (Koalitionsvertrag) released the 27th of November 2013 dealt with this issue by avoiding any decision-taking: “We categorically reject extra-legal killings with armed drones that are contrary to international law. Germany will promote this issue of armed drones into the rings of international disarmament and arms control regimes and advocate the outlawing of fully automated weapons systems under international law use that will deprive decision-makers of the use of weapons.
Before taking any decision on procurement of qualitative new weapon systems we will carefully review all related international and constitutional, security and ethical issues. This is especially true for new generations of unmanned aerial vehicles that have advanced combat capabilities beyond reconnaissance.” (p.126).
Launched in June 2014, the debate over the armed military drones and their use by the Bundeswehr in overseas deployments, involving the military establishment, the defence industry, the churches and the NGOs, could have been solved if the Chancellor has decided to go through: after all, the stake was high: saving German lives. But she did not and the issue dragged on.
In June 2017, a first attempt was made to impose the issue in the Bundestag, but the General elections of September were too close to reach the needed political consensus.
Since January 2019, Luftwaffe crews have been trained in Tel Nof (an air base south of Tel Aviv) by Israeli instructors, but no course included the weaponization of the Heron TP.
The negotiations between the CDU, the CSU and the SPD driving to the second coalition contract, published on the 18th of March 2018, have not reached a clear-cut decision on this hot potato: “Before the future procurement of armed drones, the conceptual basis for their use shall be drafted” (page 159).
Other debates have been organized in 2019 and in 2020 by the MoD to reach at last a definition of this famous “conceptual basis”. At each of these debates, the SPD made clear that four criteria should be fulfilled to allow the armament of the Israeli UAVs:
-- a clear concept of use,
-- a mandate from the Bundestag,
-- the location of the centre of these operations in Germany,
-- psychological support for pilots.
During the Fall of 2020, the MoD was very close to reach the consensus it needed to go further with IAI. A detailed project of contract was sent to the Budget Committee, the high authority in any procurement deal.
The Budget Committee (Haushaltauschuss) gave the green light to the project on October 7th 2020, and, as planned, the Defence ministry prepared the negotiations with Israel Aircraft Industries to study the weaponization of the Heron TP.
But in December of the same year, the SPD decided to reconsider its position on this issue: pressure from the Greens and extreme-left was high on all defence elections and elections were close (26 September 2021). The social-democrat party was then accused by the CDU and the CSU of “making a cynical calculation to sacrifice the lives of German troops for political gain”. (See table above—Ed.)
To answer bot the critics and to a worrying Bundeswehr, the leadership of the party decided to set-up a committed chaired by the former minister of Justice (1998-2002), Mrs. Hertha Däubler-Gmelin to settle the issue to a final point.
In a report dated October 12, the Committee, which worked in silence for nearly 10 months, acknowledged that the UAVs could be armed but under the strict following conditions:
1. The express prohibition of extrajudicial killings in order to ensure strict compliance with international law and the German Basic Law and to expressly differentiate Germany from the practice of other states,
2. “The categorical rejection of fully automated drones and other lethal autonomous weapon systems. The decision to use weapons can only be taken by people who - also through their personal involvement in the area of operations - are able to assess the risk for the military, but also and above all for the affected civilian population;
3. The development of a binding deployment doctrine for armed drones by the Federal government to ensure the highest level of transparency in the use of armed drones vis-à-vis the Bundestag and the public opinion. It is also necessary to ensure that the Bundestag is immediately informed of any changes to the general rules of engagement on the ground;
4. The use of armed drones is allowed only if it is explicitly mentioned in the Bundestag's mandate, in order to achieve a high degree of transparency and control,
5. The drone chain of command must be stationed in the operational zone (which must be the same of that one of the mandate); there should therefore be no remote decision. This is the only way to realistically assess the situation in the area of operation: danger for the German military and the civilian population and to make a decision without further considerations,
6. The best possible training, care, support and follow-up for the soldiers who could take immediate decisions in the operational zone;
7. The necessary promotion of international rules for the deployment of armed drones and their operational uses;
8. An arms export law (in Germany) which restrictively regulates the export of armed drones. In principle, arms exports should only be possible within the EU, NATO and assimilated countries and, with absolute exceptions, only in individual cases justified in accordance with the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT),
9. The SPD is committed to ensuring that the future Federal government, when it supports European armament projects such as the “Future Combat Air System” (FCAS), will make the principle of strengthening “significant human control” binding as soon as possible since the very inception of such systems,
10. The strengthening the powers of the Bundestag in the field of exports.
The report has been conveyed to the leadership of the SPD a few days before the results of the preliminary negotiations between the SPD (in force), the Greens (the second potential partner) and the F.D.P (the new comer).
Curiously, the issue of the weaponization the drones was totally absent from the tripartite document released the 15th of October (Ergebnis der Sondierungen zwischen SPD, BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN und FDP): even the word “drone” or “uav” was not quoted in that position paper. We understand that the subject was too sensitive to be mentioned, with the Greens being against and the F.D.P, being in favour and the SPD still hesitating.
We also understand that the future Ampel-Koalition wants to have a broad view of the matter: for the three parties, this issue is also related to other sensitive debates, such as the arms export policy and the overseas deployment (whose criteria shall depend on the investigation committee on Afghanistan which should be set-up).
With a coalition contract in sight at the end of November, clock is clicking however to take a definitive position on this important issue whose outcome will have a deep impact on the Bundeswehr’s operational capabilities and some defence programs in Europe.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The next two articles in this three-part series will be posted next week and the following.)