German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere talks about drones

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere spoke recently to The Washington Post about his desire to purchase armed drones for the German military. These are excerpts from the interview.

On the discussion about drones in Germany:

“Rationally, I don’t fully understand the intensity of the debate. . . . Politically, psychologically, it is easily explained. This is a surrogate debate on how the U.S. is using drones. And from the way the Americans use them, people are deciding negatively on the operating tool itself.”


German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maiziere opens the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 1, 2013 in southern Germany. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)

The circumstances under which Germany would use armed drones:

“For us, any participation in a military conflict is to be assessed in the same manner, namely as follows: We need a basis within international law. This means either defense, or a participation within a multinational mission of the [NATO] Alliance. That means that a unilateral strike on another country with airplanes or drones is not permitted within our constitution. In contrast, the use of an armed drone in an operation, for example for close air support, is naturally permitted within an act of aggression if it is part of a multilateral mission. Unilateral operations as the Americans are doing are not possible within our constitution. . . . This is why the criticism that we might use a drone as the Americans do is wrong, because we adhere to our constitution. And here it doesn’t matter if I am using a bullet, an airplane or a drone.”

On tactics:

“There is a difference with the Americans that I’d like to mention: I believe drone pilots should be in the area of operation, if possible, and not at home. I consider this important because the closeness to the mission, being around the other soldiers, the closeness to the cultural occurrences in the location, the sharing of the living conditions with the other soldiers, is important for decisions in the operation. It is a difference if I am based in Mazar-e Sharif piloting a drone or if I am based in Texas piloting a drone in Afghanistan. That means if it’s possible, pilots should be in the theater. This is neither a legal nor an ethical question, but a question of command understanding. . . .

“A soldier who is using a weapon should be near the combat area. You need a certain empathy with the event. I believe if it is possible, the mission should be organized that way that the pilots and the mechanics are as close as possible to the theater without endangering them. . . .

“I don’t intend to criticize the Americans with regard to international law nor tactically. But for us, for me, such a form [of deployment] would better ensure empathy. And incidentally, it takes away a part of the counterarguments. Not all of them, but a part.”

On the desire for a European-produced drone:

“None of the presently existing drones is currently licensed for the European airspace, or if so, only with exceptional military permission. . . . This is why we have to develop a European drone which, if we want to use it in European airspace, would comply with such certifications. And if we were to buy an American drone, of the next generation or the one after that, this American drone would also have to be in line with these certification requirements, or it could not be purchased. And since we know that unmanned aviation will become very significant, we are well-advised to launch our own technological development of this kind in Europe. This will take time, surely into the next decade.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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