The debate is one that has only slowly taken shape in the United States, where drone technology has become essential to U.S. war and counterterrorism strategies in recent years while remaining deeply shrouded in secrecy. In Germany, by contrast, politicians, religious leaders and citizens have been preemptively dissecting the implications of weaponry that enables soldiers to make pinpoint strikes against terrorism suspects while sitting many thousands of miles away.
“Once such technical devices are purchased, it’ll be too late to discuss ethical questions,” said Rainer Arnold, the spokesman on defense issues for the opposition Social Democratic Party.
The discussion, which has dominated German talk shows and newspapers since a disclosure of the plans in response to parliamentary questioning late last month, comes at the same time that U.S. drone policy has been under the microscope. Starting under President George W. Bush and dramatically accelerated under President Obama, the use of drones has become a central pillar of CIA and U.S. military activities in the Middle East and North Africa.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, speaking in his first interview with an international publication since the controversy erupted, said he was “surprised” by the opposition to his proposal.
“Ethically and legally there is no difference between a manned and an unmanned airplane,” de Maiziere said.
“Rationally, I don’t fully understand the intensity of the debate,” he said. “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.”
He said the American practice of so-called targeted killings of terrorism suspects would be against the German constitution, which tightly restricts when the military is allowed to engage in combat.
“Nobody will change the constitution for the usage of one type of weapon,” he said, speaking in his office in the Bendlerblock, the operations center of the German Defense Ministry that once served as the planning lair of a failed plot against Hitler. “America has a different constitutional situation.”
‘A specific responsibility’
Germany remains deeply cautious about going to war. After World War II, generations resolved to lock away the militarism that they felt was ingrained in Prussian culture. The 1949 constitution bans preparations for wars of aggression — in fact, the only accommodation for military action is made in a “state of defense.”