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.”
“In Germany we have a specific responsibility, with our history of two world wars launched by Germany and one peaceful revolution, to take up the role of searching for alternatives,” said Renke Brahms, the peace commissioner of the Protestant Church of Germany.
To this day, men and women in uniform are treated with suspicion by many in broader society. Attitudes have slowly evolved since German reunification in 1990, with the first post-World War II combat deployments being made in Kosovo in 1999, then in Afghanistan.
De Maiziere has pushed to make the armed forces’ role in German society more like that of any other military since he took up his post in early 2011, including advocating the institution of a veterans’ day. That proposal proved controversial because the country can’t even agree on the definition of “veteran.”
But the country still goes to war reluctantly. Germany held back from participating in the NATO aerial campaign in Libya that drove out leader Moammar Gaddafi, and it has given only noncombat support to France in its weeks-old deployment in Mali. Many here are cautious about anything that might make it easier to go fight.
“Having these weapons is temptation for politicians to use them. This is the experience with the U.S.,” said Juergen Trittin, a leader of the Green Party, who is a candidate for chancellor. “The threshold for using military force, for using deadly violence, goes down with such an instrument, because the risks for using it go down.”
Even some proponents of the technology say they assume that the weapons, if purchased, could be used for strikes against terrorism suspects, not just for ordinary combat.
“When you buy a drone, you know what it’s all about and what it can do,” said Michael Wolffsohn, a professor emeritus at the Bundeswehr University Munich, which is affiliated with Germany’s military. “It’s the best humane instrument if and when you have to face the terrible decision to use force.”
Germany has 60 unarmed surveillance drones currently deployed in Kosovo and Afghanistan, according to formal answers to parliamentary questions that were released last month. Several of them are
Israeli-made Heron drones. An additional 347 drones are on German territory, mostly lightweight ones that can be launched by hand, according to the official answers. Those drones are used by both police and the military for surveillance.
German defense officials have said that they would prefer to develop a European drone in concert with France but that they would also consider leasing or purchasing off-the-shelf ones in the short term, including American models.
Dassault, a French defense contractor, tested a stealth drone in December, but it is not ready for production. Britain flies U.S.-made armed drones in Afghanistan, and Italy has sought to do so. Turkey has also sought the American technology.
The German government has proposed devoting $225 million to the drone project as it shrinks the number of soldiers after ending the draft in 2011, a decision that was made to help modernize the military.
“We are already under 200,000 persons in uniform. This is a challenge for us. We have to have the same efficiency that we have now,” said Hellmut Koenigshaus, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces.
If Germany purchases combat drones, de Maiziere said, he has one tactical preference: that the drone operators be deployed alongside ordinary combat soldiers.
“I feel it is important to be in the theater, to have breakfast in the canteen together with the soldiers who are patrolling the area, to pass a military hospital where a wounded soldier is lying, to be away from home, because the effects of the weapon are also away from home,” de Maiziere said. “You need a certain empathy with the event.”
He hopes to make the decision within months.
Petra Krischok contributed to this report.