A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Red Herring & Black Swan: Droned Out


The German armed forces were early adopters of drone technology. But Germany prefers to discuss other countries’ drones, especially American ones.

Much of the debate over drone use in combat has focused on the United States. It is true that the way Washington has employed its armed drones is controversial and, in parts, illegal, and that is something the international community, including Germany, should care about. It is also legitimate to mention the debate when discussing the procurement of drones. And yet.

For ten years, because of the controversy over US targeted killings with armed drones in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, the German debate has been overly focused on US drone use and armed drones, while ignoring German drone use and surveillance drones.

This has been to the detriment of the Bundeswehr, which for years has not received the equipment it wants and arguably needs. Most importantly, it shows that the German public, and substantial parts of the media and German politics, are not ready for the kind of debates that we are set to have more and more often in the future as the world becomes an increasingly dangerous place.

German Drones

Unbeknownst to many, the Bundeswehr was an early adopter of drone technology, acquiring its first surveillance drones in 1972. This first Bundeswehr drone, the Canadian-built CL89, was never used outside of training, but its successor model, the CL289, was successfully deployed to Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the late 1990s. The positive experiences with drone use there led to investment in several development programs, including two armed drone systems.

All but one of these projects (the unarmed KZO), however, eventually fell victim to post-Cold War defense budget reductions or failed because of unrealistic technological expectations. Germany’s experiences in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan from January 2002 then revived the Bundeswehr’s interest in drones. Initially, the Bundeswehr did not deploy any drones to Afghanistan because it barely had any. The first surveillance drone to be used in the country was LUNA, Luftgestützte Unbemannte Nahaufklärungs-Ausstattung, or “Airborne unmanned close reconnaissance system.” At 1.4 meters long and 40 kilograms with a wingspan of four meters, LUNA became the unmanned workhorse of the Bundeswehr, flying over 6000 sorties between 2003 and 2014. It was followed by four other drone systems in 2005 (ALADIN), 2009 (KZO), 2010 (Heron I), and 2011 (MIKADO).

All of the drone systems used in Afghanistan were surveillance systems, meaning that their payload consists of video, infrared, or still image cameras used to gather information on anything from Taliban movements and IEDs to roadblocks and traffic jams. Also, all these systems were flown from within the Afghan theater—either directly by soldiers on the ground (such as MIKADO or ALADIN), or from encampments, as with the Heron I drones that were piloted from Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif.

So for German soldiers in Afghanistan, the debates about US “cubicle warriors” with a “playstation mentality” killing people at a distance had little bearing on reality and their daily experience.
Though not without problems, including crashes, the Bundeswehr drones proved their worth in Afghanistan, helping troops on the ground with intelligence-gathering and improving battlefield awareness. Today, many of the drones used in Afghanistan have been moved to Mali, now the Bundeswehr’s biggest mission.

But most Germans are unlikely to know much about this. When the comparatively intense debate about drones in Germany started in the early 2010s, it was simply not about German ones.

A Half-Billion Euro Disaster

Before 2010, there was no real talk about military drones in Germany, even though they had been in daily use in Afghanistan for years. By 2012/13, however, drones had become a topic of public interest. The media coverage increased notably as US targeted drone killings attracted international attention and condemnation, and as the Bundeswehr’s “EuroHawk” project failed spectacularly in 2013, after having cost around half a billion euros.

The language used to describe drones oscillated between hype and hysteria. On the one hand, there were technology-focused articles written in enthusiastic tones. Drones were portrayed as “superbirds” or “super drones;” SPIEGEL Online featured a 3D model of the US Reaper drone, detailing all its technical gadgets (including its armaments) as well as a list of the “most important drone types” with technical specifications. On the other hand, drones were also described as “robot killers” or “flying killers.” Indeed, the term “killer robot,” which until 2010 had been reserved for discussions about the Terminator movies, predominantly became used as a drone synonym.

Both the high-tech “superbird” and the “killer robot” narratives, however, referred almost exclusively to US developments. German unmanned technology was widely ignored. The “most important drone types” were all American. In fact, the press reported considerably less on actual German drone use than on potential future US drone plans. An avid news reader would have had no problem naming several US drones, but probably would not have known what kind of drones the Bundeswehr employed, or whether it did so at all.

Unfortunately, Germany’s politicians were little better. Between 2006 and 2014, drones were mentioned 102 times in the Bundestag (in the form of minor interpellations, written questions, or in debates). Almost half of these questions or debates were not about German drone use or procurement, but about American drone use (most notably about US targeted killings, with about a quarter pertaining to the stationing and testing of US drones on/over German territory).

Ask the Relevant Questions

When, on January 31, 2013, the Bundestag finally held question time on the government’s procurement plans for an armed drone for the Bundeswehr, the debate once again primarily centered on US drone use in Pakistan. Finally, a liberal MP asked somewhat desperately: “What does this have to do with our procurement plans, for God’s sake?” The impact of the US use of drones on the debate was so important that in the 2013 coalition agreement, CDU and SPD specifically underlined that they “categorically oppose extra-legal killings with drones,” distancing themselves from the (US) use of UAVs for targeted killings (without, however, explicitly naming the US).

Again, there is nothing wrong with discussing and criticizing the way the United States uses armed drones. It is rightfully controversial. But in Germany, the almost exclusive concentration on this has come to the detriment of the debate we should be having. The (understandably) emotional debates about civilian deaths caused by CIA drones in Pakistan have made it nearly impossible to have a rational discussion on German drone use. But there are many debates to be had on how the Bundeswehr should be using its drones, in particular the new weapons-capable drone systems whose procurement the Bundestag just authorized. Relevant questions include: what types of conflict is the Bundeswehr likely to face in the future, and what equipment will it need for that? How do drones feature in this equation? Does the Bundeswehr have sufficient drone reconnaissance, and how might it use its armed systems? Even doctrinal documents offer few answers to these questions.

Recently, there has been some change, with more discussion happening in the national media. But it is a case of too little, too late. It is important for us to get our act together on such debates. Because the next strategic debate is already beginning, this time on the use of artificial intelligence in warfare, in particular autonomous weapons. In this discussion, informed public engagement is more important than ever. In the drone debate, Germans would do well to be more rational, more informed, and to think more about the elements that are important for Germany.