NATO Secretary General enters German debate on armed drones

28 December 2020

At a recent debate in Cologne, Germany, about technology in future warfare, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his support for armed drones as a way of protecting soldiers’ lives on the battlefield.

Stoltenberg said that NATO would use armed drones in line with international law as an extra layer of support for soldiers on the front line. “These drones can support forces on the ground and reduce the number of pilots we send in harm’s way,” he was quoted as saying.

His comments overlapped with a debate within the German coalition government (CDU, CSU and SPD parties) on whether armed drones should be allowed. The debate has focused heavily on whether the German armed forces should lease Heron drones equipped with missiles from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Fourteen countries, including the United States and Australia, have acquired the Heron drones.

Earlier in the month, the SPD party declined to support an order for the armed drones arguing that the ethical aspects of their use still needed a full and proper debate.  Opponents of armed drones argue that the inhibition threshold for using the weapons is lower compared to crewed combat aircraft since the drone pilot is not endangered. More broadly, however, the debate is about different visions for Germany as a participant within NATO, as well as the US counterterrorism drone wars carried out by successive US administrations for two decades.

German officials had been studying the issue for most of the year. A spokesperson for the SPD who said he backs the use of armed drones in limited situations stepped down from his position in protest. He said the claim of the debate not being completed was dishonest. The debate over the IAI Heron could also be a precursor to the relevant decision-making on the French-German Eurodrone and the French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS): both programmes have options for remote firing of weapons in combat under certain conditions.  Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke, whose company manages the Heron TP lease and co-leads the Eurodrone and FCAS programmes, said that he was banking on “a shift” in German public opinion to eventually support the idea of armed.

So far, NATO itself has only procured drones for reconnaissance purposes. On 12 November 2020 the fifth and last NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) aircraft arrived at the AGS Main Operating Base in Sigonella, Italy. NATO’s AGS capability is a custom-made system procured by 15 NATO member states to be shared with the entire alliance. It is designed to provide member nations with a persistent and near-real time, all-weather, wide-area terrestrial, and maritime surveillance system in support of a range of missions, such as the protection of ground troops and civilian populations, border control, maritime safety and humanitarian assistance.