Armed drone power Airbus

The German armed forces want to arm their drones. Germany, France, Italy and Spain are also to decide on combat drone swarms.

With the „Eurodrone“, Germany wants to join with France, Italy and Spain in the circle of drone powers from 2029. The term refers to countries such as the USA, Israel, China and Turkey, which produce and deploy combat drones and market them worldwide with the label „combat-proven“.

The plans are not new. Already under German Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU), the defence company Airbus – at that time still known as EADS – had advertised the serial production of a „European drone“. Initially, the project was called „FEMALE“ („Future European Male“), the name aimed at the abbreviation MALE, which means „Medium Altitude Long Endurance“ .

Concept for EU armed drone

2016 the governments of Germany, France and Italy launched the first phase of the „Eurodrone“. The first step was to agree on a concept for an EU armed drone. It would have a take-off weight of over ten tonnes and carry a payload of around 2.3 tonnes, including guided missiles and bombs. The main contractor would be Airbus, and the defence company won Dassault from France and Leonardo from Italy as partners.

On 14 April, the German Bundestag is to decide on the start of series production of this „Eurodrone“. The black-red coalition partners try to keep the question of armament out of the German discussion. Thus, only the purchase of a total of 21 aircraft for the Bundeswehr would be decided. Whether these will then carry weapons is to be presented to the Bundestag for a vote only in a few years‘ time.

Social Democratic Party in the hot seat

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership had already signalled its approval of the deal. However, the party leadership had backed out at the last minute on another issue concerning the arming of drones in December. Until the „Eurodrone“ is completed, the Bundeswehr has been flying several unarmed „Heron 1“ drones from Israel in Afghanistan and Mali for the past eleven years. They are considered a „bridging solution“ and will be replaced this year by the successor model „Heron TP“. The main contractor for both models, as for the planned „Eurodrone“, is Airbus with its German offshoot in Ottobrunn. Airbus leases the aircraft and ground stations from the Israeli manufacturer and maintains the systems in the Bundeswehr’s operational areas.

The Ministry of Defence has ordered the „Heron TP“ with weapons capability. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which form the current government, have had plans for munitions for two legislative periods. But before that, the parties had promised a „social debate“. It took place as a „drone debate“ in the form of a short and one-sided series of events in the summer of last year, directed by the Bundeswehr. The government coalition then wanted the Bundestag to decide on the weaponisation before the Christmas holidays.

A week before, however, Norbert Walter-Borjans, the federal chairman of the SPD, expressed reservations. He considered the debate on armed drones so far „insufficient“, so that a central condition of the coalition agreement had not been fulfilled. SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz then decided not to forward the draft resolution on the arming of drones to the Bundestag for the time being. This means that the issue of an armed “ bridging solution“ is presumably off the table until after the Bundestag elections in autumn 2021.

War over Nagorno-Karabakh brings up a new arguments

As expected, Borjans had to take heavy criticism for his emergency brake, which he pulled at the last metres. The SPD „betrays our soldiers“, the defence policy spokesman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group complained. Members of parliament from his own party also expressed anger and wondered why the issue had „not been sufficiently discussed“. The defence policy spokesperson of the SPD Fritz Felgentreu even resigned because of this.

In fact, most of the arguments for and against the weaponisation of unmanned systems have been made and negotiated since the beginning of Germany’s armed drone plans. However, the debate has been going on for nine years now, and this provides a new argument for the pros. The list of countries that own (but do not necessarily use) armed drones has grown to at least 19. They are thus seen as so widespread that their non-acquisition is sometimes interpreted by militaries as the „creation of an unacceptable capability gap“.

The recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh, however, also brings up a new argument for opponents of armed drones. There, it became clear that the military must counter the increasing proliferation of combat drones with new defensive capabilities. Drones fly slower and lower than fighter planes, which conventional anti-aircraft missile systems were built to defeat. That is why the army of Azerbaijan is said to have succeeded in destroying dozens of Russian anti-aircraft systems.

Inhibition threshold for armed missions decreases

Many opponents of armed drones complain about their use for extrajudicial killings, as the USA has been doing for 20 years. This fear is justified, as shown by the use of Turkish armed drones in Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya and most recently in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The German Ministry of Defence promises to use armed drones exclusively in accordance with international law. With their introduction, however, German warfare will change. What is certain is that the inhibition threshold for armed combat will fall. The Bundeswehr has confirmed this in the „drone debate“ by complaining that with the still unarmed drones it is often „condemned to just watch“.

Reconnaissance drones also perform an important function in today’s warfare. Nearly 800 unmanned aerial vehicles of various sizes currently scout for the Air Force, Army and Navy. They are used to monitor bases in the area of operations and are also intended to intimidate enemy forces there. In comparison to manned reconnaissance, they have various advantages. The German Ministry of Defence cites „long idle times, long ranges, comprehensive sensor mix, almost unnoticed and permanent real-time transmission of reconnaissance results, etc.“. According to the report, drones make an important contribution to the „engagement of high-value targets“. They can mark targets with laser devices for attacks by combat aircraft and ground forces.

600 billion for fighter aircraft with drone swarm

This summer, the Bundestag is also to decide on an „Air Defence Network“ worth billions. Together with France, the German government wants to develop a nuclear weapons-capable „Future Combat Air System“ (FCAS) over the next 20 years, consisting at its core of a new type of fighter aircraft. The plans include this „Next Generation Fighter“ being accompanied by swarms of drones. Airbus would again be responsible for this; the defence company has already tested this „manned-unmanned teaming“ over the Baltic Sea. The overall system also includes the dropping of swarms of smaller drones from high-flying transport aircraft, as Airbus recently simulated with the German Aerospace Centre.

The third element of the FCAS is an „Air Combat Cloud“, which is responsible for the exchange of data between the networked systems. In this way, all the platforms involved are to merge into a „system of systems“. By 2028, a first flight-capable model of the FCAS aircraft is to be created, which can then be used for tests with swarms of drones. The German Air Force describes the project as „the largest European armament project ever“. The cost of developing the entire FCAS is estimated at over 100 billion euros, and the subsequent purchase of the systems could amount to 500 billion.

With an armed „bridging solution“, the „Eurodrone“, which is also capable of being armed, and the „Future Combat Air System“, Germany is thus at a crossroads three times over with regard to armed drones. Airbus is at the centre of all three projects. Reason enough, then, to take aim at the arms company as the warmonger and profiteer of all major German drone projects. The German campaign „Disarm Rheinmetall“ has managed to make the machinations of the company known internationally. This knowledge, but also the good left networking with movements in France, Italy and Spain could help to bring down international arms projects like the „Eurodrone“ or the FCAS.

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation recently published a study entitled „The Long Road to Drone Power“. In it, the author describes all unmanned systems of the Bundeswehr. The study and a „German Drone Survival Guide“ are available at https://www.rosalux.de/publikation/id/43899.

Image: Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, EURODRONE, Airbus, Dassault and Leonardo (49580123532), CC BY-SA 2.0.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.