The use of drones in warfare is highly controversial. So far Germany has only used unarmed drones but Berlin has now confirmed it was planning to order armed drones starting 2014.
They're remotely piloted and circle over, among other places, the Afghan-Pakistan border areas to spy on terrorists and kill them. The "eye in the sky" as the unmanned aircraft are sometimes called are seen by many as delivering precision strikes without the need for more intrusive military action.
The United States has stepped up in its use of unmanned, armed drones and point out that leading members of the terrorist network al Qaeda and the Taliban have been killed in drone attacks.
However, they are not without controversy. Hundreds of people have been killed by the strikes in Pakistan - civilians as well as militants, causing outrage among the public. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone attacks have killed between 2,652 and 3,324 people in Pakistan since June 2004. Among those were at least 474 civilians.
A recent study by Stanford and New York University said many people in tribal areas of Pakistan feel terrorized and traumatized by regular US drone attacks. Many children, the report said, had stopped going to school because of the constant fear of attacks.
Better protection of German soldiers
But that hasn't stopped militaries around the world from using the unmanned aircraft.
The German army, the Bundeswehr, also uses drones but so far they've been unarmed. They include three Heron 1 drone aircrafts. They're leased from the company Rheinmetall and manufactured in Israel. They're used in Afghanistan but solely for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
However, the leasing contract with Rheinmetall expires in 2014. As German officials debate what to do after that, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has repeatedly said he's in favor of buying armed drones.
The German Defense Ministry confirmed to DW that it was planning to place a successive order for 16 armed drones starting 2014. They could be used "in the field of international conflict and crisis prevention," it said. The ministry has earmarked a budget of 168 million euros ($216 million) for the order.
De Maiziere's plans are backed by some in the German air force. "The people who are outside during a deployment would be better protected in a dangerous situation because the soldiers could kill the opponent without needing to join the fight,” Thomas Wassmann, head of the Association of the Crew of Jet-Powered Fighter Aircraft (VBSK) told DW.
So far, German soldiers in Afghanistan could use reconnaissance drones to identify a potential ambush, Wassmann said. But in the end, it's always classic manned fighter jets or armed drones of other nations that had come to their rescue, he added.
"Today, you can no longer explain to the soldier on the ground why you can tell him that that there's danger ahead but that he has to wait for an hour or more till you tackle the danger especially when we do have other possibilities," Wassmann said.
Cornelius Vogt of the German Council of Foreign Relations said he sees the issue in a similar way. "You have to recognize that unmanned aircraft, whether armed or unarmed, are now a part of modern warfare - it's a fact," the security and defense policy expert said. He emphasized the military's preference for relatively light drones that are capable of staying airborne longer than manned aircraft and which are able to offer continuous observation of targets.
"The strain put on pilots who control the drones from the ground is certainly smaller," he told DW. "And the pilots can be changed without difficulty."
However, there is a fear that soldiers no longer feel they are killing actual people when it happens by "remote control," according to Martin Kahl, an expert for military strategy at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.
Conforming to international law
Wassermann of the VBSK said he does not share such moral concerns, adding that he could imagine commanding officers on the ground being accompanied by legal advisors who decide whether rockets are launched.
"They could evaluate the situation and prevent the enemy's death up to the very last second - that's something the crew in a cockpit cannot do after getting order by radio," Wassermann said.
German Defense Minister de Maiziere has emphasized that the Bundeswehr's use of combat drones would be bound by the constitution and international law. In this regard, the use of drones does not differ from using other military weapons. In the end, it's always the person controlling the drone who decides when a weapon is fired.
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