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Germany green lights use of armed drones after years of debate

German Heron in Israel
German defense ministry file photo of a Heron drone

The German military will be receiving its first armed drones after almost ten years of debate, according to an approval from the Budget Committee of the German federal parliament.

A total of 150 million euros have been earmarked for the arming of Israeli-built Heron TP MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) unmanned aerial system (UAS), which is already in service with the German armed forces.

Announcing the decision, the German defense ministry said the move would improve the protection of German soldiers on deployments abroad. Germany has used the leased Heron drones mostly in support of international operations in Afghanistan and Mali.

While the decision to approve the arming of drones followed Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, it should be noted that the new German government voiced its support for such a decision even before the events from late February, when Russia began its invasion.

It is also worth noting that, while the weaponization of remotely piloted aircraft systems was approved, the decision comes with heavy regulations.

This means that any deployment of armed drones abroad must follow a prior approval of the German parliament, which will have to explicitly state such drones may be used. Their use will also be subject to international and constitutional limits as well as the limits that the German Bundestag has mandated in relation to the mission, the area of ​​​​operation and the capabilities to be deployed.

Furthermore, the binding operational principles for armed drones will have to be drawn up by the government and approved by the defense committee and the foreign affairs committee. Armed Heron drones will be cleared for operational use outside of training only after the principles of use have been decided by the defense committee and the foreign affairs committee.

The announcement on the arming of Heron TP drone did not mention the Eurodrone project, which was initiated by Germany and later joined by France, Italy and Spain. A contract for the development and manufacturing of a total of 20 MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) was signed in February this year.

Announcing the Eurodrone project in 2021, former German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the initial contracts would not include the weaponization of the system, but noted that arming the Eurodrone at a later stage should not be ruled out. It remains to be seen how the decision on the Heron TP weaponization will affect the Eurodrone.