Drones Over Europe


Washington is desperate. Desperate to win its War on Terror, to maintain its superpower status, and to avoid reprising the Soviet Union’s decade of decline marked by the first Afghan war. Sandbagging a unipolar world has become daunting and costly – and the United States' financial position has become increasingly shaky.

As the War on Terror has become financially and politically expensive, the generals in Washington have come to rely less on costly human resources – and more on robots. After decades of costly troop deployments abroad, drones signal a “cheap and cheerful” model of warfare, with fewer personnel costs and boots on the ground.

As a US military position paper puts it – a drone is an ideal modern soldier. After all, the robot fighters are “effective, affordable and flexible”. They are also persistent, stealthy, safer (because they can be operated from the USA) and adaptable (they can both spy and kill), the paper says.

In short, according to the US air force, drones project American “power without projecting vulnerability”. Hence, the number of American drone missions to the Middle East has shot up over the past decade.

Washington's allies in Europe aren't far behind. They're either likely to purchase their own airborne search-and-destroy robots over the next few years or are already developing drone technology. Late last week, Britain announced it had launched drone missions from English soil for the first time.

Germany is Western Europe’s top economic power. But the country has developed a post-Cold War pacifist streak. Contrary to the first half of the 20th Century, Germany is now more likely to draw criticism for staying out of its allies' wars.

More precisely, Germany avoided Libya and sidestepped a major troop commitment in Mali, much to the dismay of France and the United States. In so doing, Angela Merkel’s government was merely reflecting German voters’ preferences. Opinion polls show German troops missions overseas are unpopular. So, for Germany’s conservative government, drone deployments may be a way to meet obligations to allies without risking German lives.

Thomas De Maziére, Germany’s defence minister, has announced he is prepared to put German drones into combat — but he faces opposition from peace activists and churches.

But he told the Berliner Tagesspiegel in February that he felt drones could save German lives. “I cannot understand the argument that it’s better to deploy a weapon that puts your own soldiers at risk than one that protects your own soldiers,” de Maziére said.

In recent weeks, the German government has conceded to parliament that it is negotiating to buy Israeli combat drones, reports German weekly Der Spiegel.

In an answer to a question tabled by an opposition parliamentarian, the German defence ministry confirmed “That it met with the Israeli military and the manufacturer of Heron [combat]drones”, Der Spiegel says.

Israel has indicated it is prepared to cooperate with German defence plans for the drones, Der Spiegel says. It would allow Germany to “keep developing” the drones, whereas the US has rebuffed German attempts to improve Predator technology, the magazine’s website states.

France is Europe’s most active military power, and its army is also pushing its government to acquire combat drones, Slate France reported earlier this year.

Unlike in Germany, French soldiers have been arguing for the purchase on strategic, not moral, grounds. France’s top admiral, Éduoard Guillard, has told the French Senate that drones are simply too practical to avoid using in war:

“I have to concede that, at the outset, I was against armed drones for moral reasons. I have been convinced by the use of these drones [by American and British forces]at the offensives in Benghazi and Misrata [during the Libyan war in 2011]. I have changed my mind.”

As a result, the French defence ministry is negotiating to buy American “Reaper” drones, Parisian daily Le Monde indicated earlier this month.

Across the Alps, Italian state-owned defence conglomerate Finmeccanica is a leader in drone technology. But Italy’s “war industry … created friction” with Washington in the years following the sale of drones to Pakistan in 2007 by Finmeccanica, Italian weekly L’Espresso says.

Finmeccanica – one of a few big players in drone production outside of Israel and the US – made a packet when it sold the drones. But the Pakistani army “weren’t satisfied” with surveillance drones. Pakistan has likely equipped the Italian drones with missiles and may have even used them to kill Islamic militants, reports L'Espresso. The company is currently under investigation for corruption after selling a dozen attack helicopters to India.

In Spain, however, the air force is too poor to purchase American Predator drones, the“jewel” of unmanned combat aircrafts, writes financial online portal El Confidencial. “The high cost of the device … was simply too much for the Spanish air force, which is otherwise involved with its own unmanned aerial vehicle projects,” the website says.

Yet even as Europe prepares for the drone wars of tomorrow, dissenting voices within the American military are now reconsidering the use of unmanned aircraft. In a journal article, American military intelligence officer Douglas Pryor describes the use of drones on combat missions as “deeply unwise” because it generates ressentiment in the countries where drones operate and in the Muslim world.

“The negative moral blowback that armed drones generate when used as a transnational weapon, I contend, is helping to fuel perpetual war,” Pryor writes in the current edition of American specialist journal Military Review

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.