U.S. and German troops train at a shooting range in Bamberg, Germany.

U.S. and German troops train at a shooting range in Bamberg, Germany. U.S. Army

Why German Troops Won’t Get Armed Drones

The reasons, which go back to Angela Merkel’s East German upbringing, are leaving the Bundeswehr dependent on allies and partners.

Last week, the SPD – Germany’s Social Democrats, who govern the country as the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition government – announced they won’t support the acquisition of armed drones. That means the Bundeswehr won’t get any. It will continue to be a not-quite-up-to-par partner to the United States, France, and the UK. Perhaps more damagingly, the decision puts Bundeswehr soldiers’ lives at risk. 

Until the Social Democrats’ decision – which violated a coalition agreement, but which they justified with the need for a proper debate on the issue, even though the issue has been energetically discussed for the past several years – it seemed certain that the Bundeswehr would get the armed drones it says it needs and which Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer wants to acquire. But in a coalition government, major policy decisions require consensus, and even though some Social Democrats support armed drones, the party as a whole couldn’t bring itself to do so.

The reason the issue has been allowed to fester begins with Merkel herself. Even though she’s an exceptionally skilled politician, masterful at governing, more agile and tenacious than most of the German and international politicians who have come and gone during her long tenure as chancellor, she has never really warmed to the issue of national and international security.

None of us really know Merkel’s psyche, but allow me an excursion into the environment of East German Christianity in which she grew up and came of age. East Germany, you will recall, was a heavily militarized society. In the 1980s, the National People’s Army – the Nationale Volksarmee, or NVA – had at its disposal a formidable 2,500 tanks, 6,000 armored personnel carriers, 300 fighter jets, nearly 100 naval vessels, and a wartime strength of half a million troops. Its large numbers were based on East Germany’s system of mandatory military service (typically between 18 months and three years) for all men; those who wanted to study attractive subjects such as medicine or physics at university knew it was likely to entail three years with the NVA. Civil society, too, was heavily militarized; for example, the paramilitary Combat Groups of the Working Class set up in workplaces around the country.

East German Christians strongly opposed this militarism. After the early years of the German Democratic Republic, when many young Christians had refused military service and been sent to prison, the government created a non-weapons form of military service for such young men. They served as construction soldiers, carrying a spade rather than a gun. Not surprisingly, these young men became known as the Spades. This was the environment Merkel grew up in as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, an environment where believing in democracy meant opposing military force. So important was Christian opposition to the government that the Stasi had a whole department whose task was to infiltrate, monitor, and steer Christian groups; I’ve written about it in my book God’s Spies

Merkel, who was 36 years old when East Germany ceased to exist, is now 66. While one can certainly change one’s outlook on key issues at various stages in one’s life, my work with God’s Spies suggests that unease with the armed forces remains strong – to this day – among Christians in the former East Germany. Merkel has never pushed hard for armed drones. 

While government-led militarism was endemic on one side of the then-German border, pacifism was a strong feature of West German society. This is the world in which Norbert Walter-Borjans, co-leader of the Social Democrats and an opponent of armed drones, came of age, as did many other of today’s leading Social Democrats. Those of us of a certain age will remember the German protests against NATO’s dual-track decision and then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s role in the arrangement, which included the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany. One can argue political leaders’ biography shouldn’t matter in their decision-making, but it does. Everyone’s decision-making is colored by their life experiences.

That doesn’t mean Germany’s armed-drone vacillation is to be saluted. On the contrary, depriving Bundeswehr soldiers with equipment that can save their lives helps nobody. When the coalition came to an agreement on the acquisition of armed drones, it was with the proviso that they only be used to protect troops in conflict zones such as Mali and Afghanistan. As things now stand, in Afghanistan the Bundeswehr is able to use its unarmed drones to locate the source of fire against its troops, but to fire back, the Bundeswehr has to ask U.S. armed forces for a hand. Though the Americans try to help, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have drones available for the Germans. 

I asked Roderich Kiesewetter, a former Bundeswehr army colonel who is now a Christian Democrat member of the Bundestag and a much-respected voice on international security, for his evaluation of the drone reversal’s consequences. “In the past, we’ve lost Bundeswehr in Afghanistan soldiers because we didn’t have armed drones,” Kiesewetter told me. “It was this situation of wasted lives that the coalition wanted to end. As a result of the SPD’s completely surprising decision, the coalition is now signaling to the world that the protection and care for the soldiers of our Parliamentary Army isn’t important anymore.” (The Bundeswehr is known as a parliamentary army, as only the Bundestag can make decisions about its deployment abroad.)

The SPD’s concern – that armed drones could be used for more than self-protection, that is: for killings in violations of international law – is understandable. Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem to matter to the Social Democrats that armed drones are used by some of Germany’s closest allies, allies that are as committed as Germany to international law. To be sure, ever since the end of World War II, Germany has pursued a policy of extreme caution regarding foreign deployments, but it also stands to reason that once the Bundestag approves a foreign Bundeswehr deployment it ought to also equip the troops with the best protection possible.

But the decision won’t just affect the Bundeswehr soldiers deployed abroad: it will affect Germany’s reputation as a reliable partner as well. At the very moment where it would be desirable for Germany to take on a more active role in international security, the country will shrink from an already low stature. “The decision isolates the Bundeswehr,” Kiesewetter said. “Which allied armed forces would want to fight together with the Bundeswehr now, knowing as they do that Germany won’t provide adequate protection for its own soldiers, let alone for allied ones?”

Indeed, which ones? Germany’s Cold War history, what with its diametrically opposed realities on the two sides of the intra-German border, help explain sentiments that many otherwise seem illogical. But that reality, as ingrained as it is in those who experienced it, may harm allied soldiers in Afghanistan today – and who knows where else tomorrow.