Germany’s army is set to fly arms-capable Heron drones for the first time in history, after a parliamentary committee approved leasing the aircraft from Israel. The project would cost Germany over $1 billion.
Lawmakers in the Bundestag’s budget committee backed leasing a fleet of Israeli-made Heron-TP drones on Wednesday, allowing the German army to operate drones capable of carrying missiles for the first time.
The controversial decision marks “an important signal” to the German army, said Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has been pushing for the step since early 2016.
The German army already flies its own small drones, as well as Israel’s middle-sized Heron 1 surveillance aircraft in countries such as Mali and Afghanistan. With a wingspan of 16.6 meters (54 feet 5 inches), however, Heron 1 is too small to be equipped with weapons.
On Wednesday, the committee earmarked €895 million ($1.05 billion) to lease the more advanced Heron-TP model, which boasts a wingspan of 26 meters and can be used as an attack aircraft. The drones will be leased from Israel Aerospace Industries.
Heron TP is capable of 36 hours of continuous flight and can reach an altitude pf 12,500 meters (41,000 feet)
Defense Minister Von der Leyen said the Heron-TP could deliver images with better video resolution and fly longer distances, therefore offering better protection to German soldiers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision. “This enormous deal is emblematic of the strategic partnership between Germany and Israel,” he wrote on Twitter. “And it is proof of what Israel’s industry can produce for countries such as Germany.”
‘Farce’ or serious debate on arming drones
Many German voters vehemently oppose the extrajudicial drone killings conducted by the armies of their allies such as the US, and the German government is wary of this strong criticism.
For this reason, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) opposed the initiative to lease arms-capable drones during last year’s election campaign. Eventually, the SPD, in the agreement made with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to form a grand coalition government, agreed to the move on the condition that actually putting weapons on drones was not part of the deal. This step would need to be approved after a comprehensive evaluation.
However, opposition lawmakers decried this as a “farce”, noting that the plan already has €50 million earmarked for weaponizing drones.
“The big promised debate about the arming of the drones is a farce given what’s already included in this contract,” said Greens lawmaker Tobias Lindner, a member of the budget committee.
The Israeli-made drones serve as a stop-gap measure before a European-based system is introduced in mid-2020s.