Launch of the inaugural class for the first six crews of two – one pilot, one sensor operator – comes after the German parliament last summer approved the purchase of flying time of five Heron-TP drones. The German forces want to use the aircraft, made by Israel Aerospace Industries, for surveillance and, later, armed missions supporting the Bundeswehr deployments in Mali and Afghanistan.
German officials were careful to say that the eight-week training is restricted to the surveillance capabilities of the drones. That is because the idea of unmanned aircraft carrying weapons is still controversial here despite assurances by the defense ministry that missiles would be fired only in the event of immediate danger to German ground troops.
Defense officials are expected to forward a separate request to lawmakers for steps to arm the drones. Such a petition is sure to kick off another debate on the adoption of a technology considered par for the course amid major allied militaries. A defense spokesman did not immediately return a reporter’s question about the government’s envisioned timing for a new proposal.
Proponents have argued that using the Israeli drone for surveillance only is a waste of money because such capabilities are available for cheaper than the $1 billion-plus Heron-TP deal. The ministry itself has signaled that it wants to move quickly on the armaments package.
Those here opposing armed drones, first and foremost the left-wing Die Linke faction in parliament, consider the case of the Heron-TP as something of a watershed moment that could open the door for such systems to proliferate in Germany’s arsenal. Party members have alleged that the government is stonewalling inquiries into the status of the weaponized capability.
German air force Col. Kristof Conrath, whose squadron will handle Heron-TP operations, called the beginning of the training program “another milestone” in German-Israeli air force cooperation. Referring to the training’s focus on surveillance flights, he said: “Our Israeli partners have far-reaching expertise in this area, and the necessary air space environment. That’s what we are getting out of this.”
Dr. Hans C. Mumm