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European Drone War


While there is rightly much media attention on the US drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, there is a very different but over-looked “drone war” taking place in Europe right now. In parliamentary committee rooms, in company boardrooms, and in packed public meetings, arguments rage about whether Europe should embrace or reject the use of armed drones.

Many European armed forces already have unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, in their armories for reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance purposes.  Increasingly, however, European countries are under pressure to follow in the footsteps of the US and embrace the use of armed drones.

The UK has been a long-time partner with the US in using armed drones, with British military forces using US Predator drones in Iraq starting in  2004 before acquiring their own Reaper drones for use in Afghanistan in 2007. Since then, the UK has launched more than 400 missiles and bombs from its drones in Afghanistan and this is likely to increase as the UK doubles its armed drone fleet over the next year while also now directly operating drones from UK as well as US soil.

So far no other European country has used armed drones. French forces have used unarmed Harfang drones (based on Israel’s Heron) in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali; German forces in Afghanistan have been using unarmed Luna and Israeli Heron drones, and Italy has been operating unarmed drones alongside the US in Libya and Afghanistan from a joint Italian-US ground control station at  Amendola airbase in southeast Italy.

But despite widespread public opposition, growing pressure from the pro-drone lobby and military companies is pushing European countries to acquire armed drone capability.  After much debate, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suddenly announced in the summer that France would be acquiring armed US drones. Very rapidly French pilots have begun training on Reaper UAVs in the US and it looks likely that France will put armed drones over Mali by the end of the year. In Germany,despite huge opposition, the German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière declared, “We cannot keep the stagecoach while others are developing the railway.”

Across Europe, the acquisition of armed drones is highly controversial. Many political parties are divided on the issue  – or flatly oppose it – and there is much public hostility. A Pew Research Poll conducted in 2012 showed widespread opposition to drone strikes, including 59% of people in Germany, 63% in France, 76% in Spain, 55% in Italy, and a whopping 90% in Greece.  Only the UK did not have a majority of its public against the use of armed drones but even so, only 44% were in favor.

In the US, opposition to the drone wars is focused on the use of drones for targeted killing. In Europe however, the focus is much more on whether the so-called “risk free” nature of drone warfare  – at least to your own forces – will simply lead to more armed conflict, as well as an expansion of targeted killing and a lowering of global security in general. Across Europe. protests, parliamentary hearings and public meetings on the use of armed drones are increasing.

But the pro-drone lobby is not running up the white flag just yet.  Behind the scenes, the drone lobby is trying to persuade European governments to ignore the public anxiety and commit to armed unmanned systems. Their strategically placed Op-Eds extol the economic virtue of developing armed drones and of not being “left behind”.  At the same time, NATO and European Union officials are urging European countries to increase spending on drones. US military companies are actively trying to amend international treaties in order to export armed drone technology to Europe. And senior arms company executives are directly lobbying European governments to commit to developing and building a future European armed drone. Already European military companies are devoting much effort and resources towards future combat drones, with known programs under development including BAE System’s Taranis and Mantis drones, Dassault’s Neuron and EADS’ Talarion. There are also on-going covert programs that are not as yet public.

As US and European combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan over the next 12 months , the war over drones in Europe is likely to get more intense. The drone lobby will try to clinch deals citing that a war-weary public is unlikely to support putting “‘boots on the ground”’ anytime soon and will therefore support remotely controlled warfare.  Skeptics will be demanding more transparency and information about exactly how drones have been used in Afghanistan – including proper casualty data – in order to assess the professed “pin point” accuracy of armed drone strikes and make informed decisions about future use.  And opponents will ramp up their protests. For the moment at least, there will be no ceasefire in Europe’s drone war.

Chris Cole is a renowned expert on European drones and the director of Drone Wars UK.

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