Interview mit Hans-Peter Bartels im "IP Journal" der DGAP vom 01.08.2014

Interview with Hans-Peter Bartels, chairman of the Bundestag defense committee

The usefulness of armed drones in warfare is vastly exaggerated, Hans-Peter Bartels, chairman of the Bundestag’s defense committee, tells IP JOURNAL. Drones are only really good at targeted killings, and that is something German soldiers will not engage in.

(c) Behördenspiegel, CC 3.0

(c) Behördenspiegel, CC 3.0

IP: Mr. Bartels, at a recent defense committee hearing one of the experts said that drones would revolutionize warfare just as much as guns once did. Do you agree?

Hans-Peter Bartels: No. That’s drone hype. It seems to me that the potential of automated, unmanned systems is hugely overestimated. What we have right now are fairly primitive aircraft that in any symmetrical conflict would disappear from the sky within half an hour. Drones are easy to fight, easy to shoot down, easy to jam electronically. They don’t have any self-protective systems, and they crash frequently. Today’s drones simply don’t represent the height of technology.

IP: That may be true today. But over time, they will be improved.

Bartels: Even if drones are going to be ever more reliable and their weapons more precise, I doubt that this is the kind of equipment that will enable our armed forces to cope with the challenges of the future. It is a dangerous technical illusion to think that a drone will deliver pictures in real time that would allow you to react to the situation on the ground instantly without incurring risks.

IP: Because data need to be transmitted to the command base first.

Bartels: Exactly. It takes perhaps three seconds until the picture gets there, and another three seconds until the firing order gets back to the drone. What that means is that you aren’t in the original situation picture any more. In a combat situation, things can have changed – and that is very bad if you want to avoid collateral damage and friendly fire against your own troops. In that sense, it is simply not true that flying drones are particularly precise.

IP: Yet the German army’s military association said at that defense committee hearing that there have been many situations in Afghanistan when German soldiers had wished for drones.

Bartels: And tanks! And better reconnaissance! And air transport… When things get dangerous, there are usually several possibilities to react. In short: armed drones aren’t the universal patent solution.

IP: Never?

Bartels: I asked the federal government: how often did German troops in Afghanistan obtain armed support by drones from the United States? In the whole 13 years since 2001, that happened exactly twice.

IP: So why does the United States rely so much on drones?

Bartels: For close air support, Americans rarely employ drones. For that, they permanently keep fighter-bombers in the air. They employ armed drones for targeted killings because that is what they are perfectly suited to do. American drones will circle over a farm for seven hours and wait for the suspected terrorist master to come home. But those killing acts are out of the question for us.

IP: Wouldn’t the Bundeswehr be allowed to engage in targeted killings in Afghanistan because it is fighting a war there?

Bartels: According to our interpretation of international law, German soldiers may not do what the Americans are doing. Nor is it useful. Those missions don’t mean that there aren’t any rebel leaders left.  Instead, new leaders emerge who usually are younger and, in order to become leaders, more radical than their predecessors. No weary “old soldiers”, but new, fanatical young people. As a consequence, it becomes even more difficult to enter into an agreement. And strategically, that’s what it is about.

IP: Is that what it is always about? To enter into an agreement?

Bartels: When the conflict lasts a long time and can’t be solved even through a successful use of arms, yes. That’s the situation in Afghanistan. In the Balkans, it was very different.

IP: How so?

Bartels: Kosovo is a region with just under two million inhabitants. NATO went in with 68,000 soldiers. With that kind of a force it is possible to arrest the bad guys and bring them to court. After that, you keep the soldiers around long enough for everybody to forget why the violence actually escalated. The Balkans show that with a massive military commitment, you can obtain the time necessary for political change. With “boots on the ground”, meaning real soldiers in the field, not unmanned machines that show up and shoot people dead – to put it somewhat drastically. Especially in asymmetric situations, you can’t make the soldiers redundant.

IP: Let’s discuss procurement more generally. If drones aren’t all that useful, what kind of equipment will the Bundeswehr need in the future?

Bartels: We need to think about what Alliance defense means for NATO, and how we can assure a credible conventional deterrence in Europe. How do we protect each other in an alliance that – as we are seeing now – doesn’t live on an island of the blessed?

IP: What does that mean for procurement in concrete terms?

Bartels: It begins with the interoperability of armed forces in Europe. In the EU, we have 1.5 million soldiers, and we spend € 190 billion on defense. But interoperability has gotten much worse since the end of the Cold War. That’s what we need to invest in.

IP: And what kind of weapons will the Bundeswehr need in 20 years’ time?

Bartels: We need more air mobility, for instance transport helicopters. And we need an efficient deployable air defense against the whole range of threats from missiles to mortar shells fired from close proximity. In this area, development has advanced remarkably. That’s the technology that will protect our soldiers.

IP: How about the naval forces that are needed to secure trade routes?

Bartels: Naval force is becoming more important and Germany needs to make a contribution. But what we need most of all is greater division of labor in Europe. If we fail at that, we will end up having what you might call bonsai armies. I would propose that as Germans, we should concentrate on command support and logistics, on submarines and armored forces. With respect to land forces, the Dutch already lean on us heavily. In return we can do without additional amphibious vehicles because that what, for instance, the Dutch and the Danes already have.

IP: This sounds as if there were small islands growing together. Yet Europe doesn’t have any common strategic planning.

Bartels: You are absolutely right. We lack the superstructure: a European defense commissioner, defense bodies in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and a European headquarters. But at least we have these islands of rationality that are growing together. Between Germany and the Netherlands, this works really well, and now we also have Poland and Austria joining. It is a development that is spurred on by financial difficulties and by our joint missions. And probably also through something like the European spirit.

IP: Does that exist?

Bartels: At the swearing-in ceremony for the new soldiers on July 20, they didn’t only play the German anthem. At the end, they also played the European one. That was super!

The interview was conducted by Sylke Tempel and Bettina Vestring.

HANS-PETER BARTELS is chairman of the Bundestag defense committee and a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). After the general elections of 2013, the SPD entered the government as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior partner.

Das Interview auf der Website der DGAP und auf deutsch.