The German pilot simply presses a key on a keyboard to make his approach to land on the airfield at the military base at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern
Afghanistan. He is in fact sitting in a flight simulator at a German Luftwaffe (air force) base at Jagel in northern Germany and is learning to pilot Israeli-made Heron 1 drones. The black joystick on the board in front of him remains untouched because these drones are largely automated.
“Landing this for the first time took some getting used to, as I’m a trained Phantom pilot,” said the 30-year-old captain, who only wants to be quoted in the media under an assumed name, Frank Koenig. He and eight others have undergone a drone training course over the past few months at the base and in Israel. By the spring Koenig aims to be on his first foreign assignment, flying reconnaissance drones over Afghanistan.
The captain, who is attached to the air force’s Immelmann Squadron and is a specialist in manned and unmanned reconnaissance, is being closely monitored by his trainer. The 43-year-old training officer, who also declines to give his name, is Germany’s most experienced drone pilot, with more than 500 days of operation.
He has flown Heron drones, weighing almost 1.2 tons and with a wingspan of 18 metres, during 10 assignments to
Afghanistan. Before that he was flying Tornado reconnaissance and ground-attack planes. “Fundamentally the difference is not that big,” the trainer says. But, while a Tornado pilot has only a couple of hours to complete a reconnaissance mission, a drone can stay aloft much longer.
“We have used this fact to spend 100 hours at a stretch over a target,” he says. The ability of the hi-tech drone to “see” from a height of 2,000 metres is astonishing. “If damp earth is dug out onto the road surface while burying an explosive device, I can still spot this two days later and inform the ground troops of the threat in good time,” he says.
Some two dozen officers of the Luftwaffe—all of them licensed pilots—have been trained at Jagel in Germany to fly drones. That number is expected to rise to 35. The course is the first ever conducted on German soil. Previously, the Germans trained abroad.
A heated debate has gone on inside Germany and globally over whether drones ought to be used to kill individuals who are selected in advance by targeting analysts. That US anti-terrorist method is described as tantamount to murder by some German critics.
Controversy also dogs a German project to install classified German avionics in US-made Global Hawk pilotless reconnaissance aircraft. That project, code-named Eurohawk, is now bogged down as a result of political feuding. With no powerful intelligence-gathering drones of its own design, Germany has extended its lease on three Herons from Israel to February 2016.
The German officers are convinced that drones will be vital to advanced armed forces in the future, despite the public antipathy to the robotic machines. They predict Germany will have to one day also equip its drones with missiles, as the United States has already done. “Considering this from a purely military viewpoint, an unmanned system needs to be armed,” says Michael Krah, commodore at Jagel.
He explains that reconnaissance in the air is insufficient to protect ground troops from attack: if a drone recognises a threat, the operator on the ground needs to be able to immediately open fire to prevent the ambush.
“In action, the decisive factor is whether or not we get our troops out in good order or not,” Krah says. The German public is highly unwilling to see Germans killed or hurt in fighting, so perhaps they will come around to understanding the benefits that armed drones offer. “But at the end of the day, it is the politicians who dictate what is to be done and what not done with each deployment,” says Krah.