New weapon systems require a new international legal framework – Global Governance Futures 2025 interviews Conrad Hässler

By Mirko Hohmann and Joel Sandhu - 27 November 2014

This interview was conducted for the ‘The Global Governance Futures 2025’ programme which brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.

MH & JS: Recently, there has been a substantial debate in the German policy scene as to whether Germany should acquire drones. What is your view?

CH: It is a well-established tradition in German politics for the parties forming the government coalition to negotiate a document that will serve as a political roadmap for the upcoming four-year term. The 2013 coalition agreement, signed by the parties currently forming the German federal government, mentions Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) as a necessary capability for the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces). Indeed, the Bundeswehr already uses UAS in Afghanistan for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) purposes and for the protection of its own and allied forces. The agreement expresses the commitment to the development of a European UAS capability in close cooperation with European partners. At the same time, the German government has made clear that it opposes fully autonomous weapon systems that would exclude any human control and intervention while operating such systems.

I personally consider UAS – armed and unarmed – to be a technology of the future that will have a crucial impact on civil and military aviation in the decades to come. Germany can neither afford to ignore this development, nor should it refrain from acquiring such capabilities. Apart from apparent advantages in the military domain, the development of a European UAS capability could also lead to technological spillover effects in the civilian sector, thus entailing new business opportunities. The development of a European capability, rather than a national one, is, to my belief, the only possible way to proceed if results are to be produced within an acceptable timeframe and at manageable expenditures.


MH & JS: What role do you see Europe and, in particular, Germany playing in global arms control with specific regard to UAS?

CH: It is undeniable that we are seeing a tendency in technological development towards ever-increasing automatization. This trend goes hand-in-hand with an exponential growth in computing power while processing units are becoming smaller and less expensive. It is therefore necessary to clearly draw a line between armed and unarmed UAS with human control, and fully autonomous systems that are guided by algorithms without any human interference.

I consider it essential for human decision-making to remain an integral part in the use of UAS technology. Just because something is technologically possible does not mean it is politically and morally desirable. Norms and regulations need to be put into place in order to create legal barriers for unwanted developments. Due to the increasing proliferation of UAS technology, we require an international legal framework that is binding and accepted by all relevant actors as well as verifiable and enforceable by international institutions.

At the European Council in December 2013, EU member states officially endorsed the development of a remotely piloted aircraft system for the period 2020-2025. They commissioned funding for respective research and development and have proposed close coordination with the European Commission on relevant legislation. This is to reduce the current dependence on non-European providers of UAS technology. While these measures, in my view, set the right course for the future of European capabilities, the success of any international regime—be it for global warming, nuclear arms or UAS—largely depends on the cooperation and compliance of key players. Neither Germany by itself nor Europe as a whole can currently be considered a key player in UAS technology. Today, if needed, European countries buy or lease UAS technology from foreign suppliers. The effectiveness of any international legal order to prevent the uncontrolled development of such weapon systems depends less on Europe than on those countries that already have acquired the technological, industrial and financial wherewithal for UAS production.

Germany and Europe cannot afford to stand at the sideline while other actors move ahead. The consequences would not only be a lack of technological expertise but also a growing lack of political and legal relevance in any effort to regulate UAS technology.


MH & JS: What are the most significant arguments that supporters of the use of drones in warfare are confronted with?

CH: The development and use of unarmed UAS are not too controversial in Germany. Unarmed systems that are used for ISR purposes help to create a much more detailed, real-time image of any area of operation with longer time on station. To forgo such capability would put military personnel on the ground at unnecessary risk.

However, there has been significantly more controversy over the acquisition of armed UAS. Opponents have referred to a number of legal and moral considerations that run counter to the development and operation of such systems. For one thing, the legality of the use of UAS on the basis of German constitutional law and international law is called into question. Critics also point to a moral deliberation: Armed drones would lower inhibitions to kill or destroy a target to a dangerous level.

I cannot fully comprehend the above-mentioned legal objections. The use of armed UAS would fall under the same constitutional stipulations, which already today regulate the use of military force (under paragraphs 24 and 87 of the German Basic Law). To fire a torpedo from a submarine, to launch a ground-to-air missile or to apply a UAS with military armament does not, in a legal sense, make any difference. All these actions require a government decision with parliamentary consent. Once a mandate has been granted by the German parliament, the details of a military operation, such as its location, scope and the weapons systems needed to achieve its military targets, have to be specified by the military commander in charge. Due to constitutional constraints, the German government can only engage in military action within a system of collective security. Hence, any decision on the specific details of an operation is taken collectively.

Concerning the moral aspects, I do not see how the use of armed UAS would automatically lead to lower inhibitions to kill or destroy military targets. For decades, the operators of torpedoes, cruise-missiles or fighter jet planes have looked at computer screens to identify their targets. I do not know of any empirical data that this technology caused greater readiness to engage in lethal military action than earlier weapon systems. However, one could argue that UAS technology is conducive to a new kind of low-intensity military engagement in terms of personnel, costs and scope.

Ultimately, it is the legal and political context in which a weapon system is applied rather than the weapon itself, which will define the frequency and the scope of its use. I would argue that there was less inhibition to use a sword in completely unregulated medieval warfare than to use modern armaments under today’s highly codified international legal order.

Another moral objection concerns the use of UAS for targeted killings. Here I see a logical inconsistency because any lethal force exercised by the state – be it by its police or its army – should never be indiscriminate but clearly directed at the source of an imminent danger. Therefore, the more precise a weapon system is, the more it can avoid putting innocent bystanders at risk. I do not see how it can be a moral hazard if we try to prevent large and indiscriminate damages in combat situations by a more targeted use of force.


MH & JS: International agreements on arms control have always been one of the most challenging to forge, in part because countries worry about their security. How can we make any meaningful progress on this front despite possible geopolitical tensions between major powers?

CH: According to neo-realist theory in political science, the international system is marked by an unresolvable security dilemma. If different actors, absent any superior institution that can guarantee and provide for their security, seek security gains by enlarging their military capability or by a network of alliances, other actors will be encouraged to do the same in order to counter the perceived threat. A security dilemma inherently tends toward spiraling escalation, leading to arms races that require an enormous amount of resources to be maintained and which are generally hard to control.

In my opinion, the international system is running the risk of a security dilemma only in the absence of binding international legal regimes. Once a legal framework and a set of institutions to enforce those rules and regulations, including a sanctioning mechanism to punish non-compliance, has been put in place, state actors are likely to see less of a need to provide for their own security by amassing more military capabilities than their immediate contenders. Resources that would otherwise have been used to build up military strength can be redirected towards other purposes – a phenomenon often referred to as peace dividend.

There are numerous international regimes to keep the spread of weapons technology in check, the most prominent being the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Whether such a legal framework can be effective depends to a large extend on the trust that actors will put into it. And whether a regime can be trusted is, in itself, a function of its verification and sanctioning mechanism. At the same time, the effectiveness of such a regime depends on the participation of major actors. One of the shortfalls of the NPT certainly is the fact that Pakistan, India and Israel have not joined the treaty, while North Korea decided to resign from it. The UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has not yet produced any significant breakthroughs on global disarmament. That is why alternative avenues are currently being explored to develop a more effective regime, for example, by shifting the focus toward the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament.

Despite these insufficiencies, it is my firm belief that the best protection we have against such uncontrolled armament cycles is the codification of norms concerning new weapons technology in conjunction with the financial incentives of staying out of arms races. We should not forget: Even during the Cold War, bilateral agreements between the US and the Soviet Union on disarmament issues were still possible.


Conrad Hässler is currently a desk officer in the international affairs section of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, and a Global Governance Futures 2025 fellow. His field of work includes German bilateral relations to Western and Southern European countries as well as European security and defense policy. The views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the organizations he belongs to.

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