COLOGNE, Germany — The initial class of German Air Force drone pilots began their training on the Heron TP drone at the Israeli Tel Nof Airbase near Tel Aviv on Monday.

Launch of the inaugural class for the first six crews of two — one pilot and 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 eventually 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 Defence 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 this reporter’s question about the government’s envisioned timing for a new proposal.

Proponents have argued that using the Israeli drone solely for surveillance is a waste of money because such capabilities are available for cheaper than the $1 billion-plus Heron TP deal. The ministry has signaled 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 airspace environment. That’s what we are getting out of this.”

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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