COLOGNE, Germany – NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he supports the use of armed drones to protect soldiers’ lives, wading into a fierce debate in Germany about buying such technology for future operations.

Stoltenberg told the German press agency DPA that the alliance would use weaponized unmanned aircraft in accordance with international law and in support of deployed troops. “These drones can support forces on the ground and reduce the number of pilots we send in harm’s way,” he was quoted as saying.

His comments come as the question of arming drones has caused a major kerfuffle between the CDU and SPD parties, which form Germany’s coalition government. Specifically, the disagreement is about whether the Bundeswehr should be allowed to lease Israeli-made Heron TP drones armed with missiles. More broadly, though, the debate is about different visions for Germany as a participant in the military fabric of the West.

Earlier this month, the SPD leadership decided to reject the acquisition of armed drones in principle, arguing that a broad debate here on ethical aspects of their use had not yet taken place, as prescribed in the government’s coalition agreement.

The party’s surprise move came after defense department officials had formally studied the issue for the better part of the year as part of a public campaign, holding hearings with experts of various backgrounds and sending a final report to lawmakers.

The SPD parliamentary spokesman on defense matters, Fritz Felgentreu, who backs the use weaponized drones under limited conditions, resigned his job in protest, arguing the party leadership’s claim of a lackluster drone debate was dishonest.

Following Stoltenberg’s remarks to DPA on Wednesday, Felgentreu joked on Twitter that the secretary-general would make a “smart Social Democrat,” a reference to his own party.

Stoltenberg’s stance is unlikely to sway any opinions here, as those rejecting armed drones for the Bundeswehr are unlikely to be glowing NATO supporters to begin with.

It remains to be seen how Germany’s drone debate of seven-plus years evolves before it reaches the relevant decision-making stage for the French-German Eurodrone. One of the unmanned aircraft’s roles, besides spying and surveillance, is firing weapons in combat under certain conditions. Similarly, the Future Combat Air System, a French-German-Spanish project, is slated to include a series of so-called “remote carriers,” some of which will have kinetic effects.

The U.S. government’s counterterrorism drone wars since the Bush administration, often executed somewhere in the gray zone between military and paramilitary operations, still loom large in the collective conscience of Germany’s antiwar left.

Proponents of armed drones for the Bundeswehr have accused the SPD skeptics of mistrusting the government, and their own parliament, with a more responsible use of those weapons.

Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke, whose company manages the Heron TP lease and co-leads the Eurodrone and FCAS programs, told reporters earlier this month that he was banking on “a shift” in German public opinion to support the idea of armed drones in the end. “Our population realizes that we see higher volatility, more crises, and that the biggest economy in Europe cannot stay from the accountability and responsibility coming with that role,” he said.

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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