Germany plans to join the ranks of countries that deploy armed drones on the battlefield — a move critics say would lower the threshold for foreign military interventions.
Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Friday that Germany would work with France to develop a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
"We have a gap in our capabilities that we would like to close," he said.
Germany already has unarmed drones, including the Israeli-built Heron 1 model, which it uses for reconnaissance purposes in places such as Afghanistan. Officials said Germany might consider purchasing an armed version of the Heron 1 for use after 2014, to bridge the gap until 2020 when the system being developed with France becomes available.
Opposition lawmakers warned that Germany could end up sending armed drones into conflicts abroad even when there are political reservations about deploying troops.
Over the past 20 years, Germany has steadily abandoned its post-war reticence about foreign military missions. But the constitution requires parliamentary approval before sending troops abroad and each proposed mission prompts heated debate in the country deemed responsible for two world wars in the last century.
U.N. human rights experts also have criticized the use of armed drones because they are controlled by operators who are often thousands of miles away from the targets they attack.
Last week, the U.N. independent expert on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, announced he would launch a special investigation into drone warfare.
Emmerson, a British lawyer, said the use of armed drones isn't properly regulated by international law. He also said that countries have an obligation to "establish effective independent and impartial investigations into any drone attack in which it is plausibly alleged that civilian casualties were sustained."
Pakistan has been particularly critical of the use of armed drones by the U.S., which along with Britain and Israel is among the countries with the most sophisticated drone programs.