Belgian military leadership in favour of arming drones

The general staff of the Belgian army sees multiple advantages in arming its drones. Our country will soon start using drones of the SkyGuardian type - albeit unarmed - but according to the defence chief, there is neither a legal nor an ethical difference between deploying armed drones and using F-16 fighter jets. Opposition MP Theo Francken (N-VA, Flemish nationalists) called on the government to reconsider its position and opt for armed drones.

The Defence Staff's advice came in response to a resolution by N-VA, in which the party called on the federal government to arm its military drones. Our country ordered six MQ-9B SkyGuardians, the first of which should be delivered in early 2024. However, arming them is not part of the government's plans, Defence minister Ludivine Dedonder (PS, social democrats) reaffirmed a few months ago. The topic is sensitive among left-wing parties. Other European countries did choose to arm drones.

However, the army chief of staff sees several advantages in using armed drones. He refers to the deployment of similar drones (the RPAS MALE) in the Sahel and Ukraine. "From a military-technical point of view, armed RPAS MALE offer added value, as they not only allow to see in real-time that allied troops are under fire, but also offer the possibility to respond immediately, where necessary, and thus save lives."

If armed, the SkyGuardian would be piloted by a military pilot with all the necessary qualifications, education and training. Moreover, the drone would be under the control of a team of three, in charge of the mission and solely responsible for any use of force. The device is not capable of using weapons autonomously.

In addition, the device would only operate in accordance with international law and within the framework of the rules of engagement, which are delineated for any deployment of weapons in a conflict. Finally, the use of force is subject to prior approval by a military authority.

According to the army leadership, armed drones offer several advantages over conventional combat aircraft. These include the quality of information and the fact that all actions and communications are recorded, allowing political and judicial control afterwards. Furthermore, the lower speed of the SkyGuardian would allow dropping munitions closer to the target, reducing the risk of collateral damage.

Opposition member Francken (N-VA) finds it "irresponsible" that the government is not opting to arm the army's drones. "Staff says this is safer and even necessary," he said. "Times have changed. Defence needs armed drones. I call on Open VLD, MR and CD&V (majority parties in the federal government, ed.) to reconsider this and align with the German government."




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