Do Drones Really Reduce Civilian Casualties?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” have been the subject of heated debate in recent years, especially their role in combat. Without a doubt, the number of air strikes using drones has increased at an astonishing rate. Consider that in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the U.S. government has launched over 1,500 known  drone strikes since 2008. This visualization of strikes in Pakistan is particularly illustrative:

Proponents of combat drones have argued that they are wholly superior to the alternatives with regard to advancing U.S. foreign policy. For example, many claim that drones result in fewer civilian casualties than other methods. CIA Director John Brennan captured this sentiment in 2012. He stated,

[Drones have] surgical precision—the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al Qa’ida, while limiting damage to the tissue around it.

Senator Dianne Feinstein claimed in a hearing that drones kill only a “handful” of civilians every year. Still others maintain that drones are much less lethal than conventional weapons.

But is this narrative accurate?

I’ll be blunt; getting a 100 percent accurate number on casualties is next to impossible. There are no official (at least not public) counts on civilian casualties and the numbers reported vary significantly. In addition, there is a major problem with official definitions of “militant” and “civilian” used by the U.S. government. A militant is classified as any military-aged male in a strike zone. This means that many civilian victims of drone strikes are never properly identified and that official estimates of casualties are likely to be biased.

Other available and credible data on drone strikes indicate that as opposed to sharp, “surgical instruments,” using drones to may be more akin to attempting open-heart surgery with a spoon.

Studies found that fighter pilots are actually more effective at reducing civilian casualties when given clear directives. Using classified data on drone strikes and casualties in Afghanistan, researchers at the Center for Naval Analyses found a shocking result. As opposed to lowering casualty rates, they found that drones were ten times (10x!) more likely to result in civilian deaths than manned strikes.

Examining issues of civilian casualties are important on a number of fronts. If government officials are truly interested in reducing the harm to innocent civilians and engaging in more “humane” forms of combat, accurate information regarding casualties is necessary. The above suggests that alternative methods may be more effective in achieving this goal. At a minimum, it suggests the current narrative requires reexamination.

Even if one is concerned only about the well-being of U.S. citizens, understanding and reducing civilian casualties remains important. Reducing civilian casualties reduces instances of “blowback,” or the unintended results of military action (I’ve discussed this on several occasions on this blog. See here and here for examples). As numerous interventions have illustrated, the resentment generated by such U.S. activity can be lethal to U.S. civilians. Civilian casualties breed resentment and anger, and are an effective recruitment tool for terror groups. These groups, in turn, may look to harm U.S. citizens both domestically and abroad.

So the narrative regarding civilian casualties and drone strikes does not appear as cut and dry as officials state. At the outset, the official definitions used by the government are likely to bias estimates of civilian casualties. Worst case, drone strikes are actually worse in terms of civilian harm than their manned counterparts. Either way, this lack of clarity is indicative of a larger need to transparency and open debate regarding the U.S. drone program.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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