What's Not Wrong With Drones?

The wildly overblown case against remote-controlled war.
September 6, 2012 |
Click here to read this full article.

For many on the political left, and more than a few in the middle, drone strikes are the paradigmatic example of U.S. militarism run amok. I'm not crazy about the way the United States has been using drone strikes myself, but many of the most common objections to drones don't hold up well under scrutiny.

Let's review the case against the drones.

1. Drone strikes kill innocent civilians.

This is undoubtedly true, but it's not an argument against drone strikes as such. War kills innocent civilians, period. But some means and methods of warfare tend to cause more unintended civilian deaths than others.

"Drones scout over [Afghanistan and Pakistan] launching Hellfire missiles into the region missing their intended targets, resulting in the deaths of many innocent people," trumpets the website for Code Pink, a women's peace group. Similarly, the Anti-War Committee asserts that "the physical distance between the drone and its shooter makes lack of precision unavoidable."

But to paraphrase the NRA, "Drones don't kill people, people kill people." At any rate, drone strikes kill civilians at no higher a rate, and almost certainly at a lower rate, than most other common means of warfare.  Drones actually permit far greater precision in targeting. Today's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can carry small bombs that do less widespread damage, and there's no human pilot whose fatigue might limit flight time. Their low profile and relative fuel efficiency combines with this to permit them to spend more "time on target" than any manned aircraft.

Drones can engage in "persistent surveillance.­" That means they don't just swoop in, fire missiles and swoop out: they may spend hours, days, or even months monitoring a potential target. Equipped with imaging technologies that enable operators even thousands of miles away to see details as fine as individual faces, modern drone technologies allow their operators to distinguish between civilians and combatants far more effectively than most other weapons systems.

That doesn't mean civilians don't get killed in drone strikes. They do.

How many civilians? It depends how you count. The British Bureau of Investigative Journalism analyzed reports by "government, military and intelligence officials, and by credible media, academic and other sources" and came up with a range: the 344 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012 killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians. (The numbers for Yemen and Somalia are much squishier.) The New America Foundation, at which I'm a fellow, came up with slightly lower numbers: somewhere between 1,873 and 3,171 people killed overall in Pakistan, of whom between 282 and 459 were civilians.

That means somewhere between 8 percent and 47 percent of Pakistan drone strike victims were probably civilians. Work out the civilian deaths per drone strike ratio for the last eight years, and on average, each drone strike seems to have killed between 0.8 and 2.5 civilians.

These are gruesome calculations: behind the numbers, regardless of which data set is right, lie the mangled bodies of human beings. But whether drones strikes cause "a lot" or "only a few" civilian casualties depends what we regard as the right point of comparison. A study by the International Committee for the Red Cross found that on average, 10 civilians died for every combatant killed during the armed conflicts of the 20th century. For the Iraq War, estimates vary widely; different studies place the ratio of civilian deaths to combatant deaths anywhere between 10 to 1 and 2 to 1.

Compared to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, drone strikes look pretty good. Compared to world peace, not so much.

The most meaningful point of comparison is probably manned aircraft. It's difficult to get solid numbers here, but one analysis published in the Small Wars Journal suggested that in 2007 the ratio of civilian deaths due to coalition air attacks in Afghanistan may have been as high as 15 to 1. More recent UN figures suggest a far lower rate, with as few as one civilian killed for every ten airstrikes in Afghanistan.

But drone strikes have also gotten far less lethal for civilians in the last few years: the New America Foundation concludes that only three to nine civilians were killed during 72 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011, and the 2012 number -- so far -- is zero civilians killed in 36 strikes.  In part, this is due to technological advances over the last decade, but it's also due to far more stringent rules for when drones can release weapons.

2. Drones strikes are bad because killing at a distance is unsavory.

Really? If killing from a safe distance (say, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada) is somehow "wrong," what should be our preferred alternative -- stripping troops of body armor, or taking away their guns and requiring them to engage in hand-to-hand combat? If drone strikes enable us to kill enemies without exposing our own personnel, this is presumably a good thing, not a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn't kill anyone, or maybe we're killing the wrong people -- but these are assertions about ethics, intelligence and strategy, not about drones.

Drones don't present any "new" issues not already presented by aerial bombing -- or by any previous historical method of killing from a distance. In the early 1600s, Cervantes called artillery a "devilish invention" allowing "a base cowardly hand to take the life of the bravest gentleman," with bullets "coming nobody knows how or from whence." (Much like drones.)

The longbow and cross bow were also once considered immoral, for that matter: in 1139, the Second Lateran Council of Pope Innocent II is said to have "prohibit[ed] under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God" -- at least when used against Christians.

3. Drones Turn Killing into a Video Game.

Writing in the Guardian, Phillip Allston (the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) and Hina Shamsi of the ACLU decry "the PlayStation mentality" created by drone technologies. "Young military personnel raised on a diet of video games now kill real people remotely using joysticks. Far removed from the human consequences of their actions, how will this generation of fighters value the right to life?"

But are drones more "video game-like" than, say, having cameras in the noses of cruise missiles?  Those old enough to remember the first Gulf War will recall the shocking novelty of images taken by cameras inside U.S. Tomahawk missiles, the jolting, grainy images in the crosshairs before everything went ominously black.

Regardless, there's little evidence that drone technologies "reduce" their operators' awareness of human suffering. If anything, drone operators may be far more keenly aware of the suffering they help inflict than any distant sniper or bomber pilot could be.

Journalist Daniel Klaidman reports the words of one CIA drone operator, a former Air Force pilot: "I used to fly my own air missions.... I dropped bombs, hit my target load, but had no idea who I hit. [With drones], I can look at their faces... see these guys playing with their kids and wives.... After the strike, I see the bodies being carried out of the house. I see the women weeping and in positions of mourning. That's not PlayStation; that's real."

Increasingly, there's evidence that drone pilots, just like combat troops, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder: watching a man play with his children, then seeing his mangled body takes a psychological toll. A recent Air Force study found that 29 percent of drone pilots suffered from "burnout," with 17 percent "clinically distressed."

4. Targeted killings are creepy.

Many critics of drone strikes are also broadly uncomfortable with targeted killings, viewing them as little more than assassinations or simple murder. In targeted killings, lethal force is aimed at specific, named individuals. (Not all targeted killings involve drone strikes, just as not all drone strikes are targeted killings.)

Last week, I wrote that whether targeted killings are lawful depends entirely on whether you think the law of war applies in a given situation. But assuming it does apply -- which is surely true in Afghanistan, at least-- it's hard to see the problem with targeted killing. Should we prefer untargeted killing?

Going after a named, specifically identifiable individual we know to be a bad guy may make us uncomfortable, but it's surely better -- assuming our intelligence is solid -- than, say, lobbing grenades into a compound filled with unnamed probable bad guys.

None of this means we should feel sanguine about the way drone strikes are used by the United States. In next week's column, I'll focus on reasons we should worry about drone strikes. Current U.S. practice presents glaring rule of law problems, and unmanned technologies also provide the executive branch with a new means of circumventing the War Powers Act, increasing the temptation to use force. Perhaps even more ominously, the increased use of drones by the U.S. also risks completely unsettling the precarious collective security structures created by the U.N. Charter.

There's plenty not to like about drone warfare. But if we're going to critique it, we should do so for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Related Programs