Drones More Deadly for Civilians Than Manned Aircraft

Spencer Ackerman, “US drone strikes more deadly to Afghan civilians than manned aircraft“, The Guardian, 2 July 2013

A study conducted by a US military adviser has found that drone strikes in Afghanistan during a year of the protracted conflict caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.

The new study, referred to in an official US military journal, contradicts claims by US officials that the robotic planes are more precise than their manned counterparts.

It appears to undermine the claim made by President Obama in a May speech that “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage”.

Drone strikes in Afghanistan, the study found, according to its unclassified executive summary, were “an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.”

Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research group with close ties to the US military, studied air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, using classified military data on the strikes and the civilian casualties they caused. Lewis told the Guardian he found that the missile strikes conducted by remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones, were 10 times more deadly to Afghan civilians than those performed by fighter jets.

Lewis, an adviser to the military’s Joint Staff, conducted six previous studies of civilian casualties and other episodes in Afghanistan for the military.

“The fact that I had been looking at air operations in Afghanistan for a number of years led me to suspect that what I found was in fact the case,” Lewis said. …

While the drone strikes remain classified, several senior Obama administration officials and their congressional allies have described them as notable for their precision. John Brennan, now the CIA director responsible for the agency’s drones, said in 2012 they provide “targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists”. While defending the strikes as legal and “targeted”, Obama conceded in May that “US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars”. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in February that drones kill only “single digits” worth of civilians annually. …

The period Lewis researched was the most intense era for air strikes during the 12-year-long Afghanistan war. General David Petraeus, commander from mid-2010 to mid-2011, reversed restrictions on air strikes imposed by his predecessor, Stanley McChrystal, designed to tamp down Afghan outrage about dead civilians. By February 2011, air force pilots, both in and outside the cockpit, launched 10 bombing missions daily, nearly double the rate of the previous year.

The air war in Afghanistan has declined significantly since Petraeus’ departure and the end of the troop surge he implemented. But Afghanistan still remains the central battleground for US drone strikes. As of 6 December 2012, the US launched 447 drone strikes in Afghanistan that year, up 5% from 2011. By contrast, there were 48 drone strikes in 2012 in Pakistan, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation think tank.

Read the full article here.