Drones: Actually the Most Humane Form of Warfare Ever

How better targeting and surveillance can reduce the number of civilian casualties.
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An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft comes to a stop after landing on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. (Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters)

In this month's cover story, Mark Bowden's description of the drone operator's reaction -- one of shock and uncertainty -- to performing a specific mission clearly undermines the widely circulated but exceptionally irresponsible criticism that drones have created a "Playstation mentality" among their operators. An additional fact that the article did not include, but that has been understood (although not widely reported) for several years now, is that drone operators suffer from PTSD-like symptoms at rates similar to -- and sometimes greater than -- those experienced by combat forces on the ground. It turns out that even from 8,000 miles away, taking human life and graphically observing your handiwork is nothing like playing a video game.

For this and other reasons, this article is one of the best things I've seen written on drones in the past several years. His descriptions and takeaways on most aspects of the drone program are consistent with my own experience in military aviation and the information I have gathered from human rights organizations, drone operators, military lawyers, senior military, and CIA personnel who have run the drone programs, as well as from senior military policy advisors who were involved in changing the way drones are used.

Turning to the question of civilian casualties: All armed conflicts cause civilian casualties, and most modern conflicts have done so in large numbers, in part due to the fact that insurgents often hide among the civilian population. The 2006 Israeli conflict with Hezbollah and its 2009 and 2012 battles with Hamas in Gaza, the 1999 Russian war with Chechen rebels, and the final stages of the struggle between Sri Lanka and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) all killed more civilians than combatants, in some cases substantially more. Although the U.S. has not caused civilian casualties at rates that high, there have been memorable examples of civilian casualties in each of the recent conflicts in which we have been involved, and those casualties were caused by all kinds of weapons systems. The 1991 Gulf War involved the Al-Firdos bunker airstrike that killed up to 400 civilians. The Kosovo campaign included airstrikes that hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and struck a civilian train in the Grdelica gorge. The 2003 Iraq War included civilian casualties caused by Marine ground troops in Haditha and military contractors in Nisoor Square, while a cruise missile strike in 2009 killed approximately 35 civilians at al-Majalah in Yemen.

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Like any other weapons system, drones have caused civilian casualties. But they also have the potential to dramatically reduce civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and particularly in counterinsurgencies. Their ability to follow targets for days or weeks accomplishes two things that contribute to saving the lives of innocents: First, it confirms that the target is engaged in the behavior that put them on the target list, reducing the likelihood of striking someone based on faulty intelligence. Second, by establishing a "pattern of life" for the intended target, it allows operators to predict when the target will be sufficiently isolated to allow a strike that is unlikely to harm civilians.

Another, less obvious, feature that reduces civilian casualties is that drones are controlled remotely, so the decision to employ a weapon can be reviewed in real time by lawyers, intelligence analysts, and senior commanders without any concern (in most cases) that a hesitation to act may cost lives. Even more importantly, the operators themselves are not concerned for their own safety, eliminating the possibility that the combination of tension, an unexpected occurrence, and a concern for personal safety leads to weapons being fired when they shouldn't be.

This potential of drones to vastly reduce civilian casualties was not fully realized at first, but it has been dramatically attained in the past few years.

In 2007, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps began disseminating a new Counterinsurgency (COIN) Manual that emphasized the need for soldiers to be involved in nation-building and bolstering local civil-society institutions, in addition to defeating insurgents militarily. Part of implementing this strategy involved minimizing civilian casualties. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan in 2009, he emphasized the need to continue reducing civilian casualties in all phases of operations. He assigned teams of civilians and military officers to conduct root-cause analysis of every civilian casualty in theater and tasked them with developing protocols to eliminate such deaths.

These teams produced a number of recommendations for drones. One of the most significant was switching the preferred method of targeting from compounds to vehicles. While targeting compounds improved the likelihood that the right individual was being targeted, it also greatly increased the chances that members of the target's family and the families of his bodyguards and close associates would be harmed. Although vehicle strikes ran a greater risk of target misidentification, increasing surveillance and pattern-of-life analysis mitigated that risk. Because it is easier to determine who is in a vehicle than to keep track of everyone who enters and leaves a compound, vehicle strikes reduced the likelihood that family members and friends would be collateral damage. Also, because vehicle strikes can be conducted on isolated roads, the likelihood of other civilian bystanders being harmed was minimized.

How do we know that this has succeeded? Bowden mentions studies done by several independent organizations that have assessed civilian casualties caused by drones in Pakistan. The three most well respected and independent sources on this issue are the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). Among these, the U.K.-based TBIJ has consistently produced the highest estimates of civilian casualties for drone strikes. According to TBIJ, between January 2012 and July 2013, there were approximately 65 drone strikes in Pakistan, which they estimate to have killed a minimum of 308 people. Yet of these casualties, even TBIJ estimates that only 4 were civilians. This would amount to a civilian casualty rate of less than 1.5 percent, meaning that only 1 in 65 casualties caused by drones over that 19-month period was a civilian. This speaks to drones effective discrimination between civilian and military targets that no other weapons system can possibly match.

Another indication that drones cause fewer civilian casualties than traditional warfare was provided by Hamid Karzai in 2011. The U.S. was employing all types of units in Afghanistan, ground troops, airstrikes, artillery and drones. But the source of friction with the Afghan government was not drones but rather special forces night raids. Karzai proclaimed that he would withhold further cooperation until his government was given greater control over night raids. Drones did not cause him or the Afghan people any appreciable concern.

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Michael W. Lewis flew fighters for the Navy in the early 1990s. He now teaches international law at Ohio Northern University School of Law. 

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