Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Drones and Civilians - A Deadly Combination

A recent analysis published on the Center for Naval Analysis website written by CNA Analyst Dr. Lawrence Lewis for the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) examines the use of drones in the field and whether the government is being factual in stating that these strikes are surgical and cause minimal casualties.  Unfortunately, only the Executive Summary is available to the general public, however, it provides sufficient information that will allow the public to decide whether the government is prevaricating or not.

Let's look at a bit of background first.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has compiled drone attack statistics for three nations; Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Here is a summary:

Pakistan (2004 to 2013):

Number of Strikes: 370
Number of Strikes under Obama: 318
Total Killed: 2548 to 3549
Total Civilians Killed: 411 to 890

Yemen (2002 to 2013):

Number of Confirmed Strikes: 46 to 56
Total Killed: 240 to 239
Total Civilians Killed: 14 to 49

Somalia (2007 to 2013):

Number of Confirmed Strikes: 3 to 9
Total Killed: 7 to 27
Total Civilians Killed: 0 to 15

The Bureau also released a tally of total weapons releases and the number released from remotely piloted aircraft (drones) in Afghanistan before Afcent (U.S. Air Force Central Command) stopped breaking the data down, showing that a growing number of the releases were from a drone.  Here is a graphic showing the number of releases in Afghanistan for all of 2010, 2011 and 2012:

Of the 4092 releases of all types in 2012, 506 or 12 percent of the total were from drones.  This is up from 5.4 percent in 2011.

Now, let's go back to the CNA/JCOA analysis and find the answer to the question regarding whether or not civilian deaths are lower in drone attacks when compared to conventional air weapon releases.  Dr. Lewis analyzed air operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and found that drone strikes in Afghanistan, in particular, were seen to have the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft and were ten times more likely to result in civilian casualties on a per engagement basis. 

One issue that Dr. Lewis draws attention to is the difficulty in gathering accurate civilian death data.  Inaccurate assessments of harm to civilians before 2010 tarnished the reputation of the United States government and its military presence and limited freedom of action in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Another issue is the propensity of the United States to classify casualties as "enemy combatants" rather than "civilians", reducing the apparent collateral damage done.  By doing this, the United States minimizes the importance of the deaths of innocent civilians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Just in case you wondered what a drone attack allegedly looks like from the perspective of the operator:

You have to admit, it is nearly impossible to avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians in explosions of that magnitude.

Let's close with a quote from President Obama's speech given in May 2013 at the National Defense University:

"This last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.
Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted, lethal action is the use of conventional military options. As I’ve said, even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars." (my bold)  

Unfortunately, even in this age of technology and despite the President's assurances to the contrary, the deaths of innocent men, women and children in wartime are still far too high.

1 comment:

  1. Take away the satellites in the sky and they are as blind as a bat.