30 April 2016

Are Drones More Precise Than Manned Aircraft?

Micah Zenko
April 26, 2016

Are Drones More Precise Than Manned Aircraft?

This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Amelia M. Wolf.

In our latest piece at ForeignPolicy.com, we evaluate the Obama administration’s long-standing claim that drone strikes are more “precise” and cause fewer civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned aircraft. We approach this challenge recognizing the limits of understanding who is being targeted and killed by all U.S. aerial operations. In addition, we admit that there are no wholly reliable or independently verifiable data sources, either from the U.S. government or research NGOs.

Our conclusion, based upon the best available data, is that the White House is deeply misleading about the precision of drone strikes. They are, in fact, roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an airstrike by a manned aircraft.

In air campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) has provided monthly data on total coalition airstrikes. Estimates of civilian fatalities, however, are more controversial. We therefore used an average of estimates given by thePentagon and non-profit research group Airwars, which collects reports from numerous regional monitoring groups. AFCENT also provided airstrike datafor Afghanistan, and civilian fatalities estimates were gathered from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) annual reports on the protection of civilians. UNAMA reports specifically on fatalities from airstrikes by pro-government and international forces. Finally, estimates for drone strikes and resulting civilian deaths are based on an average of three reporting organizations: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation, and Long War Journal.

In the overdue debate about the relative benefits and downsides of drone strikes, these numbers are important to keep in mind. Drones have been used more frequently because of their inherent advantages, but they have turned out to be no more “surgical” than airstrikes by manned platforms. Based upon the best available information, drone strikes result in far more civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned platforms. This is likely the result of what military doctrine CJCSI 3160.01A refers to as “target misidentification,” where the precision-guided missile accurately impacts upon an inaccurately identified person. We hope that analysts and scholars of drones and air power explore this finding in greater detail.

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