Does drone warfare reduce harm? Maybe not.

Proponents of drones in foreign conflicts argue that it reduces harm for civilians and U.S. military personnel alike. Here's why that might be wrong.

ABIGAIL BLANCO: People have often pointed to technology as a means to harm reduction. In particular, if we look at the expansion of unmanned aerial vehicles, colloquially known as drones, particularly in the war on terror. So we see a huge increase in the use of drones in foreign conflict. And typically we see that proponents of this type of technology make a variety of different claims as to the benefits of this technology. So things like: it reduces civilian casualties and collateral damage. It's cheaper in a monetary sense than conventional warfare tactics. But then also make claims like well, it's safer or preferable for U.S. military personnel. And while we don't have a robust amount of data on this topic what we do have suggests that on all of these margins, drones are at best about equivalent to conventional technologies, but in some cases may actually be worse.

So UAVs have a higher failure rate than conventional aircraft, for example, as opposed to being surgically precise which is often the terminology that's used by leaders. This technology is only as good as the intelligence that drives it. And that intelligence is often very poor. And so the data surrounding things like civilian casualty rates are not robust. They're not reliable at all. The U.S. government, for instance, has made claims that only a handful of civilian casualties, for instance, have occurred as the result of drone strikes. However, you run into problems when you find out things like they define a militant as any military aged male within a strike zone. So that is roughly about like 15 to 65. So, of course, you're going to have casualty rates or civilian casualty rates that look relatively low if that's the case.

What's most interesting, I think, is if people are really focused on the supposed benefits to U.S. military personnel, is the following data. Unmanned aerial vehicles actually take more personnel on the ground to operate than a conventional military aircraft. That is because they have to—or, at this point, they require a number of individuals within the range that they're operating. And so they also have to be guarded when they're not flying and so this places a variety of personnel within harm's way as opposed to conventional military aircraft which you can launch from an aircraft carrier. There's also some really interesting studies that are being conducted in psychology looking at the psychological effects of the use of UAVs on UAV pilots and actually finding a comparable or even higher rates of things like post-traumatic stress disorder and also a variety of other psychological problems because of the way that drone warfare is conducted as opposed to conventional warfare.

If you are a UAV pilot, you are watching your target for a prolonged period of time. And so you observe that target, you can see when he's going to the grocery store or you observe him with his family. And then the strike is conducted. But then when the strike is conducted the drone doesn't leave. You're talking about technology that can take a clear photograph of a coffee cup or something really small—from 30,000 feet, it can take a clear picture like three feet off the ground. It's remarkable technology in that way. So they're watching these individuals for a prolonged period of time but then after the strike occurs they're interested in having additional information. And so they watch. And so they see the people who are coming to the site where these strikes have occurred. They're seeing people's family members in the throes of grief as they're finding out that their family member has just been killed as the result of a military strike.

And in other capacities too these drones are often equipped with thermal cameras and so they can actually physically see a person's body heat dissipating from their body over a period of time. So they're pointing to these, among other issues, as the genesis of a variety of these psychological issues which you don't have from a conventional air strike in which the pilot is dropping their payload and then leaving.

  • There has been a huge increase in drone usage since the war on terror. Proponents of drone warfare claim it reduces civilian casualties and collateral damage, that it's cheaper than conventional warfare tactics, and that it's safer for U.S. military personnel.
  • The data suggests those claims may be false, says scholar Abigail Blanco. Drones are, at best, about equivalent to conventional technologies, but in some cases may actually be worse.
  • Blanco explains how skewed US government definitions don't give honest data on civilian casualties. Drone operators also suffer worse psychological repercussions following a drone strike because of factors such as the intimacy of prolonged surveillance and heat-sensing technology which lets the operator observe the heat leaving a dying body to confirm a kill.
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