Saturday, November 4, 2017

Calculating the Impact of Weaponized Drones on Civilian Casualties

Several recent articles published in the JHU News-Letter have called for the Applied Physics Laboratory to end its research on weaponized drone technology and refuse future cooperation with the US government’s drone programs.  These calls stem from the hundreds of civilians known to have been killed or injured by American drone strikes during the ongoing War on Terror.  Such deaths are tragic and demand reforms to how our military utilizes drone strikes moving forward.  I hope to discuss my reform proposals in a future article.

Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that the introduction of weaponized drone technology has increased civilian casualties overall, relative to what they would be in a world without drones. This means the APL is being illogically and unfairly blamed for technological contributions which may well have saved lives.  Furthermore, drones are certainly here to stay on the 21st century battlefield with or without Hopkins’ continued involvement.  Knowing this, discontinuing that involvement would likely do more harm than good.


Estimates of how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes vary wildly.  In June 2016, President Obama conceded internal investigations had revealed 64-116 civilian casualties from US drone strikes throughout the course of his tenure.  Most independent studies agree this figure is far too low; more aggressive figures come from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a left-leaning watchdog agency which keeps meticulous records of all airstrike reports from many competing sources. As of October 29th of this year, they calculate a minimum of 639 civilian deaths and a maximum of 1380 (versus roughly 6,000-9,000 combatants killed) between all suspected or possible US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002.  These estimates are higher than those of most other investigations; but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are correct.

The drone debate is often framed as a simple value judgment whether that number is too high, or whether it’s an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of America’s foreign policy goals.  But this framework is far too simplistic, because it fails to account for the litany of other ways drone strikes cause or prevent civilian casualties indirectly. The more important ethical question is the impact of drone strikes on the number of civilians killed on the battlefield overall – by any means, drone or otherwise. This is a much more complicated question, and the raw bean-counting of how many civilians’ drones have killed directly is but one variable involved.

Another variable is the number of civilians which might have been killed by conventional military interventions – but weren’t, due to the military’s preference for drone warfare.  Drones are far safer for civilians than conventional military operations, and far more precise than any alternative airstrike method.  A central question, therefore, to the debate surrounding drones and civilian casualties is the extent to which they are used instead of versus in addition to conventional military intervention.

The United States currently conducts drone strikes in at least four nations (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia) and has historically deployed them in at least four more (Iraq, Algeria, Iran, and Libya).  Were weaponized drone strikes no longer a military option, the military would have to decide what to do instead about the terrorist threats in those regions.  In some of those regions, they may elect to do nothing, and allow the known terrorist groups residing there to operate unperturbed.  In others, they may attempt to kill the known or suspected enemy combatants using more conventional airstrike methods (including bombs dropped from airplanes, long distance artillery rounds, or cruise missiles fired from warships).  And in other regions, they may decide to put boots on the ground (either deploying special operations forces, invading with conventional forces, or both).

It's impossible to know for sure which options our political and military leaders would choose in which region were drones not available.  But if there’s any substitution effect going on at all, wherein we use drones instead of using a more conventional method for military intervention, the tradeoff in civilian casualties is almost definitely worth it from a humanitarian perspective.  Recall that the BIJ’s highest estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes alone topped out at 1,380. By comparison, the civilian death toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was at least 210,000 violent deaths as of 2015, with an upper estimate of nearly 500,000 when considering indirect causes (like battered infrastructure, decreased health conditions, food shortages, etc).  The vast majority of those victims were not killed by American weapons directly – but they’re dead just the same, as direct consequence of the US decision to invade.

Short of replacing a full-scale invasion, drones also save lives when they replace conventional airstrikes.  In Syria, for example, where the US-backed coalition against ISIS has largely eschewed drones in favor of Air Force bombing, the civilian death toll from American strikes during this year alone is over 600 by CENTCOM’s own admission.  Watchdog groups like allege totals as high as 4,000.

The point is, drones are the most accurate and least invasive method of military intervention we have.  If you are wary of the American military industrial complex’s political sway, it’s difficult to imagine that the alternative to a world with drones is a world in which the United States simply minds its business and keeps the troops home.  And if you remember the consequences back when the War on Terror was fought primarily with conventional armies, that alternative world is a frightening one indeed.

A third variable in play is the number of civilians which might have been killed by local terrorists – but weren’t, because drone strikes killed those terrorists first.  American weapons are not the only thing blowing up civilians in these countries.  Arguably the largest threat to civilian life are the terrorists themselves, who habitually and intentionally set off car bombs or suicide vests in crowded public places, with the deliberate aim of killing as many civilians as possible.  From 1980-2015, a minimum of 4,814 suicide attacks occurred in over 40 countries, killing over 45,000 people.  75% of these attacks took place the three of the countries most heavily targeted by drone strikes: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

Drone strikes save lives by hampering the planning and execution of those attacks, killing small numbers of bad guys before they go on to kill larger numbers of good people.  The overall size of this impact is difficult to quantify, but Johnston and Sarbahi discovered that from 2007-2011, drone strikes in Northwestern Pakistan created a commensurate decrease in both the number and deadliness of terror attacks. There is evidence, therefore, that the most heavily droned regions have seen a decrease in overall violence, in close temporal relation to when the drones began falling the heaviest.

On the flip side, there is a fourth variable: although drone strikes kill terrorists, it is also likely they are creating them to some extent. Drones are extremely unpopular in the Middle East, and have been used heavily in enemy recruitment propaganda.  Furthermore, there is intuitive reason to suspect that the relatives of those killed by drones will be more easily radicalized against the United States (though again, this also occurs when civilians are killed by conventional means).  For all our decades of anti-terror efforts, overall membership in radical Salafi-Jihadist groups is as high as ever. Once again, it’s impossible to know how many new terror recruits were inspired by drone strikes as opposed to some other motive, but it’s important to consider this impact as well.

With all that in mind, our formula for the number of innocent lives drone strikes have saved looks something like this:

Lives Saved = a + (b*z) – c – (d*z)

Wherein the variables stand for the following:

a = Civilians who would have died from conventional military engagements (which were avoided, to some extent, thanks to the military’s preference for drone warfare)

b = The number of terrorists killed by drone strikes which could not have been killed by conventional methods

z = The number of innocent people the average terrorist kills

c = The number of innocent people killed by drone strikes

d = the number of terrorists radicalized by the bad PR of drone strikes


Given the range of uncertainty for each of those values, that’s an extremely murky picture.  To my eyes, it’s much too murky to say with any empirical confidence that the value of Lives Saved is positive or negative.  What’s more, it is murky even with the benefit of hindsight; back in the early 2000’s – when APL was supposedly first developing drone technology – it would have been even less possible to know whether the invention would help or hurt.

Neither can we know how whatever weapons APL is researching today will be used in the future, nor towards what ends.  If even political scientists cannot predict such complex future outcomes, and even philosophers cannot agree on the ethics of warfare, how is it fair to burden the physicist with this responsibility?

I don’t know whether drones have saved lives or not, and neither do you.  It’s largely a moot point, though, because they’re not going away regardless. The government has plenty of them already in operation, and if it’s not the APL that researches them it will doubtlessly be some other laboratory (certainly including Chinese and Russian laboratories, who will use them with much less respect for international norms than we).  To stand athwart the incessant tide of technological progress in the field would be both futile and sanctimonious, achieving nothing beyond the psychic comfort of a delusory moral high ground.

A better strategy is to focus our efforts on refining military power through both political and technological means.  This means holding politicians and Soldiers accountable for abuses, reinforcing checks and balances, and pursuing international cooperation to ensure the wrong technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.  And when we are asked to lend technical expertise, it means using the cutting edge of science to adapt the clumsy and indiscriminate military technology of yesteryear so that it better comports with modern norms on collateral damage.  An engaged APL can improve aerial imagery to prevent civilian-combatant mix-ups.  It can make our explosions more contained; radar more precise; communications more reliable; body armor more effective; vehicles more resistant to IED blasts; MEDEVAC helicopters capable of flying further on each tank of fuel.  It can lean in and improve our military to make warfare less awful, instead of watching it inflict avoidable pain for the sake of saying “at least we had no part in it.”

I join my former classmates’ opposition to our nation’s unfortunate history of meddlesome warmongering – but to me, blaming the researchers is barking up the wrong tree.

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