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15 FUNsettling facts about drones

An anti-drone protest in Peshawar, Pakistan, on November 10, 2013.
An anti-drone protest in Peshawar, Pakistan, on November 10, 2013.
Photo by A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin — proud creator of the RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone, an aircraft perhaps best known for being captured and then reverse engineered and copied by the Iranian government — wants you to know that drones are fun. So they put together a list of "15 FUNmanned Facts" (that's the actual headline) about unmanned systems, be they unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or "drones"), unmanned submarines, or humanoid robots designed to keep humans safe during disasters. And it's true — drones can do a lot of cool stuff! Here's one that helps you jog:

But then there are the drones that kill people. Like, a lot of people. Lockheed, curiously, left that part out. So we thought we'd take another run at the 15 facts idea, focusing a little less on the coolness of the tech and a little more about how UAVs are in fact used by the US military.

1. US drones have killed at least 2,000 people

The total number of people killed by US drone programs is hard to pin down, but independent groups measuring it all put the number in excess of 2,000.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BIJ) puts the death toll in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia at between 2,640 (using low-end figures in each country and excluding unconfirmed additional drone strikes in Yemen) and 4,734 (using high-end figures and including the additional Yemen strikes).  A team at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth found 2,938 deaths in Pakistan, 345 in Yemen, and 13 in Somalia, for a total of 3,296. Long War Journal puts the Pakistan figure at 2,730 and the Yemen figure at 677, for a total of 3,407. The New America Foundation counts 2,080 to 3,428 deaths in Pakistan and 781 to 1,024 deaths in Yemen, for a total of 2,861 to 4,452.

The Long War Journal and New America Foundation numbers exclude strikes in Somalia, which BIJ found killed 10-24 people, and the Mass-Dartmouth team estimates killed 13.

And all of these figures exclude deaths from drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya in the course of active warfare in those countries; in 2012, BIJ found that the US and the UK had carried out at least 1,200 drone strikes in those countries, and strikes in Afghanistan continue to this day. Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times has also reported that there was at least one strike in the Philippines, any casualties from which aren't included here.

2. That includes hundreds of civilians

BIJ estimates that between 450 and 1,090 civilians have been killed in US drone strikes. Long War Journal counts 256 civilians, Mass-Dartmouth counts 191, and New America Foundation counts 339 to 394; BIJ counts 0-1 civilian deaths in Somalia, so its counts are pretty comparable to Long War Journal's and New America Foundation's, which don't include Somalia.

Those numbers are substantially deflated by excluding deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, for which it's hard to find good multiyear data. The UN reports that 59 civilians were killed in Afghanistan drone strikes last year, triple the number in 2012.

3. Many of the civilians killed were children

BIJ is the only group that tracks this, but they count 175 to 394 children killed in drone strikes so far.


A boy holds up a sign reading "Why did you kill my father" during a demonstration to protest U.S. drone attacks on April 24, 2014 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

4. The definition of "non-civilian" the White House uses when assessing drone strikes is ridiculous bordering on obscene

According to Jo Becker and Scott Shane at the New York Times, the White House "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants." That makes it easy for, say, then-White House adviser, now-CIA director John Brennan to say in 2011 that "there hasn’t been a single collateral [civilian] death" from drone strikes in Pakistan in the previous year. But there are obviously men in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia who are totally innocent of any involvement in al-Qaeda, Taliban, or other targeted terrorist groups who may be incorrectly classified as "militants."

Casualty tracking groups don't subscribe to the White House's definition but they are produced by aggregating media reports of strikes, which may or may not correctly identify people as militants or as civilians. A joint NYU/Stanford report on the drone program found that in 74 percent of the articles the New America Foundation used to come to its casualty count, the sole source for the number of "militants" killed was an anonymous official, who obviously could have incentives to misclassify civilian casualties as militant casualties. For that reason, both the NYU/Stanford researchers and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic recommend relying on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's civilian casualty numbers, which are notably higher than those reported by Long War Journal or New America. However, Avery Plaw, one of the Mass-Dartmouth researchers, has argued that the New America and Bureau numbers both overestimate the number of civilians killed. Regardless of which data you look at, though, the civilian death toll is in the hundreds.

5. We sometimes bomb first responders helping victims of an initial drone strike

This is known as a "double tap" and in 2012 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that the Obama administration had killed at least 50 civilians in the course of double tap strikes up to that point. That doesn't include the more than 20 deaths at drone strikes that hit funerals and mourners. Last year, the Bureau found evidence that the practice had continued in 2012. Drone operator Brandon Bryant seemed to confirm the practice on a Facebook thread, writing, "How many of you have killed a group of people, watched as their bodies are picked up, watched the funeral, then killed them too?"

6. "Double tap" drone strikes are war crimes

An Amnesty International report last year also documented apparent double tap strikes, noting that, "deliberately attacking civilians rescuing the wounded, or the wounded themselves, is a war crime." Christof Heynes, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, has said that if "there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime."

7. At least two of our strikes in Yemen violated international law

That's according to Human Rights Watch, which found that the strikes "struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons." But that's hardly a full accounting of the drone program's international law violations. "The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm, determinations that require further investigation," the report continues. "In several of these cases the US also did not take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, as the laws of war require."

8. Very few of the people we've killed with drones are high-ranking al-Qaeda members

Getting good information on this is even trickier than getting overall death counts or civilian death counts, but the New America Foundation reports that only about 2 percent of those killed by drones in Pakistan were "militant leaders."

9. We sometimes target people with drones whose identities we don't even know

These are called "signature strikes" and while there was a tentative AP report this summer that they had ceased, they at least were used for years, and as recently as December a Congressional attempt to ban them failed. A signature strike, the Washington Post's Greg Miller explains, "hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives," rather than upon intelligence about a specific person's involvement in al-Qaeda, and intelligence about their location.

As you can imagine, there are some problems with that idea. Dayna Greenfield at The Atlantic notes that the strikes "open the door to a much higher incidence of civilian casualties." Cora Currier and Justin Elliott at ProPublica have a great explanation of how this can happen:

In one apparent signature strike two years ago, unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press that they had targeted a group that "was heavily armed, some of its members were connected to Al Qaeda, and all ‘acted in a manner consistent with AQ (Al Qaeda)-linked militants.’" The U.S. said about 20 militants were killed. But Pakistani officials said it had been a meeting of tribesmen and villagers provided evidence to the AP that 38 civilians were killed.

10. There's strong reason to believe drone strikes don't save lives

There have been a few studies claiming to show that drone strikes are effective against al-Qaeda, but it's hard to interpret them in a way that shows they actually save lives. The RAND Corporation's Patrick Johnston and UCLA's Anoop Sarbahi have found that a single drone strike reduces the number of people killed in militant strikes by about 25 percent, but that translates to something like a single person saved per week.

If even one civilian is hit in that drone strike, then, it didn't save any civilian lives, and if you weight the lives of targeted militants even a little bit (especially because, again, they may or may not be correctly identified as non-civilians) then the strikes never save lives on net. Of course, it's possible that the realistic alternative to drone strikes is other military actions — like Pakistan military raids — that bring a higher death tolls, but compared to a baseline where neither the US nor Pakistan takes action, it's hard to see how the strikes save lives.

And, of course, that's just one study, and the evidence on the use of strikes against terrorist groups is very mixed. It's totally possible further research will show a bigger effect. But there's not much evidence right now that the effect of the strikes is large enough to swamp their direct human cost. And there's definitely no evidence that they prevent terrorist attacks in the US, not least because we have basically no evidence that anything works to prevent terrorist attacks in the US.


Nasser al Awlaki, father of radical online preacher Anwar al Awlaki (also spelled al-Aulaqi) and grandfather of 16-year-old Abdulrahman, pictured in foreground. His son and grandson, both born in the US, were killed in separate US drone attacks. Photo by Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

11. We've killed at least four US citizens in drone strikes

Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who was born in America but later became an al-Qaeda operative in Yemen, was killed in a drone strike in 2011, as was his American-born 17-year-old son (in a subsequent strike) and Samir Khan, a North Carolina native who died in the same strike as the adult al-Awlaki. Ahmed Hijazi, also an American citizen living in Yemen, was killed by a drone strike in 2002.

12. The government won't explain why they think they're allowed to kill US citizens in drone strikes

This debate has heated up since the White House nominated former Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron for a federal appellate judgeship. Barron, as head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote at least two memos justifying the killing of al-Awlaki with Deputy Assistant Attorney General Martin Lederman, the first fairly brief, and the second a much more comprehensive, 63-page document written after they became aware of statute prohibiting Americans from murdering each other abroad; both were written in 2010, before the actual killing. The latter has been been made available to members of the Senate, and a white paper defending the attack was leaked to and released by NBC News last year, but neither of the actual memos are publicly available. What's more, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein has said that there are at least eleven memos from the Office of Legal Counsel on the drone program, though it's unknown how many were written by Barron.

13. A court has ordered the government to release parts of a memo justifying the drone killing of an American and weeks later it still hasn't

This is the second, detailed memo that Barron and Lederman wrote. Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that key portions of it must be publicly released in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act; the ruling derived from suits filed by the New York Times' Scott Shane and Charlie Savage and the ACLU. But the ruling hasn't prompted the Justice Department to release excerpts from the memo yet.

14. Drone operators can't be killed in combat, but they can get PTSD

GQ's Matthew Power profiled Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his time carrying out remote strikes. Reading Bryant's account of the first strike he ordered, it isn't hard to see why:

"The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there's this guy over here, and he's missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he's rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it's hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on."

A study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center's Jean Lin Otto and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences' Bryant Webber found that drone pilots were just as likely as regular pilots to be diagnosed with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. That said, another study, by Kent McDonald and Wayne Chappelle of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, found at most 4 percent of drone pilots are at risk for PTSD, compared to 12-17 percent of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. But the danger is still significant, and the study also found significant amounts of stress and about half of drone operators were found to have "high operational stress."

15. The world hates the drone program

This map, courtesy of Zack Beauchamp, makes the point well:


As does this chart:


Kenya, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, and the US are the only countries the Pew Research Center surveyed where more people approved of the program than disapproved. But just about every other country — including allies like Japan and Britain — opposes the program.

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