Study: Afghan drone strikes resulted in 10 times more civilian casualties than manned air strikes

photo credit:
Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Madison Ruppert
Activist Post

A new study conducted by a U.S. military adviser examining a year of drone strikes in Afghanistan has determined that drone strikes resulted in 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes carried out by manned aircraft.

This is especially interesting given the radically understated claims about the number of civilians killed by drone strikes made in the past and claims made by Obama himself.

The study also contradicts the claims made by Obama in a May speech in which he said that “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.”

The unclassified executive summary of the study states that drone strikes in Afghanistan were “an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.”

That quite clearly and directly contradicts the government’s claims.

The study used classified military data on air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011 which includes the civilian casualties caused by the strikes. This period included the most air strikes during the entire war in Afghanistan.

The study was co-authored by Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center.

Lewis told the Guardian that missile strikes carried out by drones were a staggering 10 times more deadly to civilians in Afghanistan than air strikes conducted by fighter jets.

Lewis, who serves as an adviser to the military’s Joint Staff, has also carried out six previous studies for the military on civilian casualties in Afghanistan and other issues.

“The fact that I had been looking at air operations in Afghanistan for a number of years led me to suspect that what I found was in fact the case,” Lewis said to the Guardian.

Lewis and Sarah Holewinski of the non-governmental organization Center for Civilians in Conflict, his co-author, referred to Lewis’ findings in a Center for Complex Operations at the Defense Department’s National Defense University journal called PRISM.

Currently, the latest issue of PRISM available online is from December 2012.

The “potential for [citizens to be] surprised” by the higher rates of civilians killed in drone strikes led Lewis and Holewinski to refer to the findings in the journal even though they couldn’t provide specific figures.

According to Lewis, he couldn’t provide specific figures due to the fact that the information is itself classified.

The PRISM article doesn’t specifically refer to the finding that drones are 10 times more likely to kill civilians than manned aircraft.

According to Holewinski, the major difference in the number of civilian casualties can be at least partially attributed to the greater training to avoid civilian casualties received by fighter pilots.

“These findings show us that it’s not about the technology, it’s about how the technology is used,” Holewinski said.

“Drones aren’t magically better at avoiding civilians than fighter jets,” she said. “When pilots flying jets were given clear directives and training on civilian protection, they were able to lower civilian casualty rates.”

Lewis and Holewinski point out that the demand for more drone strikes by commanders creates a great pressure to reduce the training received by drone operators.

“Adding or improving training on civilian casualty prevention is a resource decision in direct tension with the increasing demand for more UAS [unmanned aerial systems] and more operations, since additional training on civilian protection means time must be taken from somewhere else including the mission itself,” Lewis and Holewinski state in the article.

This information may lead to more scrutiny by international bodies.

“This data from Afghanistan, if accurate, suggests that the precision may be overstated in some contexts, and requires us to dig deeper into strike practices,” said Sarah Knuckley, adviser to the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.

The UN special rapporteur is currently investigating civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes.

“The key question raised is: What explains the discrepancy between civilian casualties from UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] and manned aircraft strikes?” Knuckley asked. “To enable fair external assessment, the government should release the underlying data, redacted as necessary.”

The revelation may lead to further questioning of the use of drones in war zones as well.

“Under the laws of war, if there are two weapon systems that offer roughly equal capacity to overcome an adversary, the weapon which could be expected to inflict the least civilian casualties must be employed,” Ryan Goodman, professor at New York University school of law, said to the Guardian. “This is a widely understood rule in the laws of war.”

However, Lewis and Holewinski were hesitant to draw any conclusions about the rates of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes outside of Afghanistan.

Holewinski did note that U.S. forces in Afghanistan are more easily able to conduct investigations after strikes to determine the number of militants and civilians killed than they can in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.

In the areas outside Afghanistan where the CIA and the military conduct drone strikes, “the only information you’re really getting is from the drone,” according to Holewinski.

“You’re looking from 10,000 feet or wherever the drone is, and counting the bodies or the cars destroyed,” she said. “How do you know who was in them, [and] whether they were civilians or combatants?”

Thanks to the Obama administration’s method of counting combatants, those kinds of determinations are quite easy. Is it a military-age male? Then the administration considers them a militant unless posthumously proven innocent by explicit intelligence.

Spencer Ackerman, writing for the Guardian, states that “Lewis said the ‘general principle’ about the relative imprecision of drones outside of Afghanistan was more important than the specific ratio of deaths they caused compared to manned fighters.”

Ultimately, Lewis concluded that he has “never seen any use of any weapons system in any kind of warfare that doesn’t have room for improvement.”

’d love to hear your opinion, take a look at your story tips and even your original writing if you would like to get it published. I am also available for interviews on radio, television or any other format. Please email me at

Please support our work and help us start to pay contributors by doing your shopping through our Amazon link or check out some must-have products at our store.

This article first appeared at End the Lie.

Madison Ruppert is the Editor and Owner-Operator of the alternative news and analysis database End The Lie and has no affiliation with any NGO, political party, economic school, or other organization/cause. He is available for podcast and radio interviews. Madison also now has his own radio show on UCYTV Monday nights 7 PM – 9 PM PT/10 PM – 12 AM ET. Show page link here: http://UCY.TV/EndtheLie. If you have questions, comments, or corrections feel free to contact him at

var linkwithin_site_id = 557381;

linkwithin_text=’Related Articles:’

Activist Post Daily Newsletter

Subscription is FREE and CONFIDENTIAL
Free Report: How To Survive The Job Automation Apocalypse with subscription

Be the first to comment on "Study: Afghan drone strikes resulted in 10 times more civilian casualties than manned air strikes"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.