killed by drones

Here’s How Many People Were Killed By Drones

The US reveals little about civilians killed by drones, raising doubts and suspicions while fleets grow and AI looms.

What’s known

As many as 116 civilians have been killed by drones, according to 2016 data released by the White House. The deaths occurred between 2009 and 2015, during 473 strikes that killed as many as 2.581 combatants.  But the number of civilian deaths is likely much higher, since the White House numbers did not include drone strikes from Afghanistan Iraq or Syria.

Why The Numbers Matter So Much

For years, journalists and watchdog groups have sought data from about the number of civilians killed accidentally by drones.  The information is vital to determining if the strikes cause excessive civilian casualties , a concept known as proportionality, in military and human rights terms.

Calculating civilian casualty ratios from 2016 drone data suggests a 1:25 civilian death ratio (about 1 civilian killed by drones for every 25 combatants), or about a 4% rate of civilian deaths.

For comparison, civilian death ratios in World War I were 2:3, or about 40% civilian casualties.

There are no guidelines or rules about the proportionality of civilians killed by drones, and the numbers can vary wildly.   For instance, in Pakistan some have estimated civilian death ratio to be as high as 1:10 (about 10% civilian deaths).

killed by drones

What’s Unknown

Calculating an accurate number of civilians killed by drones remains an impossible task due to the secrecy of the CIA and military groups who run the programs.  For instance:[contextly_sidebar id=”o7EstfUoP3stCxD4tY9rDZsX0cMVpQxa”]

  • The US has not released data from Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, where thousands of additional  drone strikes are thought to have occurred
  • Locations of the strikes remain un-mapped, along with breakdowns of the nationality, sex and age of civilians killed by drones
  • The methodology for calculating civilian deaths is suspect, Sometimes all males of combat age are automatically counted as enemy combatants

Military Rationale

From a military perspective, proponents of drone use cite their surgical precision and flexibility, especially for counter-terrorism efforts. Compared to traditional tactics that use troops on the ground or manned aircraft , military strategists value drones for reasons that include:

  • The ability to hit targets without putting troops on the ground
  • Being able to collect intelligence and strike targets from the same unmanned drone platform
  • Rapid technological advancements in drone sensors, armaments and intelligence-gathering capabilities
  • Legal flexibility, since the US Congress and other authorities excersize little oversight over drone strikes

Future Drone Technology

The exact number of armed drones that the US has remains a secret. But the US Air Force is planning to double the number of pilots who remotely fly their drones.

The capabilities of military drones is also expected to increase due to the application of new technology. Examples include:

  • Machine-learning artificial intelligence (AI) that uses new algorithms for targeting
  • The ability for remote pilots to control semi-autonomous squads of drones
  • New munitions, extended range, improved data transfer and the ability to turn existing aircraft (F-16’s, etc) into drones



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Ole Skaar