Do drones cause MORE civilian casualties, not fewer?

Dr Ann Rogers has argued that rather than reducing civilian casualties (due to their ‘precision’ targeting and comprehensive imaging capabilities) the use of drones actually increases total civilian deaths. She states that the belief that drones are ‘more accurate and therefore less damaging’ leads military planners to carry out many more attacks than they would with conventional weaponry.

Certainly this is borne out by the evidence. Thousands of attacks involving drones have been carried out on a variety of fronts, from Iraq, to Gaza, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, by the US, UK and Israel, without leaving the impression that major warfare has been engaged in. The main quality that supports these drone encounters is high quality imaging and persistence. Rogers points out that these capabilities also lead to identifying a very large number of targets, and therefore causing many more deaths.

Rogers’ conclusion can be supported from a different perspective. Many claim that Israel has ‘the world’s most moral army’. The Israeli government claims to seek to avoid civilian casualties, and goes to extreme lengths to deflect blame for civilian deaths onto Israel’s enemies. Yet the civilian death rate from Israel’s successive attacks on Gaza is roughly the same, or higher, than the civilian death rate from Syrian President Assad’s attacks on Syrian rebels.** (Shouldn’t the world’s most moral army have a lower civilian casualty rate?) Israel has lauded the heavy use of drones for surveillance and targeting in Operation Protective Edge, its most recent incursion into Gaza. But it is clear that Protective Edge ended only when the number of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure had reached the saturation level, and more killing would have ended support from many of Israel’s key allies. Using drones in this case saved no civilian lives. Although it is perhaps unfair to compare the conflicts directly, it may nevertheless be instructive that the conflict involving heavy use of drones (Operation Protective Edge) had a roughly equivalent or higher civilian death rate than the conflict (Syria) in which persistent drones are not a significant factor.

**52-70% in the case of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza,  31% in the case of Syria

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