Some Concerning Statistics on Drones

Several months ago, I posted this brief item:

Snarkiest Headline on the Torturously Slow Winding Down of the Afghanistan War

I receive a number of e-mailed newsletters from political blogs, and this was the headline of the daily newsletter from HuffPost Hill:

How Do You Ask a Drone to Be the Last Drone to Crash for a Mistake?


Then, in last week’s e-mail, I received the following news alert from the Washington Post:

More Than 400 U.S. Military Drones Crashed Since 2001

U.S. military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways over the past decade, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to a yearlong Washington Post investigation.

Documents obtained by The Post detail scores of previously unreported crashes involving remotely controlled aircraft, challenging the federal government’s assurances that drones will be able to fly safely over populated areas and in the same airspace as passenger planes.


It seemed to me that the fact that over 400 drones have been lost is significant not just because of the implications for the expanded civilian use of drones but also because of the implications for the continued military use of drones.

To place the loss of 400 drones in perspective, the following passage from the article “Bomber in Chief: 20,000 Airstrikes in the President’s First Term Cause Death and Destruction from Iraq to Somalia,” written by Nicholas J.S. Davies and published by AlterNet on January 20, 2013 [available at]:

“Many people around the world are disturbed by U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The illusion that American drones can strike without warning anywhere in the world without placing Americans in harm’s way makes drones dangerously attractive to U.S. officials, even as they fuel the cycle of violence that the “war on terror” falsely promised to end but has instead escalated and sought to normalize. But drone strikes are only the tip of an iceberg, making up less than 10 percent of at least 20,130 air strikes the U.S. has conducted in other countries since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

“The U.S. dropped 17,500 bombs during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It conducted 29,200 air strikes during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. air forces conducted at least another 3,900 air strikes in Iraq over the next eight years, before the Iraqi government finally negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces. But that pales next to at least 38,100 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan since 2002, a country already occupied by U.S. and NATO forces, with a government pledged by its U.S. overlords to bring peace and justice to its people.

“The Obama administration is responsible for at least 18,274 air strikes in Afghanistan since 2009, including at least 1,160 by pilotless drones. The U.S. conducted at least 116 air strikes in Iraq in 2009 and about 1,460 of NATO’s 7,700 strikes in Libya in 2011.  While the U.S. military does not publish figures on “secret” air and drone strikes in other countries, press reports detail a fivefold increase over Bush’s second term, with at least 303 strikes in Pakistan, 125 in Yemen, and 16 in Somalia.”


So, if 10%, or somewhat fewer than 2,000 of the air strikes during President Obama’s first term were conducted by drones, and if there has been a fivefold increase in drone attacks during the Obama presidency compared to the Bush administration, then at most there have been 2,400 air strikes conducted by drones.

And 400 drones have been lost. Or one drone has been lost for every successful military strike that has been completed.

So, beyond all of the broader moral issues surrounding the use of drones to target military and political opponents, there appear to be issues with the basic efficacy of the weapons. On the one hand, it is obviously preferable to lose unmanned aircraft than to lose manned aircraft or even to put pilots at risk. On the other hand, drones are not cheap, especially if they are large enough to deliver significant payloads onto complex targets. Even granting that drones serve many functions beyond launching air strikes, unless we have tens of thousands of drones deployed in southwest Asia, the crash rate and attendant cost seems unexpectedly high.

And returning to the point of the Washington Post item, it suggests that your Amazon delivery by drone may have a high probability of ending with the drone stuck in your roof or crashing through your living room window.

Wherever we are headed with this technology, we don’t seem to be quite there yet.


One thought on “Some Concerning Statistics on Drones

  1. As Malcolm Gladwell (of “Blink” fame) pointed out in one of his C-Span televised lectures, this technology will dramatically escalate the risks of terrorism as its widespread commercialization facilitates the means to their goals.

    Who needs to be physically present to drop off pressure cooker bombs at marathons or parades when a small drone is available?

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