The US government has described drone airstrikes in operations outside declared theaters of armed conflict as surgical and causing minimal civilian casualties. Analysis of air operations in Afghanistan, combined with a review of open-source reports for drone strikes in Pakistan, suggest that these fell short of intended goals. Specifically, drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement. Specific causal factors were identified that contributed to the relative propensity of drones to cause civilian casualties. Tailored training that addresses these causal factors could aid in reducing civilian casualties in engagements involving drones. While processes and operating forces in Afghanistan can differ from those in operations outside declared theaters of armed conflict, the factors above suggest that a dedicated analysis of civilian casualties in such operations would be worthwhile.
Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Enduring Lessons
The United States has long been committed to upholding the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and minimizing collateral damage, which includes civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and unintended damage to civilian objects (facilities, equipment, or other property that is not a military objective). In support of these goals, the U.S. military developed capabilities for precision engagements and accurately identifying targets, such as the development of refined targeting processes and predictive tools to better estimate and minimize collateral damage. These capabilities permitted the conduct of combat operations with lower relative numbers of civilian casualties compared to past operations. However, despite these efforts, and while maintaining compliance with the laws of war, the U.S. military found over the past decade that these measures were not always sufficient for meeting the goal of minimizing civilian casualties when possible. Resulting civilian casualties ran counter to U.S. desires and public statements that the United States did “everything possible” to avoid civilian casualties, and therefore caused negative second-order effects that impacted U.S. national, strategic, and operational interests.
Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations
In general, operations during the first half of the decade were often marked by numerous missteps and challenges as the US government and military applied a strategy and force suited for a different threat and environment. Operations in the second half of the decade often featured successful adaptation to overcome these challenges. From its study of these operations, JCOA identified overarching, enduring lessons for the joint force that present opportunities for the US to learn and improve, best practices that the US can sustain, and emerging risk factors that the US should address. These lessons were derived from JCOA’s 46 studies during this past decade and vetted through the Joint Staff J7-sponsored Decade of War working group in May 2012; input from working group members was consolidated into this report. This initial effort is envisioned to be the first volume in a sustained, multi-phased effort to identify critical, high-level lessons for the joint force.