Last updated on: 1/30/2024 | Author:

History of U.S. Drone Strikes Abroad

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, are remotely-controlled aircraft which may be armed with missiles and bombs for attack missions. Since the World Trade Center attacks on Sep. 11, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror,” the United States has used thousands of drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries.

Click for an Encyclopaedia Britannica video about the evolution of military drone use and see how the same technology is enjoyed by hobbyists.

Earliest Drones

The first recorded unmanned air strike occurred on July 15, 1849, when the Habsburg Austrian Empire launched 200 pilotless balloons armed with bombs against the revolution-minded citizens of Venice. During the U.S. Civil War, both the Union and Confederate sides sent balloons loaded with explosives and time-sensitive triggers over the opponents, though the strategy was ineffective. [1] [89]

The modern electronically-controlled military drone traces its origins to the 1930s when the British Royal Navy developed the Queen Bee, a radio-controlled drone used for aerial target practice by British pilots. Between Nov. 1944 and Apr. 1945, Japan released more than 9,000 bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific, intending to cause forest fires and panic in the western United States in operation “Fu-Go.” Most of the balloons caused minimal damage or fell in the Pacific Ocean, but more than 300 made their way into the U.S. and Canada. Because the U.S. government, in concert with the American press, kept the balloons a secret, the Japanese believed the tactic ineffective and abandoned the project. [87] [88] [89

What Is a Drone?

Companies have developed dozens of drone models ranging in size from large, solar-powered fixed-wing aircraft to small hummingbird-mimicking helicopter-like drones, all with a wide variety of capabilities and ranging in cost from $600 to at least $103.7 million. The starting price for a weaponized drone in 2013 was about $15 million. [91] [123]

The two most widely-used weaponized drones are the MQ-1 Predator (which the U.S. military officially retired on Mar. 9, 2018) and the upgraded MQ-9 Reaper, both developed by military contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The Predator drones were first flown in June 1994 and deployed by NATO in 1995 in the Balkans during the Bosnian Serbian war, while the Reaper was first deployed in Oct. 2007 in Afghanistan. [90] [91] [92] [124] [125]

The Reaper, flown remotely by pilots, can cruise for 27 hours, get close-up views from 10,000 feet, and carries Hellfire missiles as well as both laser- and GPS-guided bombs. [128]

Cost of Drones

According to an analysis by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2018 budget request included $6.97 billion for drone research, development, and procurement, as well as system-specific construction, a five-year high and 21% more than the enacted fiscal year 2017 drone budget. The largest drone line item in the fiscal year 2018 proposed budget is the MQ-9 Reaper at $1.23 billion. [126]

The fiscal year 2019 Department of Defense drone budget request increased to $9.39 billion, including adding 3,447 new drones, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone, which ceased research in spring 2020. [127]

A single Reaper drone costs about $14 million in 2008. That figure rose to $32 million by June 10, 2020, making the Reaper more expensive than a top-end AH-64E Apache helicopter. [128]

While budgets and costs have undoubtedly increased, numbers are difficult to impossible to come by as fewer organizations track military drones and drone spending.

Bush Administration & the War on Terror

On Sep. 7, 2000, the CIA sent the first unarmed drone to fly over Afghanistan. In late Sep., an unarmed drone spotted Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, who was then wanted for his role in financing and organizing terrorist attacks against American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. The drone reportedly observed bin Laden for four hours and 23 minutes at Tarnak Farms, an al-Qaeda camp. Because there was no guarantee the cruise missiles could strike bin Laden, the CIA lobbied to have Hellfire missiles, which are lightweight anti-tank missiles, attached to the Predator drone. [129] [130]

The newly armed drones were being tested when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sep. 11, 2001. The first drone strike in Afghanistan, piloted by Air Force operators controlled by CIA analysts, happened on Oct. 7, 2001, a failed attempt to kill Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in Nov. 2001, when a Predator killed Muhammad Atef, al-Qaeda’s military commander. [129] [130]

President Bush signed a directive creating a secret list of High Value Targets, allowing the CIA to kill the listed people without further presidential approval. The CIA under the Bush Administration mostly engaged in “personality” strikes targeting known terrorists whose identities had been firmly established through intelligence, including visual surveillance and electronic and human intelligence. In 2008, the CIA began a policy of “signature strikes” against targets outside of named kill lists, targeting individuals based on their “pattern of life” or their suspicious daily behavior. In Pakistan in 2009 and 2010, as many as half of the 170 strikes were classified as signature strikes. [54] [90] [105]

The United States operates drones with the tacit consent of the leaders of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The parliaments and governing bodies of these countries, however, often issued public statements blasting the strikes, and public sentiment has been strongly anti-drone. [49] [79] [80] [81] [82] [83] [84] [85] [106] [107] [108] [109]

Number of Strikes and Casualties

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been at least 14,040 confirmed strikes between Jan. 2002 and Jan. 2019. Between 8,858 and 16,901 people have been killed, including 910 to 2,200 civilians, and 283 to 454 civilians. [131]

The organization counted at least 336 strikes in Yemen between Jan. 2002 and Jan 2019, with a peak of 50 strikes in Mar. 2017. The strikes resulted in 1020 to 1389 people reported killed, among them between 174 and 225 civilians and 44 to 50 children. An additional 155 to 303 people were injured by drone strikes in Yemen. [131]

In Pakistan, between Jan. 2005 and Jan. 2018, there were at least 430 confirmed drone strikes, with a peak of 23 strikes in Sep. 2010. At least 2515 to 4026 people were reported killed, with a minimum of 424 civilians and a minimum of 172 children among those killed. An additional 1162 to 1749 were reported injured. [131]

There were at least 202 confirmed drone strikes in Somalia between Jan. 2007 and Feb. 2020, with a peak of 15 strikes in Feb. 2019. Between 1,197 and 1,410 people were killed, among them between 12 and 97 civilians and up to 13 children. Another 39 to 58 were injured by drone strikes in Somalia. [131]

At least 13,072 drone strikes were carried out in Afghanistan between Jan. 2015 and Mar. 2020, with a peak of 1,113 strikes in Sep. 2019. Between 4,126 and 10,076 people were killed, with between 300 and 909 being civilians and between 66 and 184 being children. An additional 658 to 1,769 people were injured by the strikes. [131]

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism shuttered in the spring 2020, leaving researchers without an independent source for the number of drone strikes and casualties.

Public Outcry

In a Freedom of Information Act request filed on Jan. 13, 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the government to disclose the legal and factual basis for its use of drones to conduct targeted killings abroad. In particular, they sought to find out when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killings. A federal appeals court judge ruled on Mar. 15, 2013 that the CIA can no longer assert the “fiction” that it can’t reveal if it has a drone program. [110] [111] [112]

Much of the public outcry about drones has been about the government’s secrecy and lack of transparency about the drone strikes and how many civilians are killed. Under the stewardship of John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser from Jan. 20, 2009 to Mar. 8, 2013, officials spent months discussing how to be more transparent about a program that was still officially secret and how to define its limits. [117]

On May 23, 2013, Obama released “Fact Sheet: U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities” establishing five criteria that must be met before lethal action may be taken against a foreign target: 

“1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present; 

2) Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; 

3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation; 

4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and 

5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.” [33]

President Obama gave a speech the same day at the National Defense University outlining his justification for the drone program and promising more transparency and tighter policies toward targeted killings. Obama stated in the speech that the United States would only take military action against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” [10]

On Oct. 15, 2015, the “Drone Papers,” a collection of classified documents about the U.S. drone program were released by an anonymous whistleblower. Among the revelations were that as many as 90 percent of U.S. drone killings in a five-month period were not the intended targets, and that unintended deaths from strikes were classified as “enemies killed in action” regardless of whether the casualties were civilians or combatants. [120] [121] [122] [132] [133]

On July 1, 2016, Obama issued an executive order with the goal of making the drones program more transparent. Among the polices were measures to reduce civilian casualties, acknowledgment of civilians killed in strikes, and an annual report on the number of strikes outside of active hostilities, the number of casualties broken down by combatants and noncombatants, and reasons for discrepancies between government and nongovernment organizations’ casualty counts. [134] [135]

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump revoked the July 1, 2016 executive order in 2019, stating “This action eliminates superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.” Rights groups and lawmakers decried the enhanced secrecy and apparent lack of accountability. [136]

In July 2020, the Trump administration also loosened rules on exporting military armed drones to foreign nations, a practice that was previously de facto banned. [138]

In the first two years of the Trump administration, there were 2,243 drone strikes, compared to 1,878 in the eight years of the Obama administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars reported 40 airstrikes in Somalia between Jan. 1, 2020 and May 18, 2020, compared to 41 airstrikes in Somalia from 2007 to 2016. [136] [137]

A Jan. 23, 2020 poll, after the Jan. 3 drone strikes that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, found that 35% of Americans agree that drone strikes are a “very effective way to achieve US foreign policy,” an increase from 23% in 2015. Fewer people believe signing international agreements (29%), sanctions (23%), or military intervention (17%) are very effective. Meanwhile, 47% supported President Trump’s decision to order the strikes that killed Soleimani and others. [140141]

Biden Administration

In October 2022, the Biden Administration tightened rules for drone strikes, including requiring that drone operators get permission from President Joe Biden himself to “target a suspected militant outside a conventional war zone” and operators “must have ‘near certainty’ at the moment of any strike that civilians will not be injured.” Strikes are also limited to operations in which capture by a commando raid is not feasible. Targets who are American trigger more extensive reviews. [158]

After continued Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea and American forces in Jordan, President Biden authorized strikes against Houthi targets in the Red Sea and Yemen (where the Houthi movement is centered) with support from the United Kingdom. The Department of Defense has not confirmed which weapons are being used against Houthi forces, but experts believe Standard Missile-2 are being shot from warships in the Red Sea (meaning a $2.1 million missiles are being used against drones that cost $2,000 at most). [159] [160] [161] [162] [163] [164]