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Drones are cheap, soldiers are not: a cost-benefit analysis of war

Cost is largely absent in the key debates around the use of unmanned drones in war, even though drones are a cost-effective way of achieving national security objectives. Many of the common objections…

A MQ-9 Reaper Drone has an operational cost one-fifth of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. So should drones replace soldiers in military warfare? US Air Force

Cost is largely absent in the key debates around the use of unmanned drones in war, even though drones are a cost-effective way of achieving national security objectives.

Many of the common objections to drones, such as their ambiguous place in humanitarian law, become second-tier issues when the cost benefits are laid out. For strategic military planners, cost efficiencies mean that economic outputs can be more effectively translated into hard military power. This means that good intentions concerned with restricting the use of drones are likely to remain secondary.

This pattern of cost-trumping-all has historical precedents. The cheap English longbow rendered the expensive (but “honourable”) horse-and-knight combination redundant in the 14th century. Later, the simple and cost-effective design of the machine gun changed centuries of European military doctrine in just a few years.

Drones are cheap

These basic principals are visible in the emergence of drones. For example, according to the American Security Project, unclassified reports show that the MQ-9 Reaper drone used for attacks in Pakistan has a single unit cost of US$6.48 million and an operational cost of close to US$3 million.

This latter figure is deceptive, however, as a full drone “system” requires a larger infrastructure to operate. Therefore, a typical reaper drone in a group of four on an active mission requires two active pilots, a ground station, and a secured data link. However, even with this significant infrastructure requirement the end cost is US$3250 per hour of flight time.

In contrast, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – which the Australian government recently announced it will buy 58 more of – costs nearly US$91 million per unit, almost US$5 million per year to operate and $16,500 per hour of flight.

While drones will never completely replace soldiers, this debate is becoming less important in the current strategic climate. The operating environments where drones are deployed – countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen – do not emphasise “hearts and minds” strategies where the human element has traditionally been valued as a force multiplier.

Instead, objectives in these countries involve attacks on specific individuals, with operational data obtained by signal intelligence beforehand. Human contact becomes even less desirable given that a key tactic of combatants in these weak states is attrition with the aim of creating low-level civil conflicts. The end goal of these actions is to inflict high economic costs to the adversary.

As a result, this remote and analytical method of engaging militarily leads to substantial cost efficiencies.

Soldiers are expensive

While military budgets get smaller, the cost of the human soldier remains expensive. For example, each US solider deployed in Afghanistan in 2012 cost the government US$2.1 million.

These costs are only part of the picture, though. Thanks to medical advances, soldiers are now more likely to survive catastrophic battleground injuries than in the past. For instance, during the Iraq and Afghan operations there were seven injuries to each fatality compared to 2.3 in World War Two and 3.8 in World War One.

This increasing likelihood of survival means a greater need for long-term support of veterans. US operations in the Middle East over the past 13 years have resulted in 1558 major limb amputations and 118,829 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. There have also been 287,911 episodes of traumatic brain injury, often caused by a soldier’s close proximity to mortar attacks.

Soldiers are now more likely to survive catastrophic battleground injuries than in the past. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

The most serious of these injuries can incur more than 50 years of rehabilitation and medical costs, with most victims in their early 20s. For example a typical “polytrauma”, where a soldier has experienced multiple traumatic injuries, has a calculated annual health care cost of US$136,000.

When rehabilitative hardware such as bionic legs is added – which can cost up to US$150,000 – the expeditures are considerable over a lifetime. These costs also peak 30 years after conflict and therefore are rarely viewed in context of current operations.

Less severe and less obvious disabilities are even more frequent. Towards the end of 2012, 50% of US veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan (over 780,000), had filed disability claims ranging from military sexual trauma to mesothelioma.

On top of this there are further hidden social costs: veterans account for 20% of US suicides, nearly 50,000 veterans are at risk of homelessness, and one in eight veterans between 2006 and 2008 were referred to counsellors for alcohol abuse.

When these costs are combined, future medical outlay for veterans of the Iraq and Afghan missions are estimated to be US$836.1 billion. In this context, the benefits of solider-less modes of operation to military planners are clear.

Clear choice

From this, we can see how the move towards drones is driven by cost. The US in particular is aware of the danger of choosing “guns over butter”, the economic analogy where there is always a trade-off between investment in defence and domestic prosperity. The US used this to its advantage in the Cold War when the Soviet leadership leaned too heavily towards “guns” by spending around 25% of its budget on defence in the early 1980s. As a result, the domestic economy collapsed and any defensive gains from increased spending were lost.

America’s adversaries are also acquainted with this economic tactic. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s broader strategy was not to inflict damage to the US for the sake of damage itself. Rather, terrorism was part of a larger strategy of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy”.

At the same time, China has been careful not to engage the US in a game of defence spending. It has been prudent in its expenditure, outlaying only 2.2% of its GDP on defence compared to 4.4% for the US. It is also focusing on a steady, rather than rapid collection of “traditional” defence tools, such as a blue water navy. This is because China is emphasising modernisation using new technology rather than the old metric of simple platform numbers.

From this perspective, it seems US military planners have realised the perils of overspending. Drones are viewed as the remedy. Whether this contributes to or harms international stability is yet to be seen.

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. MItchell Lennard

    Researcher - Distributed Energy Systems

    Sorry Wayne but its very difficult for me to find a kind word about this article. Your argument is not at all coherent and based on a series of incorrect assumptions.

    Firstly your reference to 'Drones' seems to be about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
    If this is the case then your discussion would need to compare the cost of the UAV with the equivalent manned aircraft that it has replaced, measured against a particular mission.

    So your cost comparison between F35 and predator is valid in principal…

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    1. Wayne McLean

      Associate Lecturer, Politics and International Relations Program at University of Tasmania

      In reply to MItchell Lennard

      All excellent points Mitchell, and I agree with many of the issues you've pointed out. I'm painting with broad strokes here and there are numerous tangents that could (and should fill) multiple volumes.

      Nonetheless, I'm confident of the the overall point presented here: the drive towards UAVs is driven by economic costs enhanced by their ability to minimise loss of political capital.

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    2. Garry Baker

      researcher

      In reply to MItchell Lennard

      Very good analysis MItchell ... one might add that cost benefits alone are a single ingredient, and others are more important. For a start, a pilot back at control centre in Nevada may not be physically fit enough to continue with real time fighter operations, but he's Ok to operate a UAV over the geography in Sudan.

      Added to this, military forces never need to have a presence in the areas where UAV's loiter (and loitering is their forte) - whereas, by comparison Helicopters a big target, and…

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    3. Warwick Rowell

      Permaculturist at Rowell Consulting Services

      In reply to MItchell Lennard

      Wayne and Mitchell: principle not principal.. UAVs mutated to UAS? Lose not loose. I am a nit-picking Virgo..

      I agree with Mitchell; the info was interesting and challenging Wayne, but you were giving a cost analysis of general operations and their aftermath, which was not relevant to UAV v manned planes.

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    4. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Garry Baker

      Why not state the obvious. They are there to scare the sh* out of civilians, and counter terrorists' camouflaging as civilians. In the end they become a new tool for scaring a population into compliance.

      the way to bring democracy to your hometown?

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    5. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Sorry, terrorists, not counter terrorists. ah well, my English leaves something to wish for at times.

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Mike Brisco

      Sure - war is a tool of state that uses armed conflict to either extend partial or complete hegemony over another state or to prevent another state from doing the same.

      Whether or not it has "benefits" depends very largely I think on where you stand with respect to that hegemonic expansion.

      I think Sun Tzu covers it pretty well
      "war is the most important aspect in the survival of the nation. It is the way of existence and non-existence. It cannot be studied too much"
      "Do not wage war unless you are in danger"
      "The best military strategy is to use superior positioning. After that, use diplomacy. After that, use military force as a threat. Only after all else has failed, attack your enemy"
      "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."
      "There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare."
      “who wishes to fight must first count the cost”

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    2. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Where exactly in there is the rule of law and the application of justice. The legal requirement the government prove it's case is a court of law where the evidence is reviewed and judged.
      Why are foreigners considered sub-human and absent of the human right to justice. Easy and unjust, is evil and worse starts to extend that policy from overseas application to local application.
      Take for example government and police reactions to a protest. By what right do they abridge constitutional rights and…

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    3. wilma western

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      All ok for armchair warriors but both last century and this war is a total catastrophe.

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    4. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Hmm - that's an interesting perspective. What, exactly, is the parallel between criminal activity and war?

      If you understood what Sun Tzu (and by extension I) was saying you might just realise that War should be a last resort and basically only to defend yourself against aggression.

      And Wilma - war pretty much is a catastrophe - in any century.

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    5. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to wilma western

      Hi Wilma,

      I agree. Further, drone are being used on people far from any battlefield and on killing people who are not involved in any war. Maybe some of the "targets" are criminals - maybe not. But, instead of trying these people as crimimals, they are being targeted to be killed by drone strikes.

      You can call anything a "war" - viz the so-called "war on drugs". But calling it a war doesn't make it one.

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    6. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen at Drehmex Sales and Services

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Ah, I think Clausewitz (and by extension I) might think that war is an extension of politics - achieving some desirable objective by a range of techniques.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz
      The use of drones is simply another technique of "killing at a distance" that allows humans to kill other humans without getting their hands dirty or blood on their boots..
      A long and tedious sequence of making gadgets - cave men with clubs, guys with long pointed sticks, men with swords, men…

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    7. Glenn Baker

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Brisco

      Many but to name a few important ones:
      Economic domination.
      Muscle display.
      Showing who is top-dog.
      Keeping the wheels of the armaments industry rolling.
      The creation of national pride.

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    To drive the costs down further we should be resorting to treachery. ;-) Or as the guru for this sort of thing, Tywin Lannister, says of the Red Wedding: "Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner. The price was cheap by any measure."

    The examples of longbows and machine guns are worth discussing. Longbows were cheap in terms of the weapon itself, though they became dearer as English supplies of the appropriate wood ran down (See the Statute of…

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  3. John Blaxland

    Senior Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University

    This is a thought-provoking piece on the economic imperatives for the use of drones in war. There certainly is a case to argue for the use of drones as a cost-saving measure and the Australian Defence Force has become a strong supporter of drone programs in recent years. Experience on operations in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan, for instance, repeatedly demonstrated their utility in providing troops with far greater situational awareness to help save lives – both those of our own forces and of…

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to John Blaxland

      Again and again, this Culture of Entitlement to attack other people in other countries, as, when, where and how we choose to see fit. A whole body of law -not least the Nuremberg trials - says that we are not entitled to wage aggressive war.

      Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard made ISIL what it is today. Drone strikes reinforce its standing. If you want to strengthen ISIL, send in the drones.

      Uruzgan province? If drones are a war-winner, why are we abandoning Afghanistan? As even - excuse the contradiction - military intelligence people have pointed out, we cannot shoot our way to victory. Refusing to accept that - by, for instance, grabbing at drones as some new wonder-weapon - paves the way for our defeat.

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    2. Garry Baker

      researcher

      In reply to John Blaxland

      A well reasoned commentary ... though one might add the arms length nature of UAV operations. The US public don't want more boots on the ground, however they do see UAV's as means of projecting US influence and control.

      As for the Australian military recognising the worth of UAV's - well they had their change long ago with Aerosonde. And yes, they blew it. A project that had few peers in the world with robotic flight - Indeed, so good that a pilot was more or less only needed for take-offs…

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    3. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Couldn't agree more. It's all Bush, Blair and Howard's fault.

      It has absolutely nothing to do with history of shia and sunni slaughtering each other for centuries, or the reaction to years of oppression under Hussein, or the sectarian division practices by Maliki.

      These are mere trifling details, of no consequence to the matter.

      ISIL has absolutely no moral responsibility for the massacre and slaughter of opponents - they are mere pawns - it can all be laid at the feet of the evil powermongering western leaders.

      Thank god for the world being so morally simple and black and white.

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    4. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Bush, Blair and Howard thought like you, thank god for the world being so morally simple and black and white. ISIL is what it is today by virtue of the Imperial Conquest of Iraq in 2003. Bush, Blair and Howard should look on ISIL and say that it is good, because metaphorically, it is theirs.

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  4. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    Technology is not the war-winner that it may seem, especially not of these conflicts.

    Obama and his fellow warmongers may not even be aware that what seems so easy - video game killing - is in fact disproportionately costly asymmetric warfare. America's most senior elected official commits a significant part of his time to the killing of Third World people - many of whom have probably not completed primary school. It must also require huge quantities of resources - supplied at the expense of Americans…

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Possibly; those killed or maimed by Hellfire missiles - including the "bleeders" or "squirters" as the drone operators call them, the people spraying blood from wounds as they run away from the site of a Hellfire impact - may prefer that we focus on the important issues first.

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  5. Susanne Harford

    logged in via Facebook

    FB will not allow me to share this article this morning....

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  6. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    Diggers in WW1 were slaughtered going 'over the top with empty rifles. It was a British order because during bayonet practice when using other soldiers as partners there was a risk of accidently shooting your mate if you had one 'up the spout'. So even during war, not practice, if bayonets were on, the order was the same, 'nothing up the spout. The Turks knew this and sat along the top of their trenches picking off the diggers in complete safety. I've always believed that if you were going to war do it properly, use what ever tactics works, under the Geneiver Convention.

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  7. Jeremy Culberg

    Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

    Where drones come into their own is the huge loiter time over a combat area - they can sit up there for a lot longer than most planes, with no risk to a pilot. The information delivered to the troops doing any fighting on the ground is 'priceless'. In addition, drones can be sent as recon into areas that you wouldn't risk a pilot - is it worth risking a $10M airframe to get the intel? If it swings a battle that involves hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware (and soldiers), then it would…

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  8. Robert Molyneux

    Citizen at Drehmex Sales and Services

    The Terminator movies do quite a good job of showing the end result of using machines to murder humans.
    I think drones look like lots of fun, and I would really like to fly one. The trouble is the missiles they fire seem to be rather imprecise - I have seen some estimates of them killing 20 or so humans when really the objective is to kill only one or two humans.
    Given that every human has maybe 10 or so people that do that strange runny thing with their eyes when one is killed, so maybe every missile…

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  9. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    1. Drone strikes without a declaration of war flout international law.So very soon there will be a free-for-all as drones can be afforded by many nations.

    2. And while there have been covert forces sent out to assassinate key people ( e.g. Iran's nuclear scientists, Osama bin Laden ) at least these examples of international law-breaking don't have civilian deaths as collateral.

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    1. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen at Drehmex Sales and Services

      In reply to wilma western

      But Wilma, George Shrub "declared war on terrorists". A shame that normally this would mean that the USA should fight according to the Geneva Conventions, and that captured "terrorists" should be treated as Prisoners of War - which among other things means they should not be tortured.
      On the other "precision bombing" would normally be applauded, and civilian deaths / "collateral damage" might be of much greater importance.

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  10. Michael Ekin Smyth

    Investor

    These cost benefit analyzes - on both sides of the debate -are remarkable examples of tunnel vision. The Germans word for it is something like spezialistidioten.
    Who cares whether a crewed plane can currently do some things better than a UAV? The expensive planes in 1914 and 1915 weren't much cop either. But the potential was obvious. The same applies to current UAVs.
    And, just as the heavy bombers of 1918 were converted and used for the first cross-Atlantic flights, UAV technology will lead to myriad…

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  11. Shane Genziuk

    logged in via LinkedIn

    A machine will never be as cruel as a human being. The quicker we resolve disputes exclusively through machine on machine warfare the better.

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    1. Robert Molyneux

      Citizen at Drehmex Sales and Services

      In reply to Shane Genziuk

      Why not simply have contests between two champions in unarmed combat?

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    2. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      Why not Chess? Or tiddly winks? Oh wait - no - there are some people in the world with an ideological bent to wipe from the face of the earth those they regard as infidels. perhaps they wouldn't agree to play by those rules?

      I wish more of the worlds problems could be solved by dialogue. But so long as their interests in the world that feel they have the right to project their view by violence (from the West or anywhere else) I feel alas war is inevitable.

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  12. Stephen Nicholson
    Stephen Nicholson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Town Planner

    There needs to be much more in-depth and comprehensive consideration of the pros and cons of UAVs. Not just that drones are cheaper.

    Firstly, if used for surveillance, what are the constraints? In what circumstances would it be valid for another country (or a multi-national company) to fly UAVs over Australia? Only then can we consider when it would be acceptable for Australia or USA to deploy surveillance UAVs over other countries.

    In what circumstances is it acceptable for another country…

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  13. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Impressive article. Although you seem to forget the human impact on the home population as a drive for drones. No more dead Americans, only 'enemies'. As for the rest of it, it sounds as sure sell. What type of response it will get from those finding themselves under those drones is another question. Reminds me of the VI and VII under the second world war, although with a added layer of electronic sophistication.

    And to make that sure kill you send two, one that attracts people gathering around those first maimed, the second to take them out too. Because they are all enemies, if I now got those strategies right?

    And it should be self-fulfilling, doubt anyone can be anything less than a sworn 'enemy', surviving it.

    Excellent way to create more enemies I would say.

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