For many on the political left, and more than a few in the middle, drone strikes are the paradigmatic example of U.S. militarism run amok. I'm not crazy about the way the United States has been using drone strikes myself, but many of the most common objections to drones don't hold up well under scrutiny.
Let's review the case against the drones.
1. Drone strikes kill innocent civilians.
This is undoubtedly true, but it's not an argument against drone strikes as such. War kills innocent civilians, period. But some means and methods of warfare tend to cause more unintended civilian deaths than others.
"Drones scout over [Afghanistan and Pakistan] launching Hellfire missiles into the region missing their intended targets, resulting in the deaths of many innocent people," trumpets the website for Code Pink, a women's peace group. Similarly, the Anti-War Committee asserts that "the physical distance between the drone and its shooter makes lack of precision unavoidable."
But to paraphrase the NRA, "Drones don't kill people, people kill people." At any rate, drone strikes kill civilians at no higher a rate, and almost certainly at a lower rate, than most other common means of warfare. Drones actually permit far greater precision in targeting. Today's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can carry small bombs that do less widespread damage, and there's no human pilot whose fatigue might limit flight time. Their low profile and relative fuel efficiency combines with this to permit them to spend more "time on target" than any manned aircraft.
Drones can engage in "persistent surveillance." That means they don't just swoop in, fire missiles and swoop out: they may spend hours, days, or even months monitoring a potential target. Equipped with imaging technologies that enable operators even thousands of miles away to see details as fine as individual faces, modern drone technologies allow their operators to distinguish between civilians and combatants far more effectively than most other weapons systems.
That doesn't mean civilians don't get killed in drone strikes. They do.
How many civilians? It depends how you count. The British Bureau of Investigative Journalism analyzed reports by "government, military and intelligence officials, and by credible media, academic and other sources" and came up with a range: the 344 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012 killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians. (The numbers for Yemen and Somalia are much squishier.) The New America Foundation, at which I'm a fellow, came up with slightly lower numbers: somewhere between 1,873 and 3,171 people killed overall in Pakistan, of whom between 282 and 459 were civilians.