More importantly, manned aircraft are flying an even larger percentage of the strike sorties: aircraft performed 1,743 strike sorties, or 88 percent, in 2011 and over 1,100, or 82 percent, in the first ten months of 2012. Finally, for delivering numbers of weapons during a strike on a target, drones averaged 1.4 weapons per strike in 2012; aircraft averaged twice that.
Nor is there any basis to think that drones have been delivering weapons more accurately. According to DOD's weapons tester, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the Reaper, for example, is capable of employing only two types of munitions: the AGM-AGM-114 laser-guided "Hellfire" missile and the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb. Manned aircraft carry a far greater variety, and while CENTCOM has not released the data, anecdotally it appears that most manned aircraft munitions are GPS-guided JDAMs, which have fewer limitations from clouds and weather and other causes than do the drones' laser-guided munitions.
That the drones are responsible for such a small percentage of the air-to-ground war in Afghanistan is the natural result of their inherent limitations. Prominent among them is their tiny payload compared to manned aircraft: The "more capable" drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, carries roughly one-ninth to one-fourth the payload of an A-10 or an F-16.
Nor are the drones cheaper to buy and operate. Using the Air Force's definition for all the components in a Reaper unit, they cost about $120 million to buy, compared to about $20 million for the original A-10 and about $55 million for a modern F-16. A Reaper "CAP," or unit, costs about $20 million per year to operate, compared to $5.5 million for an A-10C for a year or $4.8 million for an F-16C.
In short, with drones like the iconic Reaper, our forces get less performance for more cost -- compared to 35-year-old aircraft designs such as the A-10 and F-16.
These data notwithstanding, drones continue to be the darling of opinion in much of DOD, journalism, and think tanks. Articles repeatedly label Afghanistan as "the drone war," and one think tank drone advocate even referred to the AFCENT information as a "powerful data point" in favor of drones being "here to stay." They may, indeed, be here to stay, but that will be based on politics and hype, not performance in Afghanistan -- and perhaps the affinity of some for what drones are doing in Pakistan and Yemen under CIA control.
Whoever is the next secretary of defense will face a choice. He or she can operate at the policy wonk level, as so many already have, ignoring these kinds of basic nuts and bolts data. When they do so, and are told by in-house advocates of drones (or F-35s, or Littoral Combat Ships, or C-130Js, or almost anything else) that the newest technology is cheap and effective, the secretaries of defense with policy wonk and/or political backgrounds have proven themselves to be undisposed to serious, informed questioning. They end up taking the advocates' assertions at face value and acting on them.