The Pentagon has loosened its guidelines on avoiding civilian casualties during drone strikes, modifying instructions from requiring military personnel to “ensure” civilians are not targeted to encouraging service members to “avoid targeting” civilians.
In addition, instructions now tell commanders that collateral damage “must not be excessive” in relation to mission goals, according to Public Intelligence, a nonprofit research group that analyzed the military’s directives on drone strikes.
“These subtle but important changes in wording provide insight into the military’s attempts to limit expectations in regards to minimizing collateral damage and predicting the lethal effects of military operations,” Public Intelligence said in a recent report.
The number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes is a point of contention among Washington, human rights groups and countries where strikes are conducted, chiefly Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Because the strikes are classified operations, the U.S. typically does not acknowledge when they occur, or reveal how many combatants and civilians are killed or injured.
An official for the Air Force — the service primarily tasked with carrying out drone strikes — said “tactical directives have changed a number of times over the years to tackle collateral damage concerns not only from aircraft and helicopters but from mortars and other weapons that deliver effects beyond line of sight.”