Accident rates for military drones

The Washington Post has started a major investigative series on drones. First article describes losses in the military. Check out When Drones Fall From the Sky published June 20.

Looks to me like the implied conclusion the authors want you to reach is that drones are insufficiently reliable and unsafe for operation in U.S. airspace.

Several reasons for high loss rate come to mind. Institutional learning curve for brand new technology. Intentionally nonredundancy for an unmanned weapon system moved into use during combat. Not as much safety margins are designed in for unmanned systems in combat zone. Tradeoff of redundancy for reduced cost, increased range, and higher weapon payload.

Some great research from the article:

400 major losses (Class A accidents) worldwide from 2001 through 2014. Article says that is roughly comparable to the number of accidents for the fighter fleet of F-15s and F-16s, but there are a lot more manned planes flying a lot more hours.

Major safety hurdles:

A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble.

Pilot error.

Persistent mechanical defects.

Unreliable communications links.

Predator has the worst accident rate of the drones. It is also the first large drone in use and the first to be weaponized. I would expect first in class to have lots more accidents. It is first in class for two categories: remote UAV used in military operations and first used as weapons platform. Lessons learned are incorporated in new designs.

Location of 194 Class A accidents:

  • # – % of total – location
  • 67 – 34% – Afghanistan
  • 41 – 21% -Iraq
  • 18 – 9% – classified – that tells me war zone
  • 6 – 3%– Pakistan
  • 132 – 68% – what I would call war zone
  • 47 – 24% – U.S.
  • 13 – 7%– elsewhere
  • 194 – total (doesn’t add to 100% and I’m not going to find the rounding error)


  • 102 – Predator – 40% of 269 Predator purchased crashed in class A, 8% in Class B
  • 26 – Hunter
  • 22 – Reaper
  • 10 – Gray Eagle
  • 32 – Others
  • 192 – total

Accident rates per 100,000 of hours flown:

  • 13.7 – Predator in first 12 years of operation
  • 4.79 – Predator since 2009
  • 3.18 – Reaper in last 5 years
  • 1.96 – F-16 in last 5 years
  • 1.47 – F-15 in last 5 years

So in the last 5 years, the Predator has an accident rate 2.4 times the F-16 and 3.3 times the F-15. Of course the F-16 accident rate is 1.3 times the F-15.

Here is some perspective on loss rates, from a Wikipedia article: Talk: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Take or leave Wikipedia, as you wish.

Class A accident rates per 100,000 flight hours through 2007 excluding combat losses with number of lost aircraft:

  • F-102: 13.69 / 259 aircraft lost.

(total production of F-102 was 889, so 29% of production run was lost while being flown by U.S. – that excludes losses by other countries using the plane)

  • F-104: 30.63 / 170 aircraft lost.

(that is a large multiple of the Predator accident rate for the first 12 years of operation)

  • F-106: 9.47 / 120 aircraft lost.
  • F-5: 8.82 / 40 aircraft lost.
  • F-15: 2.42 / 112 aircraft lost.
  • F-16: 3.82 / 305 aircraft lost

The Predator, with 13.7 accident rate in first 12 years of operation and 4.79 since 2009, shows poorly in relation to F-15 and F-16. However, that rate (13.7, 4.8) is better than the early Century series fighters (30.6 and 9.5). It also shows the progress as institutional learning curve starts to pay off.

Impressive performance. Lots of room to improve design, redundancy, learning curve, and data connections.

This is a superb article. Keep your thinking cap on when you start drawing conclusions, though. It is labelled as Part 1. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.


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