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Explosive States- Monitoring explosive violence in 2014: Ground-launched weapons

Ground-launched explosive weapons

  • Ground-launched explosive weapons were responsible for 8,088 civilian casualties in 2014 (25% of the total recorded).
  • 90% of casualties were civilians. This is higher than the proportion recorded from IED attacks (85%), and aerial attacks (61%).
  • Mortars caused 3,000 civilian casualties in 15 countries. This is a 53% increase from 2013.
  • Six civilians were killed on average per incident in multiple rocket launcher attacks in Ukraine

AOAV Ground-launched (2014)Casualties

Ground-launched weapons are manufactured conventional ordnance that range from small hand grenades to heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers. They can be fired from a variety of platforms, but all are launched from surface level.

In 2014 these weapons were responsible for 25% of all civilian casualties (people killed and physically injured) recorded by AOAV, up from 16% in 2013.

In total, these weapons killed and injured 9,026 people, including 8,088 civilians. Civilians made up 90% of the total casualties from ground-launched weapons. This was a higher proportion than the impact of air-launched weapons (61%) or IEDs (85%). The same trend was identified by AOAV in 2013 and suggestive of a particular concern with these weapons and how they are used.

Another consistent pattern from previous years is that ground-launched explosive weapons were more likely than any other launch method to be reported in populated areas. In 2014, 76% of incidents involving ground-launched explosive weapons were reported in populated areas. This compares to 63% of air-launched attacks and 62% of IED incidents.


AOAV recorded casualties from ground-launched explosive weapons in 40 countries and territories in 2014. Almost a third (31%) of civilian casualties from these weapons were recorded in Syria. Other countries that saw a high percentage of civilian casualties were Ukraine (17%) and Iraq (17%).

Ground-launched explosive weapons were widely-used by both state forces and non-state actors in 2014. As in 2013, a quarter of all attacks with these weapons were attributed in media reporting to state actors.[i]

Figure 10 illustrates the range of ground-launched weapon types that AOAV tracks and their respective impact on civilians in 2014. With the exception of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), all ground-launched types had a markedly-higher impact on civilians in 2014. In this section AOAV explores some of the most concerning weapon types.


As in previous years, mortars caused extremely high levels of civilian harm in 2014, see Figure 10.

AOAV recorded 3,169 total deaths and injuries from mortar use. Exactly 3,000 of these were civilians. This is a 53% increase in civilian casualties from mortars, and the third year running that an increase was recorded.

Globally, civilians made up 95% of the recorded casualties from mortars in 2014. This was higher than any other explosive weapon type. Mortars can be guided or unguided, but are commonly fired in large numbers into populated areas. In 2014, 74% of incidents of mortar use recorded by AOAV took place in populated areas.

Mortars caused casualties in 15 different countries and territories, in 2014 including Iraq, Ukraine and India.

As in 2013, the majority of civilian casualties from mortar use were in Syria (64%). AOAV recorded 1,910 civilian casualties from 115 mortar incidents in Syria in 2014. The deadliest mortar attack in Syria came on 22 May. Thirty-nine people were killed and 205 wounded when a mortar round hit an electoral rally event for President Bashar al-Assad.[ii] The attack was condemned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.[iii]

Non-state actors were regularly reported to use mortars in attacks across Syria, 31% of civilian casualties from mortars in the country came from rebel groups.

AOAV recorded nine mortar attacks that hit schools in Syria, causing 254 civilian deaths and injuries.

Grad rockets

“Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas. If insurgent and Ukrainian government forces are serious about limiting harm to civilians, they should both immediately stop using these weapons in populated areas.”
Ole Solvang, Senior emergencies researcher, Human Rights Watch[iv]

AOAV recorded evidence of multiple rocket launchers (MLRS) in use in several countries in 2014. These are weapons which saturate a wide area with salvo of large, often unguided, rockets, as well as sometimes warheads which contain banned cluster munitions.[v] One such system is the notorious Grad.

Grads (‘Hail’ in Russian) can fire up to 40 rockets in 20 seconds. Each individual rocket is nearly three metres long, weighing 66kg. They can be fired as far as 20km, and as the individual munitions are unguided each rocket could land within an approximate rectangle of 54,000 square metres.[vi]

These weapons were used by both Ukraine government forces and separatist insurgents in 2014.[vii] AOAV recorded 14 separate incidents of MLRS use in Ukraine.[viii] These attacks killed and injured 279 people.

Of these total casualties, 177 were civilians (57%). Almost half of civilian casualties from MLRS in Ukraine were deaths (78 people, 49%). Globally this percentage was 47%, as Figure 11 shows. This fatality percentage was higher than for any other ground-launched explosive weapon type in 2014 other than ground-launched missiles, which was distorted by the anomalous the attack on Flight MH17 where all 298 passengers and crew were killed by a surface-to-air missile system.

On 12 July, at least 19 Grad rockets rained down on a residential area of the eastern city of Donetsk. An entire family were killed when one of these rockets fell on a civilian home. Human Rights Watch investigators on the ground uncovered impact craters covering an area about 600 meters wide. [ix]

Six civilians were killed per MLRS attack in Ukraine.[x] Across all explosive weapon types this average stood at four civilians killed per attack in 2014. The high fatality rate from MLRS is indicative of the wide-area effect of Grad rockets and similarly powerful, imprecise weapons systems.

“It was a nightmare. Only five out of fifty homes in my neighbourhood are undamaged […] I know a couple in their 50s. We used to buy milk from them; they had a cow. A shell fell on their house and they choked to death in the basement. They were buried in their own vegetable patch. The cemetery was on fire and you could barely poke your nose out of the house so there was no question of going there.”
Irina, 43, resident of Krasny Yar in eastern Ukraine, August 2014[xi]

Artillery shelling

Civilian casualties from the use of artillery shells increased to 811 deaths and injuries in 2014 from 131 in 2013 (a 519% increase). Artillery shelling is commonly reported under more general descriptions in media sources, and so the civilian toll from these weapons is assumed to be far higher than recorded.[xii]

Artillery shelling caused civilian casualties in 11 different countries and territories. AOAV recorded the majority of civilian deaths and injuries from artillery in Gaza (43%), Ukraine (26%), and Iraq (13%). Artillery shells are commonly indirect-fire weapons (explosive weapons which can be launched without the user having a clear line of sight to the target).

On 30 July 2014, at least ten 155mm artillery shells landed in and around a UN-run school for girls in the town of Jabaliya in northern Gaza.[xiii] The school was sheltering over 3,000 displaced people and more than a hundred civilians, including children, were killed and injured.[xiv]

AOAV has raised concerns with the rules of engagement which regulate how artillery shells are fired in or near densely-populated areas.[xv] During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s Artillery Corps launched 19,000 high-explosive artillery shells into Gaza.[xvi]

Iraq government forces also used indirect-fire weapons like artillery during fighting in the country in 2014. In particular, shelling with artillery and mortars was commonly reported in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, to the west of the capital Baghdad in Anbar province.

AOAV recorded 849 civilian casualties in Anbar province from ground-launched explosive weapons including artillery. When artillery and mortars were launched into populated areas, all the casualties reported were civilians. Civilians made up only a third of casualties from attacks with the same weapons away from populated areas.[xvii]  The United Nations condemned the military’s policy towards Fallujah, and “urge[d] the Iraqi Armed Forces to stop shelling populated neighbourhoods […].”[xviii] In September, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi issued a statement in which he “ordered the Iraqi Air Force to halt the shelling of civilian areas, even in those towns controlled by ISIS.”[xix]

 “Fighters are all outside the city, they are not inside. Why is the Iraqi army continuing to shell residential areas? Who would accept that?”
Dr Ahmed Ammar, emergency doctor at Fallujah General Hospital[xx]

[i] 24%. Non-state actors caused 27% of incidents with ground-launched weapons. A user could not be determined for the remaining incidents from media reporting.

[ii] Zeina Karam, “Syrian TV: 39 killed in campaign tent shelling,” The Associated Press, posted by Yahoo! News, 23 May 2014 (accessed 20 May 2015).

[iii] “Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on Syria,” 23 May 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[iv] Human Rights Watch, “Ukraine: Unguided Rockets Killing Civilians,” 24 July 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[v] Human Rights Watch, “Ukraine: Rising Civilian Toll in Luhansk,” 1 September 2014, (accessed 1 June 2015). Human Rights Watch documented evidence of cluster munition use in several countries in 2014, including by Islamic State fighters in Syria, “Syria: Evidence of Islamic State Cluster Munition Use,” 1 September 2014, (accessed 1 June 2015).

[vi] Human Rights Watch, “Ukraine: Unguided Rockets Killing Civilians,” 24 July 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[vii] Human Rights Watch, “Ukraine: Rising Civilian Toll in Luhansk,” 1 September 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[viii] In addition to three incidents in Libya and one in Israel. MLRS was likely used in Syria but reporting conditions on the ground made it unclear which incidents of rocket use in the country was MLRS.

[ix] Human Rights Watch, “Ukraine: Unguided Rockets Killing Civilians,” 24 July 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[x] Globally, the average stood at five civilians killed on average per MLRS attack, and ten civilians injured on average.

[xi] Tom Parfitt, “Residents of besieged Ukrainian city bury dead in yards and gardens,” The Telegraph, 12 August 2014, (accessed 21 May 2015).

[xii] In addition AOAV recorded 1,123 civilian casualties from ‘shelling’ more generally and 1,870 civilian casualties in multiple explosive weapons attacks where artillery was involved.

[xiii] Human Rights Watch, “Israel: In-Depth Look at Gaza School Attacks,” 11 September 2014, (accessed 5 December 2014).

[xiv] Harriet Sherwood, “Gaza: at least 15 killed and 90 injured as another UN school is hit,” The Guardian, 30 July 2014, (accessed 9 December 2014).

[xv] See Robert Perkins, “Under Fire: Israel’s artillery policies scrutinised,” Action on Armed Violence, December 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[xvi] Mitch Ginsburg, “Israel’s artillery corps torn between precision and power,” The Times of Israel, 12 October 2014, (accessed 29 May 2015).

[xvii] 803 out of 804 casualties from ground-launched explosive weapons in populated areas of Anbar were civilians, compared to 46 out of 141 casualties in areas not reported as populated.

[xviii] Daham al-Azzawi, spokesman for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), cited in Muyad al-Tarafi, “UN slams ‘indiscriminate’ army shelling in Iraq,” Turkish Press, 15 May 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[xix] “Iraqi PM orders halt to shelling of civilian areas,” AFP posted by DAWN, 14 September 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[xx] Mohammed Tawfeeq, “Thousands flee intense Falluja shelling,” CNN, 11 May 2014, (accessed 2 June 2015).