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An Anatomy of a Grad Attack: Global

Grad Attacks Globally

‘Because of it’s high volume of fire and large area coverage, the BM-21 is well suited for use against troops in the open…Because these weapons have a large circular error probable (CEP), they are not suited for attacks against point targets’ – US Army Field Manual.

The BM-21 Grad is the world’s most numerous and widely deployed multiple launch rocket system. Its simple design, manoeuvrability and ability to distribute a large explosive payload in a very short space of time, has led to the weapon being heavily distributed, adapted and copied throughout the world in the past 60 years. 

Although initially conceived as a wide area weapon for use in open battlefields, Grads are often used in populated areas, where their notorious inaccuracy creates significant risk for civilians and civilian structures. 

AOAV have recorded at least 44 distinct incidents involving Grad systems between 2011 and 2020, resulting in 1,223 casualties, 779 (64%) of which were civilians. When Grads were used in populated areas, 80% of the casualties recorded were civilians; when used in lesser populated areas, AOAV did not record a single civilian casualty in the past ten years.

Data shows that Grad attacks are particularly deadly. On average, incidents where Grads were used cause 18 civilian casualties – double the average for all incidents of explosive violence recorded by AOAV’s EVM. 

Grad attacks also bring about a high death toll as a proportion of total casualties. On average, deaths account for more than a third of total civilian casualties when Grads are used. These figures may reflect the wide area impact of this weapon, but are also influenced by the fact that Grads are often used alongside other weapons, such as mortars and artillery, to deliver wide-area bombardments. 45% of incidents involving Grads were recorded as employing ‘multiple explosive weapons’. This factor may play some part in explaining the high casualty rate brought about by Grad attacks.

All of the incidents recorded by AOAV between 2011 and 2020 took place in four countries: Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan. Ukraine has been the country worst-affected by Grads, with AOAV recording 24 explosive incidents, killing or injuring 312 civilians. Since 2014, Ukrainian forces have been trapped in conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Grads, used heavily by both parties, have come to define the war – AOAV found that 27% of all civilian deaths recorded in Ukraine between 2011 and 2020 were perpetrated by this one weapon system. All of the incidents involving Grads recorded by AOAV took place in 2014 and 2015 during the height of fighting. However, there have been allegations of Grad fire in populated areas more recently. 

BM-21 Grad systems have also been widely deployed in Libya over the past decade. As with Ukraine, Grads in Libya have been used by both state and non-state actors. Grads were deployed heavily in 2011 by pro-Gaddafi forces during the devastating siege of Misrata, and then by the National Transitional Council in their assault on Sirte. Since then, Grads have been deployed by General Haftar’s forces in the Battle of Benghazi in 2014, and have become increasingly prevalent as part of fighting in and around Tripoli in 2019 and 2020.

AOAV have recorded five Grad attacks in Syria in the past decade; however, the sheer extent of explosive violence and the difficulty of reporting in the country means this figure is unlikely to capture the full impact of this weapon. Despite the smaller number of recorded incidents, Grad attacks in Syria have been particularly deadly for civilians – on average, 31 were killed or injured per attack. Furthermore, all 156 of the recorded casualties from Grad attacks in Syria were civilians, with AOAV not recording a single armed personnel amongst those killed or injured.

AOAV have only recorded a single incident of Grad use in Azerbaijan in the past decade. This involved cross-border Grad fire in 2016 into the Nagorno-Karabakh region, killing a child and injuring two others. More recently, however, there is growing evidence that increased tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has resulted in both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces deploying BM-21 MLRSs.

Next chapter: Case Study – Mariupol, 24th January 2015
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