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An Anatomy of an Airstrike: Conclusion and Recommendations

“Burma Airstrikes in Kachin State” by AK Rockefeller is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. 


Globally, in the past decade, we have seen the repeated use of airstrikes in densely populated areas, causing huge civilian casualties. In terms of frequency and overall harm caused by aerial attacks, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza have been the most impacted. Whilst technology to improve an airstrike’s precision has progressed, this has little difference when used in populated areas. That is why AOAV is calling on states to sign up to the Government of Ireland’s ‘Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences that can arise from the use of Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects in Populated Areas’. 

As the tragic example in Kustay highlights, even with more advanced precision-guided missiles, mistakes can still easily be made – either by those in the aircraft or those calling in the strike on the ground. The mindset of distance warfare, where a force can strike an enemy-controlled area from the sky and never return, also ensures a barrier from their fatal mistakes. A cursory acknowledgement of an investigation into civilian casualties, regarding an airstrike in a territory you cannot visit, will not ensure accountability nor institutional betterment. Such practices allow the US to maintain lower official civilian casualty figures thereby helping their institutional narrative that airstrikes that cause non-combatant death or injury are the exception, rather than the observable pattern of harm. 

Aside from the direct fatalities and woundings, this report has laid out in detail the reverberating effects of airstrikes on populated areas. It has shown that these attacks cause inordinate damage to people’s homes, places of work, critical infrastructure (water-treatment, waste-management, electrical), food and medicine supply chains, transport networks, schools and hospitals. With these essential services removed by airstrikes, huge numbers of people are displaced meaning they cannot access basic medical care or schooling. Untreated psychological harm, declining literacy and numeracy rates, and vanished economic opportunities mean children will likely feel the reverberating effects of airstrikes for the rest of their lives. 

“Results of an Israeli airstrike” by freegazaorg is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. 


  • The use of airstrikes within 50km of populated areas should be unilaterally prohibited. This weapon type’s inherent danger to surrounding civilians and buildings means it cannot discriminate between legitimate and civilian targets, and must not be used in areas where civilians are present.
  • UNIDIR should look to add to its EWIPA indicators to make provisions for the potentially devastating economic and psychological impacts brought about by the use of explosive weapons. There should also be an awareness of how incidents of explosive violence typically require an increase of psychological support to manage greater demand on services. 
  • Further study should be undertaken to explore the ways in which EWIPA indicators can be utilised alongside other matrices pertaining to conflict, security, economic development and state capability in order to better negate the range of variables which affect long-term impacts resulting from the use of explosive violence. 
  • States, international organisations and non-governmental organisations collecting and collating data on attacks on healthcare and education should – where possible – disaggregate their findings to highlight specific explosive weapon types. This will allow for greater research into the patterns of harm brought about by different explosive weapons.  
  • All states should become signatories to the proposed political declaration that seeks to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack