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An Anatomy of an Airstrike: The Report

Introduction

In support of 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’, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has produced five reports examining the impacts of manufactured weapons with wide area effects commonly used in populated areas. 

Employing the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s (UNIDIR) ‘Menu of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’ (EWIPA indicators) as a framework for analysing the immediate to long-term impacts from the use of explosive weapons, AOAV has investigated typical patterns of harm produced by specific manufactured weapons. The five reports independently examine grenades, airstrikes, landmines, Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRSs) and mortars to draw out comparative conclusions about the impacts of these weapons in populated areas.   

This report explores airstrikes. Broadly, ‘airstrike’ is a method of delivery of several different types of weapon that, definitionally, could encompass everything released from an aircraft, from the dropping of a grenade or landmine to an air-launched nuclear weapon. Since including this wide range of weapons would limit the potential of finding typical patterns of harms, in this report we shall primarily be considering the general-purpose high-explosive bomb that is fired from aircraft. Within this focus, there is still significant variance of explosive power. Typical general-purpose bombs can weigh between 500lb – 2,000lb (227kg-907kg) and deliver 200lb-900lb (90kg-410kg) of explosive material, with the potential for hundreds of casualties per use.  

Yet these devastating weapons are not deployed infrequently. On average, airstrikes have been used on a daily basis over the past decade (there have been 6,158 recorded incidents over 3,650 days, averaging 1.7 per day). Considering their high explosive content and frequent use, the airstrike is certainly the most destructive weapon type we are considering in this series. 

Such devastation was never more starkly evident than in the village of Kustay, in the province of Garmsir, southern Afghanistan, late in the evening of the 27th November 2018. A US airstrike, called in by a joint US-Afghan Special Force operation, targeting a mobile Taliban unit, struck a rural house where farmers and grandparents Aktar, 57, and Bibi, 55, were hosting 25 members of their extended family. All but five young children were killed. An unspecified number of (likely three) Taliban fighters were also killed. The farmhouse was completely levelled, animals were killed and crops were destroyed. Whilst we dedicate attention to this tragic incident, these events are by no means unique. In the latter half of the decade (2016-20), there have been 3,977 civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan; 2,122 killed and 1,855 injured.

By examining airstrikes globally alongside a single case study, this report aims to highlight ‘an anatomy of an airstrike’ and draw conclusions on the typical patterns of harm this weapon produces when deployed in populated areas. 

“091126-F-8155K-907” by AirmanMagazine is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

UNIDIR Indicators

Published in early 2021, UNIDIR’s EWIPA indicators provide a reference framework for measuring the harm inflicted by explosive weapons in populated areas. 

The 28 indicators act as a ‘menu of ideas’ to better document the ‘knock-on effects’ of explosive violence and to highlight the ways in which explosive weapons impact the complex ‘ecosystem’ of urban environments. 

UNIDIR divides these indicators into four focus areas aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions.
  • 11 – Sustainable cities and communities.
  • 3 – Good health and well-being.
  • 4 – Inclusive quality education, lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Each focus area is further subdivided into first, second and third-level impacts as a way of mediating between the immediate and reverberating effects of explosive weapons. Altering the traditional disaggregation of primary, secondary and tertiary (or reverberating) effects, UNIDIR incorporates primary and secondary blast destruction into first level impacts, whilst dividing reverberating effects into second and third-level impacts. In doing so, the indicators serve to explore the multifaceted nature of reverberating effects, rather than viewing them as fixed, homogeneous consequences.

Methodology

This report draws on two main areas of research, the use of airstrikes globally combined with an analysis of an individual incident that took place in Garmsir, Afghanistan on 27th November 2018. Employing UNIDIR’s ‘Menu of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’, the report looks to combine a global overview, with a more forensic analysis of a single incident, in order to draw out conclusions about the typical patterns of harm that emerge when airstrikes are used in populated areas. 

AOAV hired a Kabul-based journalist, Aziz Ahmad Tassal of the Kabul Press Club, to conduct and translate interviews in April 2021. 

For global patterns of harm, desk-based research into airstrikes globally was combined with data from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor (EVM) between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2020. 
AOAV does not suggest that the EVM captures every explosive incident involving an airstrike over the past decade. The EVM only records incidents mentioned in English-language news sources, and specific weapon types are often mis-referenced – or not referenced at all. As a result, it is likely that EVM data underestimates the full extent of airstrikes in the past decade, but provides a useful indicator of patterns of harm. Unless otherwise specified, data on the global use of airstrikes is drawn from the EVM.

The Report

Chapter 1: Airstrikes Globally
Chapter 2: Case Study – Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan, 27th November 2018
Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations


Series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack

In support of 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’, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has produced five reports examining the impacts of manufactured weapons with wide area effects commonly used in populated areas. Each report is presented as ‘An Anatomy’ of a specific weapon type.

Employing UNIDIR’s ‘Menu of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’ (EWIPA indicators) as a framework for analysing the immediate and long-term impacts from explosive weapons, AOAV looks to investigate the typical patterns of harm produced by specific manufactured weapons. 

The five reports examine, in turn, grenades, airstrikes, landmines, Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRSs) and mortars to draw out comparative conclusions about the impacts of these weapons in populated areas.

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


Related Reports: What is an Airstrike?

In the modern age of warfare, airstrikes have become a dominant tactic. The recent US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to be defined more by air-dropped weapons than anything else, as ground troops have been gradually removed in the face of an onslaught of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In Libya and Syria, the dominant western offensive tactic from the offset was airstrikes.

Some of the most iconic imagery of war from the past 100 years – the levelling of Dresden, the indiscriminate dropping of napalm in Vietnam, shock and awe in Baghdad and the recent desolation of Mosul – all stem from airstrikes. 

This article seeks to describe the predictable impact and harm caused by an air-to-ground attack. It acknowledges that, for those on the ground, the difference between a US 500lb Mk 80 bomb and a Russian BRAB-220 is minimal. And while there is some discussion of specific weapons, AOAV’s focus remains on the harm done to victims on the ground, particularly civilians.

Read the full report ‘What is an Airstrike?’