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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.

What is the history of airstrikes?
A prototype of airstrikes can be traced back to the mid-1800s when the state of Venice blockaded their city and declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In response, the Austrians sent the SMS Vulcano, there to be used as a launcher of some 200 hot air balloons towards the city, each carrying a 24- to 30-pound bomb with a rudimentary time fuse. It was not a success. At least one balloon landed in the city, but most were caught by the wind and drifted back over to the Austro-Hungarian side. 

The fact, though, that cities were targeted so rapidly in the airstrike’s evolution meant that the development a 1907 Declaration at the Second Hague Peace Conference. It proposed “the prohibition of the discharge of any kind of projectile or explosive from balloons or by similar means.” The US and Great Britain both ratified the Declaration, which still technically remains in force today.

The major development came, unsurprisingly, with the advent of motorised, pilotable aircraft. In 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, an Italian aviator dropped four bombs on bases in Libya. Such tactics were also used extensively in the first Balkan War, including the first ever night raid on 7 November 1912 on the city of Adrianople, where Bulgarain-Serbian forces dropped grenades from their airplanes. 
During the First World War, both sides made use of aerial bombing. At the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, in March 1915, the British bombed German communication lines. Later that year, utilising Zeppelins, German forces dropped explosive and incendiary bombs over London, killing around 200 people.

First Use
The use of the term airstrike took off during the Second World War. This period also saw the first development of guided missiles, as opposed to general area bombing or gun strafing. 

Using a radio guidance system, the Germans dropped a 3,100 lb (1,400 kg) MCLOS-guidance Fritz X armored glide bomb onto an Italian battleship in 1943. A year later, another ‘smart’ guided bomb was used against the Japanese by the US. The advent of nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s dominated the attention of weapon designers, so guided missiles weren’t developed significantly further until the 1960s. 

Recent Modifications
In terms of the delivery systems of airstrikes, the growth of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the 21st Century is a huge development. Much has been written on the subject – this explainer by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a good place to start. For those on the receiving end, however, the difference between a bomb dropped by an unmanned drone or a piloted fighter jet is minimal.

The biggest development since the advent of air-dropped bombs is the upgrade from ‘dumb’ bombs that are free-falling and unguided, to precision-guided ‘smart’ bombs. Guided missiles can be steered, typically, by infrared, optical, laser or GPS targeting systems. This increase in precision is a notable progression for the efficacy of airstrikes. In the First Gulf War, precision guided munitions made up only 9% of explosive attacks, but were responsible for 75% of successful strikes. 

One other recent development is the use of “enhanced blast” thermobaric weapons in airstrikes. A variant of the AGM-114N Hellfire missile, they are designed to kill everyone in buildings they strike. This is achieved by a mixture of chemicals in the warhead that produces a sustained pressure wave, thereby collapsing all floors of a structure that is targeted. The British Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon have confirmed their use in Afghanistan. The US also deployed the missile in Iraq. 
Another is the RX-9 variant of the Hellfire missile which, instead of exploding, is designed to plunge around 50kg of metal through the top of a car, with the aim of killing the target without damage to civilians or property closeby. It also comes equipped with six long blades that deploy seconds before impact to ensure it pulverises anything in its way.

What are the different types of air-dropped bombs?
Broadly, the different types of air-dropped bombs are as follows:

  1. Cluster bomb: A weapon containing multiple explosive submunitions. The Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 108 countries in 2010. Notably, the US, Russia, Brazil and China are not signatories. 
  2. Concrete bomb: A rarely used weapon containing inert material rather than explosives. The kinetic energy of the bomb destroys its target. They are typically used to destroy enemy vehicles and artillery and to minimise civilian casualties. It was used by the US in Iraq in the late 1990s and by France in the 2011 intervention in Libya. 
  3. Incendiary bomb: Known colloquially as incendiary bombs, these are not actually explosive weapons. They ignite rather than detonate to cause damage. Napalm – used extensively by US forces during the Vietnam War – is the most infamous form of incendiary weapon. Over 10 years, (1963-73), 388,000 tonnes was reportedly dropped. The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons banned the use of incendiary weapons in 1983. 
  4. General-purpose bomb: One of the most commonly used bombs in modern warfare. They have a thick metal casing with an explosive filler, normally TNT or Tritonal. The Mark 80 Series is the American’s general purpose bomb and will be the most analysed in this article. They have been used by at least 24 militaries worldwide. Over time, these bombs have been converted from ‘dumb’ freefall bombs, to ‘smart’ precision-guided weapons. 
  5. Others: You could also include other weapons dropped from the air, such as chlorine or chemical cylinders dropped in Syria, or even nuclear bombs and landmines. 

Broadly, airstrikes are used in three different sets of circumstances: 

  1. Tactical – This is in immediate support of troops on the ground, either in attack or defence. This is called ‘Close Air Support’ (CAS) and is usually called in from ground troops to deal with a specific battlefield problem (Here’s an example of US soldiers in Afghanistan calling in CAS, filmed by the American Heroes Channel, a subsidiary of Discovery Inc.);   
  2. Operational – To attack a specific capability, such as a massing group of tanks and armour or enemy armoury;
  3. Strategic – to impact a war on a wider scale, perhaps to eliminate specific personnel such as enemy leadership.

What are, broadly, the dimensions and weight of an aerial bomb?
The Mk 80 series of bombs, used globally over decades by dozens of nations, are a group of heavy, high-explosive weapons, weighing between 500lbs (227kg) and 2,000lbs (907kg). 

The largest in this family is the Guided Bomb Unit-10 (GBU-10). The GBU-10 consists of an Mk 84 bomb fitted with a Paveway II laser guidance system. It stands at 4.32m, two and a half times the height of the average adult male. Even without its guidance system, the basic bomb weighs 2,000lb (approximately 907kg).

(Source: AOAV)

What quantity of explosives can airstrikes deliver?
Nearly half of the weight of a general-purpose bomb is its explosive content. The GBU-10 contains 945lb (approx. 428kg) of high-explosive Tritonal. 

A more common Mk 82 contains 89kg of high explosive. This still creates a hugely powerful blast.

Afghan Air Force GBU-58 guided bomb strikes a Taliban compound in Farah Province, Afghanistan

What is the range of an airstrike?

In terms of strike range, targeting systems technology, including propulsion and guidance, has been advancing consistently. Many Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASM) are equipped with infrared, optical, laser or GPS guidance. They use propulsion systems meaning aircraft are not required to be over the target, increasing the strike range of an aerial attack. 

Lockheed Martin’s JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), in use since 2014, has a range of over 925km (560 miles). Each missile costs approximately $1.3m

This range implies that the aircraft may fire its payload while transitioning through friendly airspace, correlating to little or no threat to the aircrew.

The JASSM-XR is currently being manufactured and has a range of 1,900 km or 1,200mi. That means you could, in theory, be flying over Italy and be able to bomb Aleppo. 

How accurate is an airstrike?
The accuracy of airstrikes has improved alongside targeting technology, although accurately striking a target with a 500lb bomb does not preclude extensive civilian harm. Recently the Mk 84 was used reportedly by Israel in Gaza in an attack that killed 42 civilians.

Raytheon, the producers of the Paveway III LGB Mk 84, claims it has a reported accuracy of less than 10m with later guidance. However, laser guidance does not work well in bad weather, and if the illuminating laser is switched off, guidance is lost. 

During Operation Desert Storm, the GBU-10 hit 78% of it’s targets and the GBU-12 hit 88%. So during that mission, nearly a fifth of these guided missiles missed their target. 

Early Mk 80 bombs were unguided (or ‘dumb’) and these only hit their target 5.5% of the time. 

How precise is an airstrike?
Most Mk 82 aircraft bombs found in contemporary conflicts are guided versions. Precision guidance systems fitted to the Mk 82 can increase its precision from well above 100 m Circular Error Probable (CEP – to read more on CEP, click here) to less than 5 m CEP in most weather conditions. A larger CEP signifies lower precision probability.

Cluster munitions, for example, are notoriously inaccurate with the munitions falling at random, unpredictable angles with each volley covering an area of several hundred metres. 

A controlled demonstration of a 500lb and 2,000lb bomb by Danish Forces can be seen here.

Who are the biggest manufacturers of airstrikes (aerial bombs)?
The biggest producers of aerial bombs are based in the US. 

Raytheon is the biggest manufacturer of guided missiles. Their Paveway laser-guided bombs made up the majority of the precision-guided missiles used in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Unified Protector (Libya). 

Boeing has built more than 25,000 GBU-39 bombs, as well as 400,000 Joint Direct Attack Munition tail kits, which convert dumb unguided bombs into smart guided munitions. These cost around $25,000. In 2020, they received a contract worth $1.97 billion to modernise the cruise missiles for Saudi Arabia, as well as provide them with 650 new missiles.

In February 2021, Lockheed Martin received a $428m contract from the US Department of Defense to manufacture 400 JASSM-ER missiles in factories in Florida. These extremely long range missiles (925km) are expected to be completed by 2025. 

General Dynamics produces multiple types from the Mk 80 series bombs for the US military. It has also recently sold Mk 80 series bombs to Australia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Other notable producers are JSC Tactical Missiles Corporation (Russia), AVIC (China), Leonardo (Italy), Thales (France), MBDA (multi-national), Kongsberg Gruppen (Norway).

Where are airstrikes used?
The country worst affected by airstrikes since 2010 is Syria. It has suffered 2,554 attacks, 41% of the global total. Afghanistan is second with 1,374 incidents – 22% of the global total. 

Similarly, in terms of total civilian casualties from airstrikes, Syria is the worst affected (26,500 casualties). Despite both suffering fewer strikes than Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq have higher casualty counts – 9,227 and 5,306 respectively.

Eight states have had more than 100 separate airstrike incidents since October 2010 (when AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor began).


Airstrikes (Oct 2010-March 2021)


Who typically uses airstrikes?
AOAV’s decade of data shows that the most common perpetrators of airstrikes since 2011 have been: the US-led coalition, the Saudi-led coalition, Syria and Russia. 

The perpetrator responsible for the most civilian casualties is the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Their airstrikes have caused 8,918 civilian casualties, 49% (4,344) of these were fatal. Next is the Syrian state forces, responsible for 7,488 casualties, 51% (3,816) of which were lethal. 

However, when combined, US-led or NATO airstrikes, bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen actually killed more civilians (5,280) but had a lower overall civilian casualty count (7,391). This means American airstrikes are far more deadly, resulting in a 71% fatality rate for civilians (compared to civilian injuries). 

Similarly, when looking at children killed by airstrikes, the US-led coalition or NATO airstrikes were responsible for the most reported child casualties (1,509) ahead of Saudi-led coalition (502), Syria (471) and  Russia (385).

According to the US Air Force, between 2013-2020, they released a total of 139,919 weapons over Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. That’s an average of 17,490 a year, or 48 per day, for eight years straight. The highest year for US bombing in these three middle eastern countries is 2017, when the US dropped 43,938 weapons. That’s 120 a day. 

That’s not including additional strikes in Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Generally what types of injuries do airstrikes cause?
Mk 80 bombs are extremely powerful, with a large destructive capacity when used in populated areas. In general, air-dropped bombs cause a supersonic over-pressurisation shock wave. They can blow apart buildings and kill and injure people hundreds of metres from the point of detonation. 

The fragmentation pattern and range of a 2,000lb Mk 84 bomb are difficult to predict, but it is generally said that this weapon has a ‘lethal radius’ (i.e. the distance in which it is likely to kill people in the vicinity) of up to 360m.

According to the CDC, the US health protection agency, blast injuries from a high-order explosive (HE), such as an air-dropped bomb can be divided into four categories. Those closest to a HE will likely suffer overpressure damage, through compression and expansion of tissues, primarily gas-filled organs such as the stomach, intestines and lungs or even solid tissues such as the brain. 

Primary HE injuries are notable for their absence of visible external injuries. Although the most severe fatal HE injury is total body disruption (the formal term for complete physical destruction of the body). 

Secondary injuries can be caused by the creation of fragmentation or shrapnel which can perforate the body. 

Tertiary injuries are caused by the force of the shockwave from the explosion. Those hurled through the air may suffer blunt-force trauma. 

Quaternary injuries include burns or lung damage due to the inhalation of toxic materials. Psychiatric issues, such as PTSD, are also extremely prevalent amongst airstrike victims. 

These psychological impacts can be life-changing. According to the testimony of caregivers to Save the Children, 78% of children in Gaza cited noise of aircraft and the threat of bombing as the single greatest fear, with many reporting feelings of anxiety, anger, withdrawal, shame, confusion, night terrors, and aggressiveness as recurrent in children that suffered blast injuries. 

What patterns of harm do airstrikes cause to surrounding environments and infrastructure?
General-purpose bombs, such as the Mk80 series, have a large destructive capacity, particularly when used in populated areas. As well as destroying housing, schools and hospitals, they can devastate adjacent electrical, water, sanitary, health and transport infrastructure. 

When an air-dropped bomb detonates near a structure, those buildings become obstacles to the explosive pressure wave. As a result, the pressure becomes amplified. The magnitude of the reflected pressure varies with the angle of incidence of the shock wave. When the surface of the obstructing object is perpendicular to the direction of the shock wave, the obstructing object will experience the maximum reflected pressure, which can lead to a total collapse of the object. In short, this is why airstrikes are so devastating to surrounding environments. 

In Syria, the most aerially bombed country in the past decade, 70,000 people are estimated to have died indirectly due to “lack of adequate health services, medicine, especially for chronic diseases, lack of food, clean water, sanitation and proper housing, especially for those displaced within conflict zones.”

It’s worth noting that just the process of conducting airstrikes can cause serious environmental problems. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 saw over 34,000 missions in the space of 10 weeks. This concentration of warplanes over a small area led to high levels of contaminants in the ambient air and in rainfall, including ammonium and lead, in areas throughout Eastern Europe, from Macedonia to Ukraine. 

In Gaza, wells, water reservoirs, 20km of pipes and sewage networks were destroyed by Israeli air attacks in 2008/9, according to the UN. At the domestic level, 5,000 water tanks, 2,200 solar heaters plus water connections and electrical pumps were destroyed. This resulted in approximately 70% of the population suffering from shortages in drinking water. 

Damages to transport networks from airstrikes can have serious knock-on effects. After a series of airstrikes damaged bridges in Sana’a in 2016, the transport for 90% of the World Food Programme’s deliveries were disrupted. Such delays can have subsequent economic effects. The more than doubling of the journey between seaports and Sana’a has resulted in a tripling of the price of key commodities such as wheat, flour, and steel since 2015.

Find out more about the role of airstrikes in our milestone report: A Decade of Explosive Violence Harm, 2011 – 2020

Research support provided by Ana-Marija Apostoloska and André Rocha.