Air strikesExplosive violence in GazaManufactured explosive weapons

An examination of US and EU weapons used in explosive violence in Gaza, 2021

1.     Introduction

Between May 10 and May 21, 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant Palestinian groups engaged in intense fighting in a tit-for-tat escalation of force – it was a surge of violence that would claim the lives of some 253 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 Israels. Among the dead, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), were 66 Palestinian children. Two Israeli children were also tragically killed in the fighting.

During the course of those 11 days, the IDF relied heavily on airpower, conducting airstrikes to retaliate against Hamas and discourage further rocket attacks against civilian targets leashed from Gaza. Between May 10 and May 17, 2021, the IDF conducted 1,450 airstrikes in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. In these strikes, which levied a ‘catastrophic‘ toll on the civilian population and infrastructure, weapons designed and manufactured in the United States were frequently used. 

One of the American-made weapons deployed by the IDF was the common Mk-84 (pronounced Mark eighty-four), a 2,000-pound general-purpose air-dropped bomb that can be fitted with a guidance kit. This article aims to analyse which manufacturers from the United States of America (US) and the European Union (EU) may have produced the components for the Mk-84 bombs used in Gaza, as well as their associated guidance kits.

020302-N-6492H-515: At sea aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) Mar. 2, 2002. Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to the ship’s G3 division configure a 2000-pound MK-84 bomb as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). The Kennedy and her embarked carrier air wing (CVW) are expected to relieve USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), and will conduct missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. US Navy photo Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire.

 2. Arms used by the Israeli Military and Militant Palestinian Groups

A wide-array of weapons were used during the fighting between the IDF and Palestinian armed groups between May 10 and May 21. 

On the Palestinian side, Hamas’ military wing – also known as the al-Qassam Brigade – and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group launched approximately 4,300 rockets at Israel, from an estimated arsenal of 14,000. It should be noted that Israeli intelligence estimated the latter number to be much higher, nearing 30,000. Israel intelligence also estimates that, prior to the May conflict, Hamas already had an arsenal of 7,000

Due in part to Israel’s ongoing 14-year blockade of Gaza, Hamas and other armed groups have limited access to foreign arms, most of which have been smuggled across the Egyptian border. Experts believe that, today, most rockets in Gaza are built domestically, with crucial support coming from Iran in terms of financing and technical assistance, or as Hamas openly claims, in the form of “blueprints, engineering know-how, motor tests, and technical expertise.” The US State Department estimates that Iran supports militant Palestinian groups to the tune of approximately $100 million annually (p.15).

The mainstay of the Hamas rocket arsenal is the Qassam series, which are often made out of metal traffic-post tubes. Other rockets in the Hamas arsenal are the R-160 and the Sejil series, both of which were accessed with Iranian support, and the new 155-mile range Ayyash-250 rocket, which was used to strike the Israeli port of Eilat. Older stocks of the Hamas arsenal include, amongst others, Katyusha rockets and Iranian-designed Fajr-series rockets. Iran may have also successfully smuggled Syrian-built M-302 302mm rockets into Gaza.

The IDF, which includes the Israeli Air Force (IAF), is one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world and has access to a large and varied arsenal including missiles, bombs, rockets, and artillery shells, amongst others. 

During the 11 days of combat in May 2021, the IAF deployed a wide variety of explosive weapons in the Gaza Strip, the majority of which were general-purpose gravity bombs such as the Mk-82, Mk-83, and Mk-84, fitted with JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) kits, which then become the GBU-38, GBU-32 and GBU-31, respectively. Further air-dropped munitions used by Israel during the 11-day conflagration include the bunker-busting 2,000 pound GBU-31(V)4/B, which was used to level entire high-rise buildings in Gaza; the 500-pound laser-guided GBU-54 JDAM; and the 250-pound GBU-39 bomb, which is also known as the Small Diameter Bomb. Furthermore, pictures released by the IAF also provide evidence for their use of the ‘SPICE’ bomb guidance kit, which uses GPS and electro-optical guidance for greater precision. 

Other airborne weapons used by the IDF may have included the small, drone-launched Mikholit missile; use of the Spike / “Tammuz” anti-tank missile; 155mm shells fired from M109A5 self-propelled howitzers; and 120mm tank shells fired from Merkava IV tanks. In addition to this, the IDF also reportedly used Hellfire missiles, and other bombs such as the 2,000-pound GBU-31(V)3  JDAM equipped with BLU-109 bunker-busting warheads. Another type of bunker-busting warhead used by the IDF was the BLU-117, for instance on their GBU-31 or GBU-56 bombs. The IAF deployed mainly F-15I Ra’am, F-16I Sufas, and occasionally F-16C/D Block 40 fighters to carry out the bombing missions on Gaza.

According to Intel Lab, an Israeli open-source intelligence firm that analysed the airstrikes against corresponding satellite images, there were 1,563 impact points across Gaza from IDF bombs and missiles. It has been well reported that the effect of the IDF’s bombing campaign on Gaza was devastating. In addition to the loss of lives, Gaza’s infrastructure was severely impacted. 53 schools were damaged; six hospitals and Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing facility were hit; Gaza’s largest bookstore was destroyed; 50% of the water pipeline network was impacted; along with additional harm to Gaza’s sewage system and electrical network. 

A reported 17,000 residential and commercial units were damaged, resulting in 72,000 Palestinians losing their homes and 800,000 Palestinians losing easy access to clean drinking water. Furthermore, the air campaign left Palestinians with only five hours of electricity a day. 

Listing the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas raises fundamental questions:

Who supplied these weapons to the IDF?

What profits might have been made from this destruction?

What role does the international arms trade play in fuelling conflicts around the world?

The vast majority of the munitions expended in Gaza were designed, developed, and manufactured in the United States. This also goes for the vast majority of the aircraft used by the IDF.

It is this manufacture and design that we turn to next.

3. United States Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Israel

The complex primary and secondary manufacturers involved in the Mk-84 supply chain can be traced throughout the US and into the EU. But how is such a chain linked to the use of these weapons in Gaza? 

What we do know is that US exports of Mk-84 bombs and JDAM kits to Israel date back to at least 1999. In 2007, for instance, Israel requested roughly 3,500 Mk-84 bombs, spares, and technical services from the US in a deal worth $65m maximum, General Dynamics being the prime contractor. This was followed by another deal in 2007 worth up to $465m, which included Mk-84 bombs, BLU-109 bombs, JDAM kits, and a number of other ordnance items. 

In December 2012, the US made another sale to Israel potentially worth $647m, which included almost 7,000 JDAM kits and over 3,000 Mk-84 bombs, as well as a number of various ordnance items. The principal contractors were Boeing, KDI Precision Products (KDI-PPI), Alliant Techsystems (ATK), and General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GD-OTS). This was followed by a sale to Israel in May 2015, potentially worth $1.88 billion, which included 14,500 KMU-556C/B JDAM tail kits for Mk-84 bombs, Mk-83 bombs, and a variety of ammunitions. The main contractors were GD-OTS and Boeing. 

The most recent FMS to Israel, authorised by President Biden on the 17th of May (while the fighting was taking place), was worth $735m. It reportedly included Mk-84 bombs and JDAM kits.

4. Mk-84 / GBU-31(V)1 JDAM Component Manufacturers

Based on an in-depth investigation carried out by New York Times journalists (note especially the sequence at 9m10s in the video link below), evidence provided by Gaza’s EOD teams, visual evidence from Gaza, and an additional article by the New York Times’ John Ismay on the bombs frequently used in Gaza, it seems as certain as conflict reporting can ever be that 2,000-pound Mk-84 bombs were used in Gaza and that Mk-84 bombs fitted with JDAMs lead to the death of 44 people on the night of May 16, 2021. 

On that day, at least four guided Mk-84 bombs (note 10m 20s) were dropped on Al-Wahdah Street in the Rimal district of Gaza, close to apartment buildings, with their fuzes set to detonate deep in the ground. This led to the collapse of three buildings. 

The Mk-84 was reportedly the most frequently dropped weapon on Gaza, according to Gaza bomb disposal experts. It is the heaviest type of bomb used globally by militaries on a regular basis. Each ordnance contains over 400kg of explosives and has an approximate lethal radius of 360m, severely wounding at distances up to 800m. Riad Eshkuntana and his five year old daughter Suzi were the only survivors of a seven-member family; his wife and four children, ranging in age from 2 to 9, were among the dead following the May 16th attack.

The Red Cross warns against its use in populated areas because of the potential harm for civilians: as Action on Armed Violence has repeatedly shown, when explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, 90% of those killed or injured globally over the last ten years are civilians.   

MK-84 MOD 4 bomb cases found in Gaza. Note that these are remnants from the last escalation between militant Palestinian groups and Israel, and were not dropped during May 2021. Lot numbers GDG07 mean that these bomb casings were made by General Dynamics Garland (GDG) in 2007. The rest of the lot number gives information about the month of production, i.e. K = October, J = September.  That GDG stands for GD-OTS has been confirmed in the past by a Joint Munitions Command spokesperson.

4.1 Mk-84 Manufacturers

So who makes the Mk-84? General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GD-OTS) is a division of General Dynamics (GD), which is headquartered in Reston, Virginia. General Dynamics is a diversified and major U.S. arms manufacturer which employs 100,000 people worldwide and generated $37.9 billion of revenue in 2020. 

GD-OTS in Garland, Texas, situated on 38 acres of property comprising 650,000 square feet, is the world’s only manufacturer of Mk-80 series bomb bodies (this includes the Mk-84) that conform to the U.S. Department of Defense’s own approved technical specifications. 

As a result, GD-OTS is, effectively, the sole source of supply for all Mk-80 series general-purpose bombs, including tactical and inert rounds. Intercontinental Manufacturing Co. (IMCO), Garland, Texas, was the last domestic U.S. manufacturer of Mk-80 series bomb bodies until the firm was acquired by General Dynamics in September 2003, making GD-OTS the only remaining U.S. manufacturer of Mk-80 series bomb bodies since 2003. 

A November 30, 2017 Army Contracting Command document mentions GD-OTS as “the only domestic producer that possesses the interest and the required manufacturing capabilities to manufacture the MK80 Series GP Bomb Bodies.” Most recently, on September 13, 2018, GD-OTS was awarded the definitive contract for Mk-80 series general-purpose bomb bodies,  W52P1J18C0052, valued at $73.6m. The potential completion date of the contract is December 31, 2022. 

Other GD-OTS contracts for Mk-80 series bomb bodies include a contract issued for $89.7m in 2005, and one for $104.5m in 2007. GD-OTS remains a major U.S. manufacturer of various weapons, including munitions, and has produced the following ordnance: BLU-97 submunitions and fuzes (as late as 2005), 30mm M789 cartridges, 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50 caliber cartridges, various shaped charges, and blast fragmentation warheads for missiles such as the Hellfire Romeo missile or the Small Diameter bomb. 

AOAV approached GD-OTS for comment but no reply was given.

4.2 Trinitrotoluene (TNT) Explosives

Pictures from unexploded Mk-84 bombs in Gaza indicate they were filled with Tritonal, which is a mixture of 80% trinitrotoluene (TNT) and 20% flaked aluminum. It generates a higher peak pressure than pure TNT. In recent years, GD-OTS has won a number of large contracts which included not only Mk-84 bomb casings (Mk-84-4 to be exact), but also TNT explosives and aluminum powder. These included contract number W52P1J16C0058, awarded on July 28, 2016, and valued at $310m; delivery order W52P1J19F0062, awarded on Dec. 6, 2018, and valued at more than $313.5m (which also included BLU-109/B bombs); and delivery order W52P1J21F0104, awarded on Feb. 12, 2021, worth $111.9m. It should be noted that a number of other manufacturers produced component parts (e.g. fuze liners) that were a part of these multi-year contracts.

In 2016, the U.S. government released a requirement for 40,000 Mk-84 bombs containing 31.8m pounds of TNT exported from Poland for the period 2017-2019. Also in 2016, GD-OTS entered a strategic multi-year agreement with Nitro-Chem S.A., Bydgoszcz, Poland for U.S. deliveries of TNT made in Poland

Nitro-Chem S.A. is also mentioned in the 2018 Munitions Executive Summit as “…currently the only qualified TNT source for U.S. Bomb Programs.” As part of the Mk-84 bomb program, Nitro-Chem S.A. acquired several contracts as of 2017 which extend into 2022 and are worth at least $100m; as of June 2019, Nitro-Chem had delivered 20,000 tons of TNT for use in U.S. bombs such as the Mk-84.

Nitro-Chem of Poland has been a vital manufacturer and supplier of TNT to the U.S. for almost twenty years. In 2003, Polish TNT was being exported to the U.S. and loaded into U.S. bombs. Also in 2003, arms behemoth Alliant Techsystems (ATK) won a $130m five-year contract to produce TNT for use in bombs at Radford Army Ammunition Plant, Radford, Virginia. This reportedly made it the first domestic U.S. manufacturer of TNT since 1986. It was surmised that the strategic goal was for ATK to become the sole supplier of TNT to the U.S. military by about 2006. 

In the interim phase in 2005, before Radford AAP would actually start producing TNT, ATK reclaimed TNT from older U.S. munitions such as 750-pound bombs, and also imported it from Poland. Radford AAP commander Ron Fizer stated in Sept. 2005  that much of the TNT used by the U.S. military was made in Poland, but that Radford AAP was meant to begin production of 15m pounds of TNT annually. In 2006, ATK, which had invested $20m in the modernization of the outdated TNT production facility at Radford AAP, was producing 27 tons of TNT daily.

By 2010, the U.S. Army became interested in phasing out TNT from its stock due to safer and more lethal alternatives becoming available. In 2011, ATK entered into an international distribution agreement with Nitro-Chem so it could market and distribute TNT made in Poland. Nitro-Chem of Poland is named the a manufacturer of TNT for bombs and ATK as the supplier of said TNT in a 2012 presentation. Therefore, considering these points and currently lacking further information on the exact years of production and provenance of the TNT used in the Mk-84 bombs in Gaza, this report raises the possibility that those bombs were filled with TNT manufactured by Nitro-Chem of Poland. If older TNT stock was used, then it was probably made by ATK at Radford AAP or reclaimed from older stock. TNT has an almost unlimited shelf life if stored properly. 

AOAV approached ATK for comment but no reply was given.

4.3 Aluminum Powder

Other parts of the weapon – namely aluminium powder – also merit examination.  On Sept. 24, 2010, Ampal, Inc., Palmerton, Pennsylvania, won the definitive $3.2m contract W52P1J10C0061, which had been preceded by federal solicitation number W52P1J10R0007, and which mentioned aluminum powder as being used as an additive to TNT used in United States Air Force (USAF) bombs. Just one year previously, on May 29, 2009, Ampal won a $3.3m contract for aluminum powder under the definitive contract W52P1J09C0025, preceded by solicitation number W52P1J08R0038, which mentions the same MIL-DTL-512C specification as solicitation number W52P1J10R0007. Furthermore, Ampal, Inc. is mentioned as an aluminum powder manufacturer for bombs in a 2012 U.S. Army Project Director presentation. U.S. Department of Defense delivery order W52P1J19F0062 was awarded to GD-OTS on Dec. 6, 2018, and is notable for including roughly $18.5m worth of aluminum powder sub-contracts to Ampal. AOAV approached Ampal for comment, but no reply was given.

Another major manufacturer of aluminum powder used in military explosives, Toyal America, Inc., Lockport, Illinois, acquired several contracts for said product. However, this aluminum powder was apparently not used as an additive to TNT but rather as an additive to propellants and PBXN-109 explosives, loaded into bombs at McAlester Army Ammunition Plant (AAP). Toyal received a corresponding $4.5m delivery order on January 30, 2020, the preceding solicitation mentioning a military specification for PBXN-109. AOAV approached Toyal for comment, but no reply was given.

4.3.1 Load, Assemble, and Pack (LAP) Operations for Mk-84 Bombs

McAlester AAP, McAlester, Oklahoma, is a vast  U.S. government-owned and operated facility, and the primary location for LAP operations of Mk-80 series bombs, including the Mk-84 and missile warheads. McAlester AAP is where the munitions are filled with explosives, assembled, packed, and stored. It may be the only remaining U.S. location for Mk-80 series bomb LAP operations. Pictures taken by Israeli military personnel show an Mk-84 bomb with lot number MCA13K004-002, which strongly suggests it was loaded with explosives at McAlester AAP in October 2013.  AOAV approached McAlester AAP for comment, but no reply was given.

4.4 JDAM Guidance Kits

Since production began around 1998, The Boeing Company, Chicago, Illinois, has produced over 400,000 JDAM guidance kits at its plant in St. Charles, Missouri. Most recently, Boeing received a modification to a 2015 contract for JDAM tail kits, spares, and technical services which will extend into 2025, with a spending ceiling of $10 billion. It includes foreign military sales. AOAV approached Beoing for comment, but no reply was given.

4.5 Bomb Fuzes

The GBU-31(V)1 consists mainly of an Mk-84 warhead and a JDAM tail kit, and can use three fuzes: FMU-139, FMU-143, or FMU-152. A DSU-33 sensor can be added to the nosewell of the weapon, giving the GBU-31(V)1JDAM all-up round (AUR) a height of burst fuze option. 

4.5.1 FMU-139

The FMU-139 fuze has been in service for over 25 years and can be used in all JDAM variants except the GBU-31A(V)4/B. L-3 Fuzing and Ordnance Systems, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, (which had previously owned fuze manufacturer KDI Precision Products, Inc.) won the definitive U.S. Navy contract  N0001914C0073 on Sept. 24, 2014, worth $64.9m. The contract, for FMU-139C/B electronic bomb fuzes, was preceded by definitive Navy contract N0001911C0090 on Sept. 29, 2011, worth $36m, also for FMU-139C/B fuzes. 

In November 2015, Orbital ATK, Dulles, Virginia (born of the 2014 merger between ATK and Orbital Sciences Corporation) acquired a contract worth $426m from the Navy for FMU-139D/B fuzes and accessories. ATK has been involved in the production of FMU-139B/B fuzes since as early as 2003, and FMU-139 fuzes as early as 1998 when it acquired Motorola’s fuze division, in Scottsdale, Arizona, where these fuzes had been manufactured previously. AOAV approached Orbital ATK for comment, but no reply was given.

4.5.2 FMU-143

ATK has been the major manufacturer of FMU-143 fuzes. Its division in Keyser, West Virginia, received a $20.6m delivery order in May 2012. The same year, ATK won a contract potentially worth $84 million as a prime contractor, in collaboration with L-3, for FMU-143 fuzes, with production taking place at L-3 in Cincinnati, Ohio and Rocket Center, West Virginia.

4.5.3 FMU-152

Kaman Corp., Bloomfield, Connecticut has been the sole source provider of the FMU-152A/B Joint Programmable Fuze (JPF) to the USAF since 2002, and the sole provider of the JPF to 26 other nations. In 2017, Kaman won an $85m contract for the JPF, and in 2020 they won another USAF contract worth up to $75m, to name but a few examples. Production of the JPF takes place in Orlando, Florida, and Bloomfield, Conn. AOAV approached Kaman Corp for comment, but no reply was given.

4.6 Bomb Fins

Accurus Aerospace, Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been the sole manufacturer and provider of JDAM tail fins for the Mk-84, BLU-109, and Mk-83 bombs, with contracts dating back to 1994. AOAV approached Accurus Aerospace for comment, but no reply was given.

4.7 DSU-33 Proximity Sensor

ATK has been the major and sole provider of DSU-33 sensors to the U.S. Navy and USAF since 1999, delivering over 154,000 units to these branches of the U.S. military. On Aug. 15, 2013, ATK won an indefinite-delivery contract worth $111m for DSU-33 sensors.

5. Conclusion

US-made Mk-84 bombs have been the weapon behind a number of civilian deaths and casualties, not only in Gaza but across the globe, either as a consequence of foreign military sales or because they were used by the U.S. military directly. 

In 2016, for instance, the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes in Yemen, killing 97 civilians, 25 of whom were children. During these airstrikes, U.S.-made Mk-84 bombs were used. Ten years previously, in July 2006, Israel used US-made Mk-84 bombs in Qana, southern Lebanon, to conduct airstrikes which would lead to the death of 57 civilians, most of whom were children. 

These two incidents, and the most recent examples from Gaza, show that weapons production and exports are not only very lucrative for the manufacturers involved, but also frequently have a terrible effect on civilians.

AOAV makes no claims that any of the companies cited in this report have acted illegally or outside the boundaries of US export limitations and did not design their weaponry systems to be used against civilian targets. AOAV approached all companies cited for comment, but no reply was given. As a side note, AOAV has examined precursor materials on IEDs and other improvised weaponry systems, so actions by non-state actors against Israeli civilians has been looked at extensively.

It is, however, hoped that the tracing of these manufactured weapons’ origins, highlighting not only their use but also their production chain, will provide useful evidence to policymakers and opinion formers who can use this knowledge to stimulate a proper debate about arms trade responsibilities, and the ethics and legal justification for arms sales in contexts where civilian harm is not only possible, but – as in the case of Gaza – seemingly inevitable.

Photographs are used with the kind permission of Mr. Frederic Gras.

AOAV would like to thank John Ismay, Neil Gibson, and Frederic Gras for their support and assistance.