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Wide-area impact: Investigating the wide-area effect of explosive weapons

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Introduction: Wide-Area Effects

“Large bombs and missiles, indirect fire weapon systems including mortars, rockets and artillery, as well as multibarrel rocket launchers have served armies well in open battlefields. But when used against military objectives located in populated areas, they are prone to indiscriminate effects, with often devastating consequences for civilians… the use of explosive weapons that have a wide impact in densely populated areas should be avoided.”

Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations General Assembly, 15 October 2015.1

Explosive weapons include a wide range of ordnance, both manufactured and improvised. They range in size and scale from hand grenades to massive ballistic ‘Scud’ missiles. They may be dropped from helicopters and drones, fired by tanks and artillery systems, or launched by hand. What unites all these weapons is their shared ability to project blast and fragmentation effects from around a point of detonation. All explosive weapons, in this way, affect an area. Their killing and maiming capacity cannot be limited to a single point, as a sniper’s bullet may. They kill or injure anyone, or damage anything, in their vicinity.

The use of such weapons in a populated area is, therefore, of grave concern as it exposes civilians to a high and unacceptable risk of harm. Since 2011, UK-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has recorded the immediate impacts of explosive weapons around the world. Between 2011 and 2014, civilians made up 90 per cent of casualties when explosive weapons were used in populated areas. In other, non-populated, areas this fell to 34 per cent.

Wide Area Impact

The risk to civilians is most severe when explosive weapons that have wide-area effects are used in populated areas. Wide-area effects may result from one of three factors, either alone or in combination. The International Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) has broken down this concept into three broad categories of explosive weapons:

• Those that have a wide impact area because of the large destructive radius of the individual munition used, i.e. its large blast and fragmentation range or effect (such as large bombs or missiles) – in this case we look at the Paveway air-dropped bomb series;

• Those that have a wide impact area because of the inherent lack of accuracy of the delivery system (such as unguided indirect fire weapons, including artillery and mortars) – in this case we look at mortars;

• Those that have a wide impact area because the weapon system is designed to deliver multiple munitions over a wide area (such as multi-launch rocket systems) – in this case we look at the Grad multiple rocket series.

In Wide-Area Impact, AOAV investigates each of the ICRC’s broad categories in turn. Through fieldwork conducted over the course of 2015, AOAV has taken case studies of explosive violence that occurred in that year and used these to explore how the technical characteristics that give a weapon wide-area impacts translate into severe and long-lasting civilian harm on the ground.

This report is intended to help illustrate the broad descriptive parameters of the term ‘wide-area effects’ and to further the development of a collective understanding of the need for States to act to restrict the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.