Over the last years, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has significantly increased. Those weapons, originally designed for use in open battlefields, have devastating effects on civilians and infrastructure, the most recent case of such massive devastation being Aleppo in Syria. The use of those weapons in populated areas raises serious political, legal, socio-economic and humanitarian questions.

Today, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining GICHD presented its two-year study on “Characterisation of Explosive Weapons” which examined the effects of different weapons systems currently used in armed conflict in populated areas: rocket launchers, artillery guns, mortars, tank guns and air-launched bombs. A panel discussion included high-level exerts from ICRC, UNICEF, UNOCHA, ARES, Insecurity Insight as well as a former UK army official.

The findings of the study are now consolidated in a final report and 5 annexes. The project was guided and advised by a group of 18 international specialists and practitioners from the humanitarian, policy, advocacy and legal fields. More than 100 incidents involving the use of these systems were recorded and analysed. All the findings can be found on the all-new website

Key Findings of the study

Explosive weapons are generally designed to kill and injure human beings and to destroy, or otherwise incapacitate vehicles and infrastructure. When they are used in populated areas, the impact of their use is often amplified, as confirmed by our case studies. Besides the significant human cost, substantial physical damage was observed being inflicted on essential infrastructure, homes and businesses.

Accuracy and precision


  • The study found that the accuracy and precision of the weapon systems studied differ significantly, and that indirect fire weapons are hardly accurate.
  • Precision guidance systems are capable to considerable accuracy and precision but are still expensive and hence accessible to only small number of armed forces.
  • Artillery rockets are neither accurate nor precise, due to their design as an area weapon.


Whilst there are measures the user can take to adjust the effects of an explosive weapon in terms of the way it functions, many systems such as multi barrel rocket launchers produce design-dependent effects intended to cause widespread destruction. For example, the study found that the unguided 122 mm BM-21 multi barrel rocket launcher, fired at maximum range, will affect structures and humans in an area of the size of at least 27 football pitches.

High explosive yield

  • Precision-guided munitions may still carry wide area effects in populated areas: When the explosive yield inside the munition is too big, it does not matter if the target was accurately and consistently hit. This represents a technical and tactical dilemma to armed forces, specific to populated areas.
  • Other factors, such as weapon design, weapon’s alignment and sighting, munitions management, operator training, weather conditions and terrain characteristics that significantly affect the accuracy and precision.


The Mk 82 bomb, weighting 227 kg, contains approximately 89 kg of high explosive; i.e. is 50 times more powerful than mortar bombs and impacts an area of 3019 m2. Within this area, it will cause the collapse of most buildings, severely damage heavily built concrete structures and produce injuries to all persons present, killing the majority of them. In 2016, various configurations of the Mk 82 were used in a number of countries and territories, including Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Higher casualty rate in populated areas

  • Urban environments may generate a range of secondary fragmentation effects not found on the open battlefield (i.e. those effects not originating from the detonating munition, but from its immediate environment), causing a higher proportion of casualties.
  • We found that humans are particularly vulnerable to blast overpressure and reflected blast waves in semi-enclosed, and enclosed spaces typical to populated areas – rooms and corridors, market places, narrow roads surrounded by buildings.
  • Humans are also particularly fragile against secondary fragmentation and debris such as shattering window glass and the flight of supersonic pieces of concrete and metal from structures in urban settings. In addition to that, fuel, gas and other inflammable liquids as well as chemicals and poisons present in offices and households also affect humans present. This is not well understood, and we invite more research to characterize those secondary explosive weapon effects in urban settings. 


Window glass for instance often forms a significant proportion of the secondary fragmentation. One example of how dangerous glass can be as a form of secondary fragmentation can be seen from analysis of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia: 95% of the survivors suffered injuries from fragmentation; of these, 88% were injured by glass.

About the study

The study has the aim of better informing and helping to understand the ongoing discussions on the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas, documenting clear and understandable facts related to those weapons. The study looks at various effects, and the effects’ interaction with each other, which impact civilians and infrastructures. It also highlights challenges in accuracy and precision as well as possible measures to better control the impact of these weapons.

The research focuses on the inherent technical characteristics of the explosive weapon systems studied and their use in populated areas, examining both the methods and means of warfare.

The selection criteria for the weapons systems studies was based on frequent use in contemporary conflict, wide stockpiling amongst the world’s militaries, and available data of their munitions effects – including data on reported incidents of them impacting populated areas.

Publication date : 06 February 2017