Gaza war: Israel's show of unguided bombs raises fears of more civilian deaths

Israel has launched one of its fiercest air campaigns in decades

Smoke rises from the northern part of the Gaza Strip after a barrage of Israeli air strikes. EPA
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Israel’s apparent use of inaccurate unguided bombs – pictured in an official Israeli air force social media post on Monday – highlights the massive amount of air power being deployed in the continuing attack on Gaza, which has killed about 3,000 people, mostly civilians.

Analysts say the number of air strikes – about 6,000 in the first six days of fighting, the Israeli air force says – means Israel could be going through reserve stockpiles that have been in place since the 1980s.

But they warn any reliance on unguided bombs could come with a heavy strategic and moral price as the number of Palestinian civilian deaths surges.

Israel began heavy air strikes on the evening of October 7 following Hamas's surprise attack into Israel that killed 1,300 people, also mostly civilians.

This week’s aerial bombardment has already featured a similar number of air strikes to the entire July to August 2014 Israel-Hamas war.

Experts say the bombs – M117 “iron bombs,” – were loaded on to Israeli F-16s without special kits that turn them into precision weapons that can hit targets with an accuracy of several metres.

Without this modification, the unguided weapons are harder to use accurately. Israel has used unguided bombs in previous conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, but these were the more aerodynamic MK-84 and MK-82 types compared to the M117, which according to a study by US defence think tank Rand, were used in areas where there was thought to be low risk of civilian harm.

It is unclear how possible this will be in the current war, now that more than one million people are displaced across Gaza.

US military aid

Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, which turn unguided "dumb" bombs into guided "smart" bombs, have been a regular feature of US military aid to Israel, with supplies to the Israeli air force from the US often numbering in the thousands, demonstrated by a 2015 Israeli request to Washington for as many as 14,500 kits.

In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel, the US sped up deliveries of a $735 million order of thousands of the devices in 2021, rushing 1,000 of the kits to Israel.

The decision to use obsolete bombs could come down to the need for “preservation of more advanced munitions for other tasks, perhaps requiring higher precision”, says David Hartwell, a security and political-risk analyst focused on the Middle East.

While Mr Hartwell says we cannot know Israel’s exact strategic thinking on the current war, the decision “could be indicative of looser rules of engagement being employed in Gaza currently than in previous bouts of fighting, or alternatively that the Israelis are using them on targets with large circular error probabilities.”

Circular error probable is a military term that refers to the likelihood that 50 per cent of bombs dropped will land within a given radius of a target. For precision-guided weapons, this radius can be only a few metres, but for unguided weapons, it can be dozens or even hundreds of metres.

Until the current conflict, Israel was reportedly stocking up on precision bombs, clearing out unguided stocks, according to a recent article by retired US admiral James Stavridis.

Adm Stavridis said an arms depot known as the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition–Israel, was “full of so-called dumb munitions [those without sophisticated guidance systems], such as the 155mm rounds and thousands of ‘iron bombs’ that are simply dropped from aircraft so gravity can do its work”.

Danilo Delle Fave, a military analyst at the Verona-based International Team for the Study of Security, agrees with Mr Hartnell that Israel could be trying to save its stocks of precision weapons amid fears of a wider conflict.

“Precision weapons, and in general high-tech weapons, require more time to produce, and, as the war in Ukraine shows us, stockpiles can be emptied in few months," he says. "Hezbollah is undoubtedly the most dangerous actor and guided weapons will be spared for them and, in the worst-case scenario, against Iranian forces.”

He cautions, however, that it is too early to say the extent to which Israel might be using unguided bombs in the current conflict.

He warns their use could cause “setbacks at the strategic level (for example, a revolt in the West Bank). We cannot exclude that they could be used also against pro-Iranian Iraqi and Yemeni militias in Syria, but so far they have been targeted with precision weapons.”

Updated: October 19, 2023, 5:10 AM