On the night of November 5, a tree-trunk-sized rocket roared over the hills of Nagorno-Karabakh and slammed into a house in Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Azerbaijan's breakaway region. Three people were reportedly killed. It was the latest, deadly use of what local authorities say was a Smerch rocket.
The city of Barda, Azerbaijan, was hit on October 28 with an even more lethal barrage when 21 people were reported killed, including a Red Crescent volunteer, after cluster bombs carried inside Smerch rockets sprayed shrapnel throughout the center of the provincial town.
Smerch -- which means “tornado” in Russian -- is a truck-mounted, multiple rocket launcher system developed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and now manufactured in the central Russian city of Tula.
After photographs of Smerch tail fins poking from the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh were widely published, the fearsome weapon became a symbol of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also led to widespread misreporting.
Despite reports describing the missiles embedded in the ground as “unexploded,” Miles Hawthorn, the program manager in Nagorno-Karabakh for the mine-clearing NGO the HALO Trust, told RFE/RL that in most cases the Smerch rockets “are functioning as designed.”
Hawthorn, who was based in Stepanakert until recently, says most of the Smerch rockets embedded in the ground that he and his team are currently aware of are “carriers” which have released either cluster bombs or other “submunitions.” He explained that “before [the rocket] hits the ground, when it’s over its target, the carrier will release its submunitions which will disperse over a wide area, then the tail of the rocket will just carry on through its flight and embed itself in the ground. And that’s what you’re seeing. It hasn’t failed to explode.”
As well as versions of the Smerch that spray small cluster bombs, one warhead of the weapon is designed to split off from the main body of the rocket while in flight, then descend by parachute. The meters-long parachute bomb explodes just above the ground, spraying a devastating burst of shrapnel. Human Rights Watch identified at least one such warhead used in the attacks on Barda. Hawthorn told RFE/RL that small parachutes were seen descending moments before explosions rocked a maternity hospital in Stepanakert in late October.
But, although most of the Smerch tail fins poking from the ground on both sides of the conflict are probably largely harmless, Hawthorn says that is almost impossible to confirm. “Even if there is one out of 100 [unexploded rockets] then it’s too risky to assume.” The lesser danger of unburned rocket fuel also remains a factor for all of the Smerch remnants.
Hawthorn says the HALO Trust has extracted smaller rockets in other war zones using a method known as “hook and line” -- to tie a steel cable around the tail fins of the weapon and then use an armored excavator to pull it from the ground like a tooth.
It may be a long time until the rocket tails spiking out of the ground in and around Nagorno-Karabakh are removed, but Hawthorn says “we are cautiously optimistic. As soon as it’s deemed safe enough, that’s what we will be back in there doing.”