Nearly a decade after agreeing to stop using cluster bombs, the Pentagon has reversed course, indefinitely delaying a ban on the controversial weapons that was previously planned to take effect at the beginning of 2019.
“The Department of Defense last month abandoned a 2008 policy that would have reduced the U.S. inventory of cluster munitions and imposed strict new safety and quality control standards on these anti-personnel weapons, which have been implicated in numerous civilian fatalities,” notes Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News.
“Dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground, each cluster bomb opens up mid-air, releasing hundreds to thousands of sub-munitions,” note Dan Mahanty, Julie Snyder and Anna Khalfaoui of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) in a recent article. “Research has shown that many of these submunitions do not explode on impact leaving a slew of de facto landmines that kill civilian men and women, and — because they often look like small, bright toys — particularly children, long after the close of hostilities.”
They write that Israel’s use of cluster bombs in the 2006 war in Lebanon provided a “devastating example” of this distressing dynamic. “According to UN data, these leftover submunitions had a failure rate of more than 25 percent, killing many civilians during and after the conflict,” they write. “The destruction in southern Lebanon galvanized calls for the adoption of an international treaty banning cluster munitions, and in May 2008 the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted.”
Although a majority of the world’s countries signed the treaty, the United States was just one of many — including Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Venezuela — that rejected the CCM.
“However, less than a month after the CCM’s adoption, it released a policy stating that the U.S. military would eliminate its stockpiles of cluster munition, but only those with an unexploded ordnance rate above 1 percent,” write Mahanty, Snyder and Khalfaoui. “Furthermore, the new policy stated that after 2018, the U.S. military would only employ cluster munitions with an error rate of less than 1 percent. The United States defended its policy on the basis that cluster munitions can comply with international humanitarian law and can cause less harm to civilians than alternative weapons. But the new policy reverses that. It allows commanders to use older, existing cluster munitions — those with a failure rate greater than 1 percent — ‘until the capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions,’ and it halts the destruction of the stockpile.” Though the exact size of that cluster munitions stockpile is unclear, it is thought to be in the millions.
The U.S. had been moving towards greater restrictions on cluster bombs as recently as last year. Following an outcry over the Saudi-led coalition’s use of American-made cluster bombs in Yemen, the Obama administration “quietly placed a hold on the transfer” of such weapons to the kingdom.
“Furthermore, cluster munitions today may be an anachronism,” writes Aftergood, citing a Congressional Research Service report issued last week. “Given current and predicted future precision weaponry trends, cluster munitions might be losing their military relevance—much as chemical weapons did between World War I and World War II,” the report notes. Indeed, also in 2016, the last U.S. company to manufacture the kind of cluster bombs set to be banned announced it would stop doing so.
Yet Pentagon planners apparently aren’t quite ready to give up on a cherished method of inspiring terror.
“Cluster munitions are legitimate weapons with clear military utility,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in a memorandum outlining the new policy. “Although the (Defense) Department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we cannot risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities.” Shanahan “also asserted that cluster munitions ‘may result’ in less unintended harm to civilians and others than if other types of weapons have to be used instead against certain targets like massed formations of enemy troops and time-sensitive or moving targets,” notes the Associated Press.
“The Department of Defense has determined that cluster munitions remain a vital military capability in the tougher warfighting environment ahead of us, while still a relatively safe one,” Pentagon spokesman Tom Crossen reportedly said in a statement issued the same day the new policy was announced.
Cluster bombs may be nightmarish weapons that kill not indiscriminately, but rather implicitly target the most defenseless members of the populations they’re dropped on — yet according to official thinking, they are “relatively safe.” Is it any wonder that the same authorities promoting such views are unable to win the “global war on terror” that they profess to be fighting?