Some of the saddest stories to come out of recent military conflicts concern children who found the unexploded remains of cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are designed to neutralize a wide area by carpeting it with many small explosive devices, called submunitions. But some of the submunitions on older cluster bombs fail to detonate, and can lie unnoticed for months or years until children pick them up. The result all too often is dead children, or lost limbs, blindness and other tragic wounds. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently approved a new policy to reduce the danger cluster bombs pose to noncombatants by setting a timetable for phasing out unreliable munitions and using only systems that detonate or go dormant quickly.
Unfortunately, by the time the new policy became public, the world community was well on its way to signing a treaty on cluster munitions that could have the unintended effect of killing civilians rather than protecting them. The problem is that a group of over 100 countries met during May in Dublin, Ireland and agreed in principle to a ban on cluster bombs so broad that it may force the United States and other major military powers to rely on much bigger bombs for neutralizing contested areas. The draft treaty, which could be signed as early as December, needs to be amended to permit use of newer cluster munitions that were designed to destroy only military targets. These newer munitions pose little danger to children because they automatically explode or shutdown shortly after release, but the draft treaty would ban them anyway.
How did this happen? Not surprisingly, politics was involved. The idea of prohibiting cluster munitions has been actively discussed in the international community ever since a treaty was approved in 1997 banning land mines. But the process for pursuing that goal developed into two parallel tracks, and several of the biggest military powers — China, Russia, India, America — have not been participating in the so-called Oslo Process that produced the draft treaty in May. The major military powers that did participate, mostly Europeans, saw to it that their newest cluster munitions were not banned at the May meeting. But under the planned criteria for prohibition, every cluster bomb in the current U.S. arsenal would become illegal, including weapons carefully designed to pose little danger to civilians.
The most important American cluster munition that could be affected is the Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW) carried on many U.S. fighters and bombers. Each SFW is designed to destroy multiple enemy military vehicles in a wide area using 40 submunitions called skeets. A combination of laser rangefinder and dual-band infrared seeker enables the submunitions to attack only those targets matching the characteristics of military vehicles, and if none is found there are two separate self-destruct modes to assure the bomblets will not remain unexploded. A third mechanism disables the submunition when batteries lose power a few minutes after release, making it safe even if it is not destroyed.
A single Sensor Fuzed Weapon equipped with 40 skeet submunitions can reliably destroy an entire enemy air defense site. Using the older Combined Effects Munition to do the same job would require 16 cluster bombs carrying a total of 3,200 submunitions. And since the submunitions on the older bomb have a 6% dud rate, 180 would remain scattered around the target site for some hapless child to find months or years later. The dud rate for SFW is less than 1%, and any unexploded skeets would be quickly rendered harmless by lack of electrical power. It makes no sense at all for the international community to prohibit systems like the Sensor Fuzed Weapon, because they pose minimal danger to non-combatants and any ban would force warfighters to shift to more powerful munitions that cause much greater carnage in war zones.
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