On August 1 an international convention banning cluster munitions will enter into effect having been ratified by 30 countries. Another 75 have signed the convention but not fully ratified it. The convention prohibits signatory nations from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, retaining or transferring to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions. Nations that have not signed the convention include the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and Brazil.
A cluster munition consists of a delivery system, usually a warhead, bomb or shell that contains a number of smaller munitions or bomblets that are dispersed over an area. The argument against cluster bombs is straightforward: unexploded bomblets pose a continuing hazard to noncombatants. There are numerous reports of civilian casualties from unexploded bomblets going back as far as the Vietnam War. A different argument, but an important one, is that combatants have used cluster munitions with insufficient discrimination, in effect placing civilians at undue risk.
The reason that the United States and other major military powers have not signed the convention is that cluster munitions serve an extremely useful and legitimate military role. In war there are many potential targets such as airfields, armored formations, dispersed infantry units, air defense batteries and supply convoys that cover relatively large areas. With cluster munitions a small number of platforms or weapons systems can have the impact that used to require squadrons of bombers or batteries of artillery. To attack them without the use of cluster munitions would require the expenditure of a large number of conventional artillery shells, rockets or bombs. Such an expenditure of ammunition might not be possible, might produce even greater collateral damage than would occur through the use of cluster munitions, and might not be as effective. Moreover, a common military tactic is to disperse units so as to reduce their vulnerability to conventional munitions. Cluster weapons deny them this tactic.
The U.S. has responded to the calls to ban cluster munitions. It is now U.S. policy not to export cluster munitions and to develop new munitions that are 99 percent reliable. This is a lower failure rate than we could expect if the military simply used massive amounts of conventional shells and bombs on area targets.
The current generation of U.S. cluster munitions meets all the U.S. government requirements. The Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW) consists of 40 smart Skeet submunitions. Because of the SFW’s advanced targeting capabilities, fewer of these weapons are required compared to older cluster munitions to achieve the desired effects. In addition, the Skeet has multiple self-destruct features and a self-neutralization feature utilizes a battery time-out, which shuts down all functions. The Skeet has demonstrated better than 99 percent reliability.
In war there will often be a requirement to target enemy forces spread out over large areas. Until fully autonomous weapons are invented, very reliable cluster munitions are the best option. This does not mean that even a 99 percent reliable cluster munition should be employed indiscriminately. It is not clear why such weapons have been used in Afghanistan. But there are legitimate military uses for such weapons. It should also be noted that hostile forces, both traditional militaries and insurgent/terrorist groups, have taken to deploying in civilian areas, in effect using civilians as shields which is a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. When hostile forces choose to behave in such a manner it is they who put civilians at risk, and not the military that is responding to their attacks.
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