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The Arms Control Minefield

The unintended consequences of banning cluster bombs.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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I'm not a big fan of arms control agreements for the simple reason that, more often than not, their effect is mainly cosmetic and they do nothing at all to rectify the problem they are meant to address. Thus, to go back into "ancient" history, the 1896 Hague Convention banned the use of unjacketed bullets by military forces. There was a good an humane reason for this--the slow, large-caliber, soft lead bullets used in the age of black powder did horrific damage to human bodies, crushing bones and mushrooming in soft tissue to tear up vital organs. The ban was an attempt to force the use of weapons that would only cause "clean" wounds.

But the ban did not have the intended effect. Shortly after it was signed, most of the world's armies switched over to more powerful nitrocellulose-based propellants, which in turn caused muzzle velocities to increase from around 1,000 feet per second to close to 2,700 feet per second. All modern armies shortly thereafter adopted copper- or steel-jacketed bullets--not because of humanitarian concerns, but because at higher velocities, lead bullets tended to melt in the barrel. At the same time, most armies went to much smaller and lighter bullets which, when they hit human flesh, tended to crush tissues by the supersonic shock waves they created. The resulting wounds were as bad, if not worse, than those caused by the recently banned soft lead bullets.

Something similar happened the other day in Oslo, when approximately 100 countries became signatories to the International Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, sale, transfer, stockpiling, and use of bombs, missiles and artillery rounds that dispense submunitions.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, a cluster bomb (more properly a "subminitions dispenser") is an aerial bomb, missile or artillery shell which, instead of being filled with high explosives (HE), contains a number of smaller explosive devices (the submunitions) which are spread over a wide area when the dispenser bursts open in mid-air. First used in World War II, but popularized in the Vietnam War, cluster bombs are made to perform a variety of missions, including incendiary, anti-personnel, and anti-armor. Most are just relatively small bombs similar to hand grenades, but some are quite sophisticated, such as the BLU-108 Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW), also known as "Skeet." Each SFW releases three explosively formed penetrator warheads equipped with an infrared seeker. These scan for the hot engines of tanks and other vehicles, and when in range send a hypervelocity copper slug smashing down from above--very effective against Saddam Hussein's tanks.

It is the simpler type of cluster bomb which has given the nervous nellies of the international humanitarian community the willies, mainly because the earlier versions of anti-personnel submunitions had a high dud rate (upwards of 30 percent in some instances) but remained armed and dangerous for years afterwards, creating a hazard for livestock and civilians who might accidentally tread upon them or innocently pick them up.

Over at Commentary's blog Contentions, Justin Shubow notes that, as is frequently the case, advocates of the convention focus only on the threat to civilians, without considering that cluster bombs have real military utility: