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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:

While it is undoubtedly true that that problem is a real one, signatories of the treaty fail to take into account the fact that cluster bombs are still the best weapon against enemy forces in trenches--the bomblets can bounce into them. And in fact, the munitions were used to great effect by the U.S. in Iraq against dug-in Republican Guard troops, as well as by Israel against entrenched Hezbollah soldiers in the 2006 Lebanon war. In the latter instance, Israel was severely attacked by international opinion since its military targets were supposedly too close to civilian areas, but when it comes to the treaty, the fundamental question is not whether cluster bombs were used ethically in any particular instance, but rather whether they can be used ethically at all. In an ideal world, all cluster bomblets would defuse quickly, and thus pose less of a humanitarian threat, but until that technology is available, it seems reasonable for countries to be permitted to use them responsibly. This is why the U.S.--along with China, Russia, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Brazil--oppose a total ban. Unlike most of these countries, few of the 100 countries signing the treaty anticipate having to fight trench warfare anytime soon.

This is certainly on target, but in fact does not go far enough. Arguments against submunitions are based on rank emotionalism and little else. They fail to take into account that a blanket prohibition of submunitions and their dispensers will merely result in combatants substituting "unitary" HE munitions.

Submunitions were developed because unitary munitions are very inefficient: most of their blast and fragmentation effect is directed outward from the point of impact, which means that the lethal radius increases only as the cube root of weapon yield. Thus, a 500-lb bomb can create a crater some 25 meters across and can destroy soft targets in the open out to several hundred meters, but a 1000-lb bomb gets you only less than 100 meters more lethal radius for a doubling of the weight. At the point of impact, a unitary weapon produces massive overkill--but the effect falls off rapidly as one moves away from the point of detonation. Submunitions, in contrast, disperse uniformly over a large area. While each submunition has a rather limited blast effect (most dual-purpose submunitions weigh about 1-2 kg), because several hundred are sewn over an area of several hundred meters, the entire area has a uniformly high kill probability.

The Convention is also addressing an issue that, for the United States, has already been resolved. While there were problems with dud rounds in the past, modern submunitions are self-sanitizing; i.e., they neutralize themselves after several hours, which is not merely a humanitarian effort, but also highly pragmatic: after you bomb someplace, you need to be able to traverse the area in safety. Now, most civilian cluster bomb casualties have two causes: (1) exposure to delay-action or dud rounds; (2) the proximity of civilians to combatants in the battle area. Over time, casualties due to (1) will decrease due to improved technology, but it seems likely that casualties due to (2) will increase because unlawful combatants like to embed themselves amongst non-combatants in order to attain a degree of immunity. In the recent war against Hezbollah, a number of Lebanese civilians (though not nearly as many as advertised) were wounded by Israeli submunitions, which in turn were being aimed at Hezbollah gun and rocket launcher emplacements deliberately sited in the middle of civilian areas (a violation of the laws of war, not that anyone really cares what Hezbollah does). For destroying soft targets like a rocket launcher, small dual-purpose submunitions are ideal--they have enough power to penetrate the case of a rocket, but not so much power as to obliterate everything in the vicinity.

Now, consider the options the IDF-AF would have if submunitions were outlawed. The Hezbollah rocket sites would still be there, and the Israelis would still have to destroy them. Only now, they would have to use 250- or 500-lb bombs (guided or unguided, take your pick). Let us assume that the Israelis are every bit as good as the myth, and every bomb lands directly on the target. Since our rocket launcher is parked in an alley or side street between two houses, or perhaps in a schoolyard, we have to assume that those structures would be utterly destroyed--and other structures within a radius of several hundred meters as well. Whereas civilians were largely protected from cluster bombs as long as they stayed in their houses (and preferably in their basements), a house offers no protection from a near miss by even a 250-lb unitary bomb; everybody inside will be killed or injured. The net result of this "humane" reform is therefore a greater number of non-combatant casualties, and much greater collateral damage to buildings and infrastructure. This is why they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

For many of us, the Submunitions Convention is a case of déjà vu that brings to mind the equally misguided Ottawa Treaty banning the production, sale and use of anti-personnel landmines. It is tragic that millions of civilians, including many children, have been maimed by landmines, but that is largely the fault of armies that, either through carelessness or malice, misuse what remain--despite the protestations of Angelina Jolie or even respected military commentators like the late COL David Hackworth--an extremely valuable weapon in a military commander's arsenal.

Mines are not really intended to cause casualties--historically, mines account for under 5 percent of all battlefield deaths and injuries. Rather, they are intended to hinder movement and channel it into prepared "kill zones" covered by more lethal weapons. That is, if one is defending a large area with a small force, mines can be used to supplement terrain to protect one's flanks from turning, as well as to ensure that the enemy either sticks to the roads (which are covered by fire), or moves into a prepared ambush. All minefields can be breached, given time, which is why they must also be covered by fire to suppress engineers trying to remove the mines. Because engineers generally work on foot, anti-personnel mines must be sewn together with anti-vehicle mines (the former weigh 1-2 kg, the latter as much as 15 kg).

Now, David Hackworth made a big fuss about banning anti-personel mines, but Hackworth's experience was in Vietnam, a very different kind of war; he was also dealing with a very different kind of army than the one we field today. Though there was much talk about "friendly fire" casualties due to some idiot walking into our own minefields, Hackworth certainly wasn't complaining when he laid out AP mines and Claymores to secure his perimeters. In fact, minefields sometimes were the only things keeping U.S. firebases from being infiltrated and overrun. For the same reason, the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea is lined by a belt of several hundred thousand mines of all types: not only does this keep North Korean infiltrators from flitting across the line at will, the mine belt would also impose significant delays on North Korean forces in the event of a full-blown invasion, allowing the United States and South Korea to mobilize their forces. The mine belt would also force North Korean mechanized units to stick to roads and other well-defined corridors, where they would be extremely vulnerable to tanks, aircraft and artillery. As long as mines have this kind of utility, efforts to ban them will remain futile. No weapon has ever been banned by an international convention unless it was already obsolete (e.g., the soft lead bullet) or the parties had already decided that the weapon was more trouble than it was worth (chemical weapons).

Instead of banning mines, the international community should look to real cause of civilian mine casualties--the use of mines by unlawful combatant groups that don't care about civilian casualties anyway (I include the Soviet Union among these unlawful combatants, since they deployed in Afghanistan mines that were designed to look like children's toys), and the use of mines by badly trained armies that do not follow the well established procedures for laying minefields, including marking the extent of the fields, drawing diagrams of the fields so that they may be traversed, and removing the mines once their tactical utility has ended. We do all of those things; most of our enemies do not. Technology is helping to reduce the potential for civilian casualties due to "lost" mines. As with submunitions, most of our mines now have electronic fuses that operate off a battery with a very limited life. When the battery dies, the mine becomes inert. You would really have to work hard to set one off after that point. Since mines can be made from just about anything (the VC used a wooden box, a lump of C4 plastic explosive, a 7.62mm rifle cartridge and a nail), banning mines will really only affect Western standing armies, which for the most part use their mines in a responsible manner. It does nothing at all to inhibit people like al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, who can always make their own, minus all the safety features.

But cracking down on the al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the myriad lesser nasty boys who plague the world would require something more than thinking pious thoughts and putting one's signature on a meaningless piece of paper. And while the humanitarians of the world seem willing to do anything to raise awareness of the threat of mines and submunitions, they seem to have little stomach for tracking down and punishing those who deliberately use these weapons to target civilians.

Stuart Koehl is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.