The Blog

The Arms Control Minefield

The unintended consequences of banning cluster bombs.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.