Pentagon Claims Cluster Bombs ‘Save Lives’

By Noah Shachtman |The Pentagon not only told the world yesterday that it would keep on using cluster bombs — it called the controversial weapons life-savers, too.

The Defense Department unveiled its new policy on cluster munitions. In it, the weapons, which scatter tiny bomblets over huge swaths of territory, are described as “legitimate weapons with clear military utility.” Not only do “they provide distinct advantages against a range of targets,” a Defense Department press release notes, but “their use reduces risks to U.S. forces and can save U.S. lives.” The Pentagon says the munitions will continue to be used, “in a manner consistent with the law of armed conflict.”

But the law is changing. In May, just about every country on the planet signed a treaty banning cluster bombs. The U.S. was one of four holdouts.

The problem with the weapons, critics tell the Los Angeles Times, is that they “have a high failure rate. Many bomblets may not explode on contact, and later can be accidentally triggered by civilians.”

The new policy is designed to reduce the danger of unexploded bomblets by mandating that bombs with a “dud rate” higher than 1% will not be used after 2018. Until then, the use of a cluster bomb with a higher failure rate must be approved by regional commanders.

“For the U.S. to take another 10 years to eliminate the worst of the cluster munitions is completely inadequate from a humanitarian point of view,” said Bonnie Docherty, an arms researcher with Human Rights Watch.

There are about 720 million of the bomblets, the Times observes. “The Pentagon adopted a policy in 2005 banning acquisition of cluster bombs with a dud rate higher than 1%, but the inventory contains many munitions purchased before then.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Almarah K. Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said certain situations may require the use of cluster bombs, citing as an example the presence of militants on the roof of a building occupied by civilians. A cluster bomb dropped on the roof could kill or injure the militants without destroying the building, she said.

“It is not pretty; nothing about war ever is,” Belk said.

Our own David Hambling, who has written extensively on these sorts of munitions, isn’t buying it. “This policy seems very reactive and defensive; rather than taking a lead, it’s more like a rearguard action to hang on to what they have,” he writes in to say.

For an organization which normally rises to new challenges with impressive feats of technological development, the tone is oddly defeatist: where else do you hear munitions people saying “what we have is the best possible – no technological advance can replace than existing cluster munitions.”

Meanwhile, it’s worth looking at cluster bomb alternatives already being developed by industry – I’m thinking reactive material options and munitions like miniature bombs like CLAWS.

My view: we can do better than this.