Monday, March 26, 2007

Cluster Munitions -- Do They "Hinder" Commanders?

I have noted before (February 23) the resolve of at least 46 countries who met in Oslo, Norway in February to draw up an international treaty to ban cluster munitions, an indiscriminate weapon that, like land mines, are victim-activated.

As with the final treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, the prospect of a treaty banning all cluster munitions is opposed by the Bush administration on the basis that it would unduly limit the flexibility of battlefield commanders. Never mind that as recently as 2003, a “lessons learned” after action report on the efficacy of fire support provided to the 3rd Infantry Division categorized cluster munitions as “losers” and “a Cold War relic” especially unfit “for use in urban areas.”

In any evaluation of whether a particular weapon is “appropriate,” it’s helpful to note the purpose for and, when available, the history of a weapon’s development. Cluster bombs were originally designed to attack large enemy formations in the open or in static, camouflaged positions (e.g., a tree line). Instead of repeatedly risking pilots and aircraft to enemy ground fire or to surface-to-air missiles, commanders would be able to achieve the same effect with one or two planes dropping one cluster bomb each. (Depending on the type of munition and the delivery system, the footprint of one cluster munition can be as large as one square kilometer or about 250 acres).

On August 1, 2006, Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Arlen Specter (PA), Byron Dorgan (ND), and Tom Harkin (IA) introduced S.3768, the bi-partisan “Victim-Activated Landmine Abolition Act of 2006” that, had it become law, would have prohibited the Federal Government from procuring “victim-activated land mines or any other weapon designed to be victim activated in any circumstance.” Although only land mines were specifically identified by type, the bill’s language could be broadly interpreted as including cluster munitions should the Pentagon be so inclined.

With the February 2007 Oslo meeting approaching, the White House stance hardened against any treaty that specifically sought to ban cluster munitions. Expecting such intransigence, the Senate again in the 110th Congress took the lead – this time proposing legislation that mandated curbs specifically on cluster munition production, stockpiling, transfer, or use by the United States. Senators Dianne Feinstein (CA), Patrick Leahy (VT), Barbara Mikulski (MD), and Bernie Sanders (VT) introduced S.594, the “Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2007,” on February 14, 2007 (S. 594). Although the proposed bill does not apply to every type of cluster munition – it prohibits expenditures for the use, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 percent – or in every circumstance – it bans the use by U.S. forces of cluster munitions in or near civilian populated areas – it effectively proscribes all uses as the united States does not have stocks of cluster munitions with such a low failure rate.

While the Bush administration’s penchant for asserting that Congress is trying to micro-manage or is “curtailing the flexibility of field commanders” whenever it seems on the verge of exercising its legislative responsibility for oversight is nothing more than a canard, a fair question is concerns how and two what extent would a nearly-complete ban on cluster munitions affect strategy and tactics.

The answer requires distinguishing between “conventional” and counterinsurgency warfare.

Looking at conventional warfare tactics with a near-total ban in place, a ground commander with no cluster munitions to destroy enemy formations before the close-in land battle starts would have to rely on the volume of “conventional” indirect and close air fire support and on the direct fire from tank guns. In terms of land force capabilities, U.S. M-I tank crews are generally better trained, their tanks easily outrange all equivalent armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons used by other armies, can fire on the move as accurately as when stopped, and fire at least as rapidly as non-U.S. armored vehicles.

Strategically in conventional war scenarios, the overall effect also is minimal because, in the aftermath of the first (1991) and second Gulf Wars (March – May 2003), no actual or potential opponent will field a conventional force to oppose a similar U.S. force in “symmetrical” combat. In the event that such a force would be mustered against the U.S. or a U.S.-led coalition, American generals would avoid combat in built-up areas because such engagements tend to involve high attrition rates – particularly for the “outside” force.

Looking at the effects in counter-insurgencies of a near-total ban on cluster munitions as regards battlefield tactics, the ban would, if anything, help the effort of U.S. commanders. Since counter-insurgency is an effort to win hearts and minds, a commander who even considers a resort to cluster munitions in a built-up area (where insurgent meets counter-insurgent in the contest to control or at least influence the population’s allegiance) has already lost the battle and probably the “war.”

Strategically, insurgents do not mass in numerically significant groups large enough to present a target array that justifies as the “weapon of choice” a cluster munition – whether in open terrain or in built-up areas. IF an insurgency gets to the point that enemy forces are massing in 50, 75, or greater strength and doing so in a way that U.S. forces can easily detect, either the enemy has overestimated his capabilities or the U.S. and any coalition partners should be making exit plans.

As of February 14, 2007, the same date as the introduction of S. 594, the UN Mine Action Coordination Center (UNMACC) directing the clean-up of unexploded cluster bomblets in South Lebanon as a result of last summer’s Israeli-Hezbollah 33 day war, had identified 847 cluster bomb strike locations that had contaminated 34 million square meters. Since August 14, 2006 ceasefire, UNMACC reports 216 civilian and demining casualties in southern Lebanon –30 deaths and 186 injuries.

Be assured, there will be more.

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