Cluster Munitions II
January 27th, 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris between the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong. Two months and two days later, March 29th, the last U.S. ground troops departed Vietnam as President Richard Nixon proclaimed that “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come.”
But U.S. warfighting didn’t end even then. Not until August 14th, 1973, did the bombing of Cambodia and USAF air strikes supporting South Vietnamese army operations end in accordance with legislation enacted by Congress earlier in the year.
What also didn’t end – and what has still not ended to this day – are the deaths and injuries sustained by Cambodian and especially Laotian civilians from unexploded “cluster munitions” dropped by U.S. aircraft during the secret bombing campaign of those countries ordered by President Nixon.
Cluster “bomblets” had existed for nearly half a century before U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The British Army developed cluster munitions during World War I as an incendiary weapon against German troops and field fortifications. By World War II, many countries had acquired cluster bombs with interchangeable payloads featuring shrapnel/fragmentation or chemical as well as the original incendiary warhead favored for striking German and Japanese cities when unitary bombs were unavailable.
Most British and U.S. fliers were less than enthusiastic about using these early models (also known as “Cluster Bomb Units or CBUs) because their point of impact could not be predicted or controlled, forcing multiple missions to obliterate a target. With the development of the Norton Bomb Sight in World War II, pilots gained more confidence that their attacks would more often hit closer to the intended targets.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy renewed development of the CBU munition that featured a new dispenser/carrier and new fusing options (impact, proximity, altitude, or delay). By the middle of the next decade, the Navy had both anti-personnel and anti-tank CBUs – “just what the doctor ordered” for the rapidly escalating Vietnam War. The Air Force
jumped on the bandwagon, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”
In Southeast Asia, that history was to be long and bloody and it continues today – and tomorrow and every day in the years to come when someone dies or is maimed because they come in contact with an unexploded cluster munition.
This is the connection to the Treaty of Paris, for the U.S. Wars in Southeast Asia – involving Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam – were the ”proving grounds” for the updated weapon developed by U.S. forces.
But development never stopped, even during the heaviest combat. Cluster munitions were developed for use by field artillery, naval guns, and the new army surface-to-surface missile systems. Another “innovation” involved packaging all three warhead “effects” into a single canister/dispenser. This allows firing one munition that can attack lightly armored vehicles as well as people and equipment. But there can be a complication from added complexity: dud rates can be as high as 40%.
The Pentagon has consistently opposed any restrictions on the employment of cluster munitions. In the spring 2001 issue of Air Force Law Review, Major Thomas Herthel, an Air Force Staff Judge Advocate, argued that cluster munitions, when used as intended, do not violate the Geneva Conventions (First Protocol, Article 36), the laws of land warfare, or the UN Convention Against Certain Conventional Weapons. (See “On the chopping block: cluster munitions and the law of war - unexploded submunitions from cluster bombs.”)
Herthel notes that cluster technology is now widespread around the globe, having grown from four producing or using countries in 1978 to 14 in 1994 to 24 in 1996. Herthel counts 14 conflicts in which CBUs had been used through 2000, highlighting Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Allied Force (Serbia-Kosovo) in 1999. To that number must be added at least two more U.S. wars – Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). In the four years after Bush declared major combat in Iraq had ended, the USAF used an estimated 60,000 pounds of air-dropped CBUs. And there is little doubt that the renewed high rate of air sorties south of Baghdad in January during which 30,000 pounds of bombs were dropped featured a high rate of cluster munitions.
One other recent conflict must be added to Herthel’s count of wars featuring extensive CBU use: the summer 2006 33-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Although it was quite evident that a cease fire would be achieved within 72, in that period the Israeli’s dropped or fired nearly 2 million CBU bomblets into southern Lebanon and Hezbollah dominated suburbs of south Beirut.
For all his arguments defending the legality of using cluster munitions, Herthel did concede – witness NATO’s use of CBUs against Serbia – that improper functioning of the weapon led to civilian fatalities in urban areas. But for him, “the most significant problem” associated with the use of CBUs is the high dud rate – not in relation to innocent civilians but as these unexploded bomblets contribute to friendly force fatalities and affect U.S. operations.
In discussing the first Iraq War (1991), Herthel notes that 25 U.S. soldiers were killed by unexploded cluster munitions. He also attributes the slowness of U.S. Marines to clear and hold Kuwait City Airport to the extensive presence of unexploded CBUs.
And here is precisely why the Pentagon – even by its own rules and priorities – ought to be forging ahead as rapidly as possible to ban cluster munitions. The two primary considerations for any commander are “accomplishing the assigned mission” and “looking out for the welfare of those under command” – especially minimizing casualties. The use of cluster munitions in any conflict would seem to violate these two cardinal principles that underlie and help shape a commander’s decisions.
Thus, even in a purely military context, it seems that a charge of dereliction of duty could be laid against commanders who choose to ignore or downplay the adverse effects of cluster munitions on either mission accomplishment or troop welfare – let alone the effects on civilians in the battle zone.
For more information, go to http://www.fcnl.org/weapons/clusterlanding/clusters_landing9.htm.