Monday, January 14, 2008

Explosiveless Warheads

This month marks the start of a two year campaign by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) to educate the Congress and the U.S. public about a “conventional” weapon in the Pentagon’s arsenal whose effects are anything but conventional.

These weapons have no chemical or biological agents. They have no nuclear or radiological material. What they have are very faulty clocks that refuse to run down to zero, at which time the weapon – actually a “bomblet” – is suppose to explode.

Now the United States is not the only country that manufactures these weapons – what are called “cluster munitions.” The principle behind the weapon is simple: take a large “carrying case” that can withstand the gravitational or “G” force when dropped from an airplane or fired by long-range artillery, fill it with hundreds of high-explosive sub-munitions (the bomblets), attach a timing or altitude fuse that will blow off the “cover” of the carrying case in flight so that the bomblets scatter over the terrain underneath the remainder of the flight path of the carrying case.

Any personnel in the area – said to be roughly two to four U.S. football fields in size depending on the bomb or the shell selected for use – saturated by these bomblets – would be killed or wounded and any vehicles destroyed or damaged. The bomblets are designed to explode on impact. Many, especially the older munitions, do not; “dud” rates in these weapons run as high as 40 percent. Even the dud rates in the newest weapons acquired by the Pentagon still run as high as six percent.

Attempts have been made to devise some type of mechanism that would turn a live bomblet into an inert munition if it has not detonated after a certain number of minutes, hours, or days. Results have been marginal, witness the fact that 98 percent of the known victims of cluster bomblets in the past four decades have been unwary civilians who may not know a battle – let alone a war – was fought, leaving unexploded ordnance to wreak future havoc.

Because cluster munitions, like land mines, are equal opportunity killers, countries opposed to their use tried for years to restrict their use in urban areas. But always, there were Washington and Tel Aviv, blocking progress. Israel’s inundation of southern Lebanon with four million submunitions just before the cease fire took effect that ended the 33-day war with Hezbollah in summer 2006, reenergized the effort. Meeting in Norway in February 2007, forty-six nations pledged to develop by the end of 2008 a binding treaty banning the production, stockpiling, transfer, or use of cluster munitions.

But as so often happens, technology interjects itself, especially if a shooting war is on and weapons are being developed or redeveloped.

This month, the U.S. Army concluded that its Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) was so precise it could strike targets at a range of 70 kilometers (43 miles). As a result, the Army has ordered 43,560 more rockets, which employ powerful explosive grenades for effect. But a new terminal warhead will replace the 404 explosive grenades in the standard warhead with kinetic-energy “rods” similar in their effect to those being tested in the Pentagon’s missile defense system.

Now I’m not in the business of endorsing weapons of any kind and am extremely wary when anyone claims they have a weapon so precise that they can hit the intended target without inflicting "collateral damage." But from the standpoint of civilians around the world, living and yet to be born, if the Pentagon is determined to have GMLRS rounds that can “precisely” hit a target 70 kilometers away, is it not preferable to have the warhead contain only inert steel rods and no explosives instead of the current design which uses 404 explosive “grenades” – some of which inevitably will not explode on the target but remain capable of killing and injuring noncombatants.

Indeed, if this “inert rod” concept is deemed by war planners to be as or more effective than traditional explosives, it might provide the wedge the arms control community has been seeking to finally push for and get international agreement to end the use of an entire class of weaponry.

Who knows: even the White House might start supporting treaties that don’t just restrict but completely ban indiscriminate weapons systems.


Blogger rasphila said...

The horrific damage inflicted by cluster bombs puts all of us in the false position of seeming to recommend one weapons system over another. But saying that explosiveless warheads are the lesser of two evils isn't the same as recommending them. I think that's the case here. Banning cluster bombs and other indiscriminate weapons would certainly save lives. For me that constitutes progress even if ideally I would want a world where we don't have to have these discussions.

1:25 PM  

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