US Air Dispensed Submunitions
In November 2017 the Trump Department of Defense abandoned the 2008 Bush policy that sought to reduce the U.S. inventory of cluster munitions and imposed strict new safety and quality control standards on these anti-personnel weapons. "We must not lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage against potential adversaries that seek operational and tactical advantages against the United States and its allies and partners," wrote Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan in a November 30, 2017 memo establishing the new policy. Therefore, "the Department will retain cluster munitions currently in active inventories until the capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions."
The new DoD policy essentially reversed the 2008 policy. Where the previous policy issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008 had "established an unwaiverable requirement that cluster munitions used after 2018 must leave less than 1% of unexploded submunitions on the battlefield," that requirement is no longer operative and no new deadline for reducing associated risks has been set.
The Cluster Munitions Policy Memo (19 June 2008) directed that after 2018, cluster munitions must not produce >1% UXO; a limit that will not be waived. It provided no differentiation between types of UXO (hazardous or non-hazardous duds). All cluster munition stocks that exceed operational planning requirements will be removed from the inventory as soon as possible, but not later than June 2009. The previous UXO Requirement: < 2% 20-60km; < 4% < 20km and > 60km. GMLRS DPICM with Self Destruct Fuze (SDF) development and performance demonstrated "hazardous" dud rate of only 0.15%, overall UXO 3.7%, which does not comply with the new DOD Policy.
On 03 December 2008 Representatives from more than 100 governments began signing a document binding their countries not to make, stockpile, or use cluster bombs in a two-day signing ceremony in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. The signatories include the Cook Islands in the Pacific, the Vatican's Holy See, the Republic of San Marino, the Seychelles, and Papua-New Guinea. Many military powers -- namely the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan -- declined to sign the ban. Arab states are not signing, in response to Israel's action. Anatoly Antonov, the head of the Department for Security and Disarmament of Russia' Foreign Ministry, said that cluster bombs are legal and effective weapons which are allowed by international law. US Department of States spokesman Robert Wood said that the Bush administration considers the bombs essential in modern warfare.
On 28 May 2008 diplomats from more than 100 countries meeting in Ireland agreed on a draft treaty outlawing cluster bombs. The draft would give signatory nations eight years to destroy their cluster bomb stockpiles. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his government will stop using cluster bombs. But the United States, one of the world's largest builders of the bombs, opposes a ban. The US, Israel, Russia, China, India and Pakistan were not present at the Dublin meeting. Under pressure from NATO countries, the text of the anti-cluster-bomb convention contained a concession to the US and other countries which want to continue to use and produce such munitions, by allowing military cooperation between signatories and non-signatories. The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, commonly referred to as the Oslo Treaty, has two aims. The first is to reduce unintended harm to civilians by minimizing the indiscriminate effects of area fires (intended to inundate a target area greater than 200 square meters with explosive destruction) on the battlefield. Area fires are more likely to cause collateral damage and civilian casualties. The second is to eliminate the large amount of unexploded sub-munitions, or bomblets, commonly found in areas where cluster munitions have been fired. Up to five percent of bomblets from cluster munitions may not explode when fired, which can wreak havoc on local civilian populations for years.
In 2008, when the US government committed itself to disposing of cluster munitions by January 2019, it seemed distant. Although the United States is not a signatory to the treaty, the Bush Administration supported the spirit of the treaty, as does the Obama Administration. The Bush Administration directed DoD to implement a policy to meet the intent of the treaty but to do so without giving up a key capability for an interim period while the Services determine how to replace the capability.
Elimination of the cluster munition created an important debate within the DoD community regarding the need for a comparable replacement. The debate hinges on a perception of a very low likelihood of future conflicts involving large enemy armor and infantry formations, leading to the elimination of large scale area fire in combat and shifting toward precision unitary fire.
The policy gave the Services a 10-year grace period to determine the requirement for a replacement, conduct research and development, and acquire sufficient new munitions. To date the services, with the exception of the Army, have failed to accomplish any of these activities, despite a clause within the policy that acknowledges the importance of this capability.
The policy states, "[T]here remains a military requirement to engage area targets that include massed formation of enemy forces, individual targets dispersed over a defined area, targets whose precise locations are not known, and time-sensitive or moving targets. Cluster munitions can be the most effective and efficient weapons for engaging these types of targets."
Even the State Department agrees. "Cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility. Their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk. Moreover, cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as a larger bomb or larger artillery shell would cause, if used for the same mission."
Reliance on precision creates a new capability gap when prosecuting hardened targets that cannot be precisely located (i.e., armored fighting vehicles and tanks). Cluster munitions, with their saturative effects, were designed for exactly this purpose. Furthermore, the effectiveness of engaging concealed, hardened targets is reduced when using unitary munitions. Potential consequences include decreased lethality, increased munitions expenditure, and increased targets requiring engagement with direct fire weapon systems, thus increasing risk to soldiers and marines.
What has been confirmed through the sum of U.S. and international assessments is that technological advancements have greatly reduced the need for cluster munitions and when taken in the context of collateral damage it just makes sense to phase out this capability. However, doing so creates additional operational risk to ground forces that has been mitigated by cluster munitions since the 1970's. Advances in precision technology coupled with development of a new sensor-fuzed artillery munition will not only close the gap but arguably increase the lethal effectiveness of ground force indirect fires against armored and hardened targets.
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