Humanitarian groups cheered the news that in the past few weeks Croatia, Slovenia and Zambia have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, also known as the “Oslo Treaty,” intended to ban cluster weapons from world arms inventories. With these latest signatories, the treaty is now more than half way towards the 30 ratifications needed to become binding international law.
Absent from the Oslo Treaty are the major cluster bomb manufacturers, including: the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel. The U.S. favors a parallel effort underway though UN auspices called the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
The problem with cluster weapons is that a certain percentage of the submunitions, or bomblets, fail to detonate, most rely on impact fuses which can be unreliable depending on the surface they hit, whether its hard concrete or soft sand. Unexploded bomblets become the equivalent of land mines. This was once thought to be a beneficial feature to prevent enemy engineering teams from repairing vital sites such as airstrips.
Now, countries such as Laos and Afghanistan are strewn with menacing unexploded ordinance that claim the limbs and lives of the innocent years after the weapons were scattered about the battlefield. Absent an outright ban of cluster weapons, the only solution is technological, by building in a reliable self destruct mechanism.
If the Oslo Treaty seeks an outright ban of cluster munitions, the participating CCW states, which have been discussing cluster munitions since 2007, aim for rules that still allow production of cluster munitions but ensure an extremely low dud rate.
The U.S. hopes the CCW will follow DOD’s lead which last year put in place a policy that aims for all submunitions to have a dud rate of less than 1% by 2018, according to a DOD official. According to a June 19, 2008 memo signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, until the end of 2018, the use of cluster munitions that don’t meet that requirement must be approved by the Combatant Commander.
The memo states that cluster munitions are “legitimate” weapons with a clear military utility: “There remains a military requirement to engage area targets that include massed formations of enemy forces, individual targets dispersed over a defined area, targets whose precise locations are not known, and time sensitive or moving targets.”
The CCW is currently considering a draft cluster munitions protocol that would require future cluster weapons to incorporate one or more safeguards that, after dispersal, would meet DOD’s 99% reliability standard. In addition, the draft includes language calling for weapons transfer prohibition, clearance and destruction of cluster munitions remnants and victim assistance, the official said. A full CCW meeting to consider the draft protocol is scheduled for November.
The main reason DOD favors the CCW over the Oslo Treaty is that the CCW includes the major users and builders of cluster munitions while Oslo doesn’t, according to the official. Moreover, those states with large cluster munitions stockpiles are not likely to become parties to the Oslo Treaty, as they believe in the continued military utility of the weapons. If the CCW draft protocol were adopted, it would cover an estimated 90 percent of the world’s cluster munitions stockpiles. Even with the sought after 98 states as signatories, Oslo would cover far less, the official said.
Moreover, Oslo doesn’t exclude all cluster munitions, according to the official. There is a loophole. The treaty defines the weapons by size and weight: certain weapons can escape the ban as long as they contain less than 10 submunitions and each bomblet weighs more than 4 kilograms.
Gates’ cluster munitions policy memo says that “blanket elimination” of cluster munitions could cause some countries to use even larger bombs that could end up causing greater collateral damage than cluster weapons. “Large scale use of unitary weapons, as the only alternative to achieve military objectives, could result, in some cases, in unacceptable collateral damage and explosive remnants of war issues,” it says.
Textron Defense Systems builds the only weapon that currently meets DOD’s cluster munitions export requirements and the company is intently watching the progress of both treaties. The company’s Sensor Fused Weapon (SFW), a 1,000 pound air-dropped bomb that deploys 10 submunitions each of which contains four anti-vehicle “Smart Skeet” warheads, was used successfully in the early days of the Iraq war, said senior vice president Bob Buckley. The smart warheads can simultaneously detect and engage fixed and moving targets within a 30-acre coverage area.
Buckley said Textron achieves the 99% reliability rate by incorporating multiple technological safeguards in the SFW that render the warhead inert if it does not detonate. “The Oslo concern about reliability was that people would falsify the findings, they argue that the 99% reliability rate cannot be done.” Contact fuses are too unreliable and won’t get you there, he said, the only way is with advanced self destruct mechanisms. DOD’s certification is very rigorous, Buckley said, “we’ve done thousands of test to prove this, and we have.”