After a two-year effort, an international ban on the use of cluster bombs will go into effect on Aug. 1. And, just as it did with the landmark landmine ban, the United States refused to sign the treaty and has no plans to scrap its inventory of cluster bombs. But the world's sole superpower may find it more difficult to use them thanks to European allies who agreed to the ban last month.
"The United States is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and is not bound by its obligations," Department of Defense spokesman Bob Mehal told Military.com in a Feb. 25 e-mail. "Cluster munitions are legitimate weapons with clear military utility and can result in less collateral damage than unitary weapons when used in accordance with the law of armed conflict principles of discrimination and proportionality and military rules of engagement."
Cluster bombs are weapons that are generally derided in civilian circles but that some countries are reluctant to abandon. They're air-dropped or missile-delivered bombardment systems that break apart before impact and scatter hundreds of smaller bomblets. While most explode right away, some don't --- and that's where the controversy surrounding the weapons is centered.
According to an official with a London-based group that advocates for the worldwide ban on cluster bombs, the U.S. may not be bound as a signatory to the new treaty when it goes into effect, but key American allies will be. Thomas Nash, coordinator for the Cluster Munitions Coalition, said the prohibition will bar these allies, including Germany, France and Great Britain, from taking part or even planning operations that will involve use of cluster bombs.
"It's going to make using cluster munitions … very difficult if not impossible in joint operations," he said.
Mehal denies that.
"While allies and coalition forces may not be able to use cluster munitions and may not be able to actually [release] cluster munitions when embedded in our forces, we can certainly use cluster munitions in joint operations," Mehal said. He said Article 21 of the new convention specifically allows for interoperability between countries that sign the convention and those that do not.
"There is nothing in the Convention on Cluster Munitions, for example, that would preclude us from providing cluster munitions for fire support if allies request assistance," Mehal said. "They cannot specifically call for the use of cluster munitions but we can certainly use them in response to a call for assistance,"
In reality, the U.S. has not used cluster bombs since 2003, in the early days of the invasion of Iraq. In 2001, it deployed them for the opening salvos against Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.
Mehal said combatant commanders retain the authority to use the weapons.
The munitions have earned a particularly bad reputation because of instances wherein civilians came across unexpended bomblets and were killed or injured. Both Russia and Georgia used them against each other during their short war in 2008, and Israel used them in its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Mehal said the U.S. fully supports the spirit of the ban, which was ratified by 30 countries on Feb. 16, to minimize the potential harm to civilians that can result from using cluster bombs. He said the U.S. is committed to working cooperatively within existing international law to address humanitarian concerns associated with cluster munitions, but "in a way that accommodates our legitimate national defense considerations."
Nash argued that the new ban will oblige European allies to encourage the U.S. not to use cluster munitions. Even more important, he said, nations such as France, Germany and Britain will be unable to help plan or take part in operations if the missions include cluster bombs.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions was drafted in Dublin, Ireland, in May 2008, and approved by more than 100 countries. Countdown toward its establishment on Aug.1, 2010, began with its formal ratification a few weeks ago by 30 countries.
According to a May 2007 Inter Press Service News Agency report, the six largest makers of cluster munitions are Lockheed Martin, EADS, Thales, GenCorps, Textron and Raytheon.