Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Cluster Munition Fact Sheet: A view from the field

Last week, we posted on the blog a U.S. public document on “Putting the impact of cluster munitions in context with the effects of all explosive remnants of war” issued on 15 February. In this blog post, Andy Smith offers a view from the field.

It’s always good to know what the official U.S. Department of State attitude is on a given subject. That said, a recent "Fact sheet" or “White Paper” seems to me, as a professional in demining, to present only one side of a polemic. The timing of its release seemed clearly intended to counter the Wellington Conference on Cluster Munitions.

Having just updated the Database of Demining Accidents, I have found time to respond to several of the points in the U.S. “Fact sheet”…

"...For example, there are practically no United States-produced landmines being found by de-miners anywhere in the world today."

This is simply not true. U.S. mines are being cleared in large numbers today. For example, the minefield on the border between Syria and Jordan has more than 57,000 M14 anti-personnel blast mines. There are also more than 15,000 M15 and M19 anti-vehicle mines. Clearance of this minefield is happening now. These numbers don’t seem insignificant to me.

U.S. mines aren’t common. That much is true. Most of the mines found around the world are old Soviet stuff, with mines from Italy, China and Pakistan also common. But the USA cannot claim to be clean. M14 and M19 mines have featured in demining accidents in Iraq, Cambodia, Laos and Afghanistan. The US makes well-designed mines – and unfortunately they continue to function thirty years after they were placed (which is a large part of the reason for wanting to ban their use).

"...some are claiming that unexploded cluster munitions constitute a major category of post-conflict hazard, warranting new mechanisms beyond those that already exist in Amended Protocol II and Protocol V of the CCW."

Actually, unexploded “cluster munitions” do constitute a major post-conflict hazard for deminers. Cluster-bomb submunitions feature in more demining accidents than any other ordnance type other than mines. And, unlike mines, the submunitions that have featured in demining accidents are predominantly of U.S. design and manufacture.

The order of frequency in recorded demining accidents is as follows: M77, BLU-97, KB-1, BLU-26. All except the KB-1 are made in America. From a wealth of anecdotal reports, I strongly suspect that the accuracy of this record is slightly skewed by the lack of independent post-bombing data from Afghanistan and that the BLU-97 would come out top if access to the demining accident data from that period were available. (Nevertheless, the M77 is also of U.S. manufacture, so the top two would simply change positions.) When all data is in from Lebanon, the M77 is likely to re-emerge as being the most frequent offender. But deminers often survive an M77 incident. They are rarely that lucky with the BLU-97.

It should be stressed that I am only writing about accidents during demining, and not accidents to the general population. And it is true that there are some countries heavily contaminated with submunitions that have never caused post-conflict injury without the kind of human intervention that boggles the mind. (My favourite is the shepherd on the Tajik mountain who was cold and whose campfire needed fuel. He knew that explosives burn – he’d seen soldiers making tea on a TNT fire – so he put a few submunitions into the fire to try to keep it going. The next surprise is that two out of three shepherds sitting around the fire survived.) The point is that people do interact with ERW in unpredictable ways – and all of it must be removed if the innocent are to be protected from the effects of past conflicts in which their role was always limited to that of unwilling victims.

Outside Vietnam and Laos, most areas contaminated with submunitions that are reliably not movement sensitive are strewn with old Soviet submunitions. These submunitions have simple impact fuze systems; that is, "all-ways" acting fuzes, but requiring a real IMPACT. A lot of early U.S. stuff was like that, but inside Vietnam and Laos the range of experimental submunitions dropped by the USA was so wide that you can never be confident about the sensitivity of what you find - and there have been demining accidents. And, of course, here have been many civilian accidents with submunitions in Laos.

It’s disingenuous to suggest that submunitions are no worse than mortar bombs. Yes, deminers and civilians die in accidents when quantities of mixed ordnance detonate - and civilians sometimes die when taking mortars apart with hammers or when playing with grenades. However, leaving mines aside, in humanitarian demining no category of ordnance comes close to “submunitions” in the accident record.

In my opinion, the Mine Ban Treaty definition of a mine was always flawed. It includes the weasel word "designed" - as in "designed to be victim initiated". If it had not done so, it appears obvious to me that many US submunitions would be justifiably classed as mines. It is not the design, but the outcome that matters – and when an outcome of long-term civilian hazard is undeniable, the continued use of the weapon includes knowledge of that outcome. In my view, ignoring the known outcome is irresponsible. Foreknowledge and “design” begin to merge and the outcome begins to look deliberate.

And, in general terms, regardless of how they are designed to be used, U.S. cluster munitions have been used against civilian areas. Their delivery in combat is often not "precise" and their deliberate spread means that they can never be better than broadly "accurate". Their failure rate everywhere has been far higher than in user trials. They are indiscriminate weapons, which I believe breach the spirit of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, if not the treaty’s letter. And, they kill deminers, who are cleaning up after our wars, which is really rather important.

"U.S. policy for its own cluster munitions is that new types must have a 99% functioning rate in testing".

Sadly, this was also true of those in current use. It proves that the "testing" does not accurately reflect how they are used and the resultant failure rate. While for many munitions, a dud is usually a dud, it could be fatal to think that of a U.S. made submunition. Indeed, such submunitions have been fatal for many serving U.S. soldiers, as well as for a few well-trained Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists in humanitarian demining and some unfortunate deminers.

The Fact Sheet also provides a country-by-country analysis using selected figures. In each case, its claims could easily be argued against. From my own experience, I took pictures of BLU-97 strikes on Iraqi buildings, with the submunitions in place and the US "rapid reaction force" nowhere to be seen in late 2004. Other examples abound but a brief summary would only repeat the DoS error of citing selected details to support a conclusion that was not derived, and so appears to have been a hidden premise.

I can sympathize a little with the United States over the anti-personnel mine ban – because the North/South divide in Korea is probably impossible to demine to humanitarian standards without many casualties. That said, despite U.S. claims that anti-personnel mines are essential weapons, they haven’t reported using them in conflicts since the Mine Ban Treaty, which indicates they weren’t THAT essential – and that they do have some flexibility in meeting the concerns of allies. So, we should take claims about the operational necessity of cluster munitions and portents of doom about the implications for military interoperability if U.S. allies decide to ban them (a big issue in the Oslo Process, I understand) with a big grain of salt. It seems obvious to me that the U.S.A. really doesn’t need indiscriminate submunitions either.

"...assistance to victims should be provided purely on a humanitarian basis and not be made conditional upon a state's agreement to any politically motivated international agreement, whether that agreement concerns landmines, cluster munitions or any other conventional weapons."

Professionals in Mine Action know how "political" the decisions over where to give humanitarian assistance are - and how frequently national self-interest dictates humanitarian demining spending. In my experience, the U.S. is certainly no exception here. Nevertheless, if you’re going to have rational criteria for providing support to solve a finite problem (and clearing ERW is a finite and measureable task), then making the delivery of humanitarian demining funds dependent on a commitment not to use the most indiscriminate weapons (mines and submunitions) again makes a lot of sense – because it limits the potential for that country to become similarly contaminated at a later date. The logic of this is rather more compelling than some other highly “political” criteria for the provision of aid that I have encountered.

To complete the picture and offset any impression of this being an attempt to bash the U.S.A., that minefield on the border between Syria and Jordan I mentioned above contains thousands of antique British-made mines in really poor condition. It probably also has a few of the very nasty Canadian C3A1/2 AP mines that include a small shaped charge to really make your day (the "Elsie). No country is squeaky clean.

From the perspective of one who has to pick the things up, the Department of State release of a spin-doctored cluster munition "fact-sheet" built on hidden premises and selective number-crunching mixed with factual errors looks distinctly "grubby" and not a little desperate..

This is a guest blog by Andy Smith. Andy has been working in humanitarian mine action since 1994. He has demining experience in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Iraq, Kosovo, Mozambique, Namibia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Zimbabwe and is currently working on the border between Jordan and Syria. Andy is involved in the
Database of Demining Incidents and Victims and is an independent member of the International Mine Action Standards Review Board.

Picture shows the author trialing water jets and mine boots in a minefield on the border between Jordan and Syria on 5 March 2008. The blue stick at Andy’s feet is an M14 anti-personnel mine.


12.1 said...

Destroying cluster munitions is an important step toward safeguarding the future of the world from the threat of UXO and ERW. Within the realm of policy, Jordan’s National Committee for Demining and Rehabilitation has recently passed a law to punish anyone who is involved with such deadly materials. More can be read here if you’re interested: http://www.ncdr.org.jo/.