Disarmament Insight


Friday, 17 October 2008

Hi-Tech Cluster Munitions: Lingering Humanitarian Questions

This is the second to last of four blogs addressing issues raised by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. While recognizing the dangers to children posed by old order cluster munitions, Thompson bemoans the fact that the United States' Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW) will be banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Echoing the claims of Textron, the manufacturer of the SFW, Thompson posits that the SFW harms children less because using it to attack point targets is better than using outdated cluster munitions. Thompson takes those claims at face value, and seems unaware that SFW performance has been called into question. He also complains that the Europeans protected their hi-tech weapons, but not those of the U.S.
In this post and the next, I will address these points.

Humanitarian Parameters on Technical Fixes: What did the CCM do and why?

As has been reported on this blog over the course of the Oslo process, the hardest nut for the CCM negotiators to crack was how to define cluster munitions that cause “unacceptable harm to civilians.” The problem is dealt with in the CCM by excluding certain weapons that “avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions” from the definition of cluster munitions. These “smart” weapons are not cluster munitions under the CCM and therefore are not banned, so long as they have all of the following characteristics:

(i) Each munition contains fewer than ten explosive submunitions;
(ii) Each
explosive submunition weighs more than four kilograms;
(iii) Each explosive
submunition is designed to detect and engage a single target object;
Each explosive submunition is equipped with an electronic self-destruction
(v) Each explosive submunition is equipped with an electronic
self-deactivating feature;
Each required characteristic responds to attributes that have made current submunitions indiscriminate and a danger to civilians. The scattering of huge numbers of small submunitions each incapable of engaging single targets creates hazards to civilians encountered in the field. Technical fixes involving mechanical (as opposed to electronic) self-destruction and self-deactivation features – like those in some variants of the M85 used in the 2006 Southern Lebanon conflict (see our last post) - have failed to meet expectations.

If a system that meets those technical requirements still results in unacceptable humanitarian harm, it arguably would still be banned under the CCM notwithstanding all of its bells and whistles.

Healthy Skepticism about Technical Solutions

Why is the CCM definition so stringent? Simply put, past claims made by militaries and munitions manufacturers have often turned out not to be true.

Example 1: In his history of anti-personnel weapons, The Technology of Killing (1995), Eric Prokosch relates how, in the mid-70s, a British military expert told government delegates at an international conference that banning cluster munitions was unnecessary. Why? Because the newly developed (British) BL-755 cluster munition had not only a very tightly defined “footprint,” but also such reliable fuzes on its bomblets that no duds would be left behind. It turns out that the footprint was up to a hundred times larger than claimed and the failure rate in the area of at least 10-12 percent, according to UN and British estimates.

Example 2: In December 2001, the Swiss government proposed to members of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that future production of submunitions would have to include a fuze mechanism ensuring the deactivation and self-destruction of all explosives to at least a 98% standard. Switzerland was perhaps convinced that its newly designed submunition would surpass that standard. What was that submunition? An M-85 variant. Yet two M-85 variants were found wanting when used in Iraq and Lebanon, as detailed in a report that rocked the Vienna CCM conference last year. Rather than a 1% failure rate, on average every tenth bomblet failed to explode on impact.

How the U.S. Arsenal Failed to Smarten up

Thompson claims that all cluster bombs in the U.S. arsenal would become illegal. To begin with, there are precious few weapons with “smart” submunitions in the U.S. inventory because programs failed to meet production standards. One example is the Sense and Destroy Armor (SADARM) 155mm smart artillery munition with individually targetable submunitions. While some prototypes did enter service and were used in the Iraq War in 2003, Congress had cancelled the program in 2001 after SADARM fell “just short of meeting its 80 percent submunition reliability requirement.” (Neil Baumgardner, “3rd Infantry Division Commander Praises C2V, Communications During OIF,” Defense Daily, May 16, 2003.)

What about the BLU-108 and its Skeets? Thompson focuses on what sounds like the U.S. BLU-108 Sensor Fuzed Weapon and its “smart” skeet submunitions, a “smart” weapon that remains in the U.S. arsenal. He is correct to say that it will be banned under the CCM - because of numbers (40 submunitions per SFW) and size (each submunition weighs less than 4kg).

Thompson’s description of the system is remarkably similar to that of the manufacturer. If the system works as claimed, a carrier munition deploys ten subunit “posts”, each in turn containing four explosive “skeet” submunitions designed to seek out and destroy individual targets.
Submunitions that don’t find a target reportedly either self-destruct or self-deactivate.

But why didn’t the BLU-108 SFW survive in the CCM negotiations in Dublin? Diplomats there heard from Rae McGrath, an experienced deminer, about failures of the SFW to live up to the claims of the manufacturer when deployed in Iraq. Among his observations were the following:

This research . . . raises a number of serious questions regarding the reliability of BLU-108, especially when measured against claims made for the weapon by manufacturers, specifically as follows:

- 99% reliability: While it has not been possible to calculate a percentage reliability without full details of the number of weapons actually deployed in the Mosul area, it is clear from the clearance team’s overview and generally available figures for use of BLU108 during Operation Iraqi Freedom that the percentage of submunitions which have failed is higher than 1%. Perhaps substantially so.

- No Hazardous UXO: It seems probable that manufacturers and users would claim that the failed submunitions had self-neutralised and were therefore non-hazardous. However, given that many of the submunitions appear to have failed to operate as designed this is not a safe assumption. At best, these unexploded submunitions would deny access to land for civilian communities until cleared.
McGrath provided multiple photos of SFWs where “failures have occurred at different times in the deployment cycle.” The photos bear a look. There are for instance submunitions still attached to the “posts” (suggesting complete failure of the munitions); others lay scattered about on the ground. He also noted that the copper in unexploded submunitions make them prime targets for scavengers.

At the July 2008 CCW Group of Governmental Experts meeting in Geneva, Textron made its own presentation, likely because it saw the market for its weapon suddenly start to shrink with the impending signature and ratification of the CCM. (The Textron presentation was shown but not made publicly available.) Textron stated that a mine clearance specialist in Iraq had shot at an unexploded skeet submunition and that it had failed to detonate.

In communications with McGrath since then, he has raised some additional concerns with me. Firing at such weapons is not a controlled means of destroying them, as it may put them in an even more sensitive state if they survive the high velocity round. Ironically, the option of firing a bullet at the SFW submunition is a method sometimes used with the old fashioned and highly unstable BLU-97B, the submunition this SFW is intended to replace. Shooting at cylindrical unexploded submunitions causes them to tumble. This makes them potentially more unstable and also could turn them on their sides (most of the time they land face down). The shaped charge that makes them so devastating against tank armor could therefore travel up to a kilometer if detonated, rather than firing down into the ground.

When the subunit “posts” entirely fail to eject their four submunitions, they present a tempting target for the hacksaws and hammers of scavengers – tools that might well detonate the weapon. In sum, humanitarian concerns remain about the BLU-108.

Virgil Wiebe.