Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

High tech [cluster] munitions: more lingering questions

This is the last of four blogs addressing issues raised by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute about the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). In last week’s blog, I raised some of the lingering concerns about Sensor Fuzed Weapons in general, and the BLU-108 in particular. Thompson had hailed the weapon as a humanitarian fix to outdated wide area cluster munitions, and complained that the CCM had banned it while other hi-tech weapons had been protected. [The brackets in the blog title make sense to those aware of the fact that under the CCM, weapons that are defined as cluster munitions are banned. Some high tech munitions with submunitions therefore are not “cluster munitions” under the CCM]. Thompson seems unaware of doubts raised about how well these weapons will work, whether banned by the CCM or not.

In last week’s blog, I also referenced critique of SFW technology by clearance specialist Rae McGrath. For readers interested in following up directly with McGrath, he’s informed me that he would welcome your questions (rae.mcgrath@hi-uk.org). The blog also prompted a cordial invitation from folks at Textron, the makers of the BLU-108, to meet with them to discuss their perspective, which I hope to be able to do.

Why size and numbers matter

It must be said that McGrath also criticized other sensor fuzed weapons like the German Smart 155 and the French BONUS systems. And those systems did have defenders in the Dublin CCM negotiations. CCM negotiators treated them as different from the BLU-108 based on numbers AND size – the logic being that the greater number of BLU-108 submunitions and their small size increase their potential for humanitarian harm.

Greater numbers of submunitions makes for more potential bits of unexploded ordnance around to cause trouble. The size of submunitions has long been a humanitarian concern – the smaller the size, the more easily greater numbers can be packed into munitions. Smaller submunitions are also harder to see (and thus avoid) and there is anecdotal evidence their miniaturized innards (especially if mechanical) make them less reliable. Ironically, smaller submunitions, when they are seen, have been “attractive nuisances” – children around the world pick them up to use as toys.

During the negotiations of the CCM in Dublin, the “[International Committee of the Red Cross] supported the inclusion of weight restrictions as a further safeguard that could assist in preventing the miniaturization of submunitions and in ‘future proofing’ the Treaty.”

Just How Smart Are They?

Another unanswered question raised by McGrath in Dublin that many have been asking: What’s to stop Sensor Fuzed Weapons (SFWs) from actively targeting non-combatant vehicles like buses or ambulances or trucks that present a better profile target? Allowing machines to make the final decision about what target should be destroyed raises fundamental questions about the humanitarian law principle of distinguishing between military objectives and civilian objects. (Paul Marks, "Planned cluster bomb hunts targets down", New Scientist, September 27, 2008, p. 26.)

U.S. Policy Caught Between Rock and Hard Place

Thompson sees in the SFW BLU-108 a humanitarian alternative to outdated wide area cluster munitions. Even assuming the BLU-108 submunitions (and weapons using SFW technology that were NOT banned by the CCM) live up to their promise, they are designed to hit point targets over wide areas. Even assuming it can do that job, these SFWs do not address the whole range of other situations the U.S. Department of Defense outlines in its June 2008 policy for which old fashioned cluster munitions might be used:

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 know, and time-sensitive or moving targets.
In most, if not all, of these situations, the U.S. may be expected to use old order cluster munitions. And this, although the U.S. delegation to the CCW GGE admitted in Geneva in September 2008 (see the post on this blog of September 5, 2008) that the vast majority of its cluster munitions would not meet the 1% standard proposed as one of the options in the CCW process. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Defense June 2008 policy says it must be able to use and transfer old-fashioned cluster munitions, albeit under some restrictions, for at least another ten years. That argument for transition periods never got traction in the CCM negotiations for humanitarian reasons. Neither should it in Geneva.

Virgil Wiebe

Photo downloaded from Flickr: 'Absolute faith in technology', from larrylorca's photostream.


Loren Thompson said...

FROM LOREN THOMPSON, Lexington Institute...

I am flattered that you have devoted so much space to dissecting the two briefs I wrote concerning competing approaches to the regulation of cluster munitions. My own view is that the recently enunciated U.S. government policy is probably the best model for a global agreement, since it would effectively retire all of the weapons that have caused death and injury to noncombatants. The only cluster munitions remaining in the U.S. arsenal will be those that seek out military targets, that quickly self-destruct when such targets are not found, and that would be literally impossible for children or other civilians to accidentally detonate if found.

I recognize that buying a new generation of "smart" munitions is not your idea of progress. But my views are informed by a quarter-century of dealing with military planners and operators -- first as deputy director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, and then as head of security research at Lexington Institute.

I know how warfighters think. They are not going to give up on trying to destroy threats in contested areas just because landmines or cluster bombs have been banned. They will find other ways of dealing with danger, and some of those ways make Sensor Fuzed Weapon seem like a gift from God. Those "other ways" are so powerful that they can burst eardrums a mile from the detonation site. Or burn everything within a radius of a thousand yards. Or cause genetic damage.

So my goal isn't to ban some arbitrary category of munitions, it is to limit the carnage to "legitimate" military targets. Maybe that isn't visionary enough for some people, but when you've been around the Pentagon as long as I have, it seems like real progress.

Thanks again for reading and commenting on my research.