US to indefinitely delay ban on older types of cluster bombs

A photo taken 7 March 7, 1999, aboard the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea, off the Albanian coast, shows an anti-tank cluster bomb waiting to be loaded.
A photo taken 7 March 7, 1999, aboard the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea, off the Albanian coast, shows an anti-tank cluster bomb waiting to be loaded. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Pentagon will indefinitely delay a ban on the use of older types of cluster bombs due to take effect on Jan 1, 2019, officials said, arguing that safety improvements in munitions technology failed to advance enough to replace older stockpiles.

Cluster bombs, dropped by air or fired by artillery, scatter bomblets across a wide area, but sometimes fail to explode and are difficult to locate and remove. That can lead to civilian deaths and injuries long after conflicts end.

The US military had hoped to transition to cluster munitions that explode at least 99 per cent of time, greatly reducing the risks.

But with just over one year to go before the ban's slated implementation, a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters that safety technology had not progressed enough to replace existing stockpiles with safer weaponry.

Reuters has seen a copy of the memo changing US policy and confirmed the changes with Pentagon officials.

"Although the department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we cannot risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities," the Pentagon memo says.

The memo, which was expected to be signed by Deputy Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday (Nov 30), called cluster munitions"legitimate weapons with clear military utility".

Disclosure of the new policy met sharp criticism from Congress and human rights groups.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has helped lead efforts to restrict the use of cluster bombs, said the Pentagon was, in effect, "perpetuating use of an indiscriminate weapon that has been shown to have high failure rates."

Senator Dianne Feinstein called the move "unbelievable".

Human Rights Watch disputed the idea that the US military needed the weapons, saying that with the exception of a single strike in Yemen in 2009, it had not used the weapons since 2003 in Iraq.

"We condemn this decision to reverse the long-held US commitment not to use cluster munitions that fail more than 1 per cent of the time, resulting in deadly unexploded sub-munitions," said Ms Mary Wareham, arms division director at Human Rights Watch.

Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson acknowledged it has been years since the US military has used any significant amount of cluster munitions and the new Pentagon policy puts emphasis on eventually shifting to safer cluster munitions.

Still, it was unclear at what point in the future the Pentagon might be required to stop using its existing stockpiles, since there would also need to be not just higher-tech weaponry, but sufficient quantities of new cluster munitions for US stocks.

The new policy does not allow the Pentagon to buy any additional cluster bombs that do not satisfy new standards that were outlined in the memo.

The new rules broaden the definition of which types of munitions meet safety requirements beyond the 99 per cent detonation rate.

Under the new policy, the Pentagon says bombs that have advanced self destruct or deactivation technology would also be acceptable for future acquisition.

Such weaponry must meet a series of criteria, including having a way to render sub-munitions inoperable within 15 minutes of being armed.

The Pentagon policy also prohibited purchasing weaponry that is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The convention strictly prohibits the use of cluster munitions. But it exempts certain types of munitions that the Pentagon says it would nonetheless classify as cluster munitions.