TEL AVIV — Every day in some provinces of Vietnam, the simple act of walking can be deadly, as people risk stepping on unexploded ordnances, remnants from America’s war there that ended more than 40 years ago. The United States dropped 14 million tons of explosive devices during the war in Vietnam as well as in Laos and Cambodia, and a significant number of them have not exploded and been cleared.
In 2016 alone, 971 people died around the world of injuries related to cluster munitions, according to a report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a watchdog organization that covers the elimination of such weapons. This number is likely to be higher, however, the report says.
A cluster munition is generally used to describe a weapon launched, dropped or fired from the ground, air or sea that disperses or releases submunitions, or bomblets. Although the US has spent $3.2 billion in weapon-destruction programs since 1993, removing unexploded ordnances from war zones, Washington still hasn’t committed to banning cluster munitions.
In fact, the US is planning to buy new ones — from an Israeli company.
The Trump administration has decided to reverse a policy instituted in 2008 by President George W. Bush (and carried out by President Obama) to end the use of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than one percent — “duds” — as of Jan. 1, 2019. Instead, Washington is testing new, more sophisticated cluster munitions to replace those that do not meet the new standards.
“After spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching alternatives to cluster munitions, the US has decided it can’t produce ‘safe’ cluster munitions so it will keep using ‘unsafe’ ones,” wrote Mary Wareham, the arms-division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in 2017.
Cluster munitions not only spread bomblets (or “bombies,” as they are called in Southeast Asia) across a wide area, but they can also leave unexploded ordnances that can detonate years if not decades after their release. The weapon has been banned by more than 100 countries through the Convention on Cluster Munitions, as it does not differentiate between combatants and civilians on the ground. The weapons were first used in World War II by the Nazis, called the “butterfly bomb.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, has lobbied the US Senate to join international standards on cluster munitions since 1992, as well as demining efforts.
“Cluster munitions also continue to take horrific tolls among innocent civilians, including children,” Senator Leahy told PassBlue. “Some of us have proposed policy reforms to help address this tragedy. On this, and on banning landmines, it would be helpful to have the support of the current administration, but we know that for now that remains unlikely.”
New, more efficient munitions
In 2016, US companies stopped producing cluster munitions. That included Textron Systems, a company based in Rhode Island, which had been criticized for years by human-rights organizations for being the last manufacturer in America to produce them. When Textron stopped making them two years ago, the move brought the US one step closer to complying with the international treaty banning cluster munitions. (The US has not signed or ratified the treaty.)
The US has allegedly sold cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia in the past, which have been used in its bombing campaign in Yemen and could technically still have a stockpile of them. The US also reportedly used the weapons in Yemen against the Al Qaeda affiliate there, in 2009.
The Department of Defense couldn’t confirm whether American companies were still producing cluster munitions. “The Department of Defense is not aware of any U.S. industry production of cluster munitions,”’ a Department of Defense official told PassBlue. “’However, the Department of Defense is not responsible for regulating or monitoring U.S. arms production.”’
The US is still allowed, according to US policy guidelines released in November 2017, to use “unsafe” cluster munitions, disregarding the Bush-era policy goal.
At the time, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis explained the decision to use cluster munitions because of a lack of a better alternative and the need to have access to such weapons in South Korea, in case of a war with North Korea. (Mattis resigned his post on Dec. 20, 2018.)
“I view the Korea argument as a huge excuse for inaction,” Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch told PassBlue. The Obama administration also used the Korean peninsula exception, stating that “a second concern is the possible need for the US to use antipersonnel mines in the event of an invasion by North Korea.”
Although more than 100 countries have banned cluster munitions, the US is testing new ones abroad. Russia, which is also not a party to the treaty, is testing a new “glide bomb,” with each packing up to 15 33-pound bomblets, according to reports.
US military budget documents reveal that the US is testing the new cluster munition, the M999, in Israel. IMI Systems, formerly a state-owned company that was recently privatized and that has as a board member Yitzhak Aharonovich, an ex-minister of public security, produces the M999, an antipersonnel cluster weapon. (IMI also makes the Uzi submachine gun.) IMI Systems, as well as Israel’s defense ministry, did not follow up on many interview requests with PassBlue, including while this reporter was in Israel.
The testing should be done before the end of 2019, according to military documents. The US Department of Defense has confirmed it is planning to test the weapon to replace older types.
A memorandum issued by the State Department last year revealed that the Pentagon was seeking more efficient, less risky types of cluster munitions than those of the past. The memo says that “it is critically important that the U.S. military uses effective weapons that meet its need and that minimize unintended harm.” The M999 has self-destruction components and fewer than 10 submunitions, so it is unclear if the weapon will be classified as a cluster munition.
The Department of Defense also said in the memo that it would replace munitions that do not meet the new standards prescribed in the current policy and that military commanders may use the cluster munitions that meet the new standards. Until the current stockpile is replaced, however, the military can use old cluster munitions. There is no evidence that the US is currently using its stockpile.
“Current inventories will remain available to Combatant Commanders for warfighting needs until they are replaced with more highly reliable cluster munitions in sufficient quantities,” an official from the Department of Defense said. The official, who asked not to be identified, added that the cost of the overall replacement is not yet known.
In 2006, Israel rained an estimated four million submunitions on southern Lebanon over 34 days during its short war with Hezbollah, the militant group classified as a terrorist organization by the US, the European Union and other countries. That number represents the highest use of these weapons — in addition to the US use since the Iraq war in 2001 — attracting strong criticism from the international community. (The munitions have reportedly been used by the Syrian government with Russian support in the Syrian war.)
The controversy around Israel’s use of cluster munitions in southern Lebanon in 2006 built momentum for the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. The treaty was signed by 107 nations immediately. It entered into force in 2010.
For now, the US is sticking with cluster munitions. As the official from the Department of Defense said, the Trump administration’s goals align with previous administration’s on the use of the weapon, saying: “The overall intent of the 2008 policy and the 2017 policy are the same — to reduce unintended harm to civilians and friendly and U.S. forces but prevents DoD from incurring a significant capability or operational gap in our warfighting ability.”
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.