Cluster bombs are reviled and banned by 112 nations, yet they were used in five countries in 2015. Why are they still around and who is using them?
Cluster bombs are fearsome weapons. Packed with many mini-bombs or “bomblets,” they rain down explosives over a wide area to destroy targets like tanks, runways, or troop formations. Effective, inexpensive, and sometimes strangely stylish (the bomblets can look like toys), they’ve been in use since WW2.
Just like landmines or poison gas, politicians and civilians have a deep discomfort about the legitimacy of cluster bombs. Prone to indiscriminate destruction, they often leave behind unexploded bomblets (called unexploded ordnance, or UXO) that can be found by children, plowed up by farmers or accidentally stepped upon.
The results can be catastrophic: in Syria between 2012 and 2014, 1,968 cluster munition civilian casualties were reported, while unexploded cluster bombs have been continuously killing and maiming Cambodians since the 1960’s.
Unlike other famous weapons such as the Kalashnikov assault rifle or Oppenheimer’s atom bomb, cluster bombs have no single architect or inventor.
The Fight Against Cluster Bombs
The appalling nature of cluster bombs has inspired numerous organizations to argue for bans on the weapons, with the most notable being the Convention on Cluster Munitions, or CCM. The international treaty group, comprised of 112 countries, has pledged to destroy cluster bomb stockpiles (if they have any) and refrain from their purchase, stockpiling or use. Neither the US, Russia or China participate in the treaty, nor do many countries in the Middle East.
In 2015 two other anti-cluster bomb organizations banded together to produce a landmark status report about the weapons. The findings from the report, jointly developed by the Cluster Munition Coalition and the International Campaign To Ban Landmines, include:
- Countries participating in the CCM treaty have made good progress destroying their cluster munitions, with 1.3 million destroyed since 2010
- None of the parties who signed the treaty have used cluster bombs since signing
- Some countries, like Japan and Canada, have completely destroyed all the cluster bombs they once had
While the progress made by countries and groups is laudable, it is useful to remember that many countries continue to produce, inventory, and export cluster munitions, while untold numbers of old cluster munitions still await discovery in fields and villages.
- Cluster bomb casualties were reported in 13 countries in 2014
- Cluster bombs were used in 5 countries in 2015
Not Going Away Soon
As though to emphasize the ongoing challenge that cluster bombs present, in 2015 Saudi Arabia bought a large stockpile of them from the United States. Since then, as Saudi Arabia waged an air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, human rights organizations claimed that cluster bombs were suddenly appearing on Yemeni battlegrounds and near civilian populations. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the CCM treaty.
Of the five countries that used cluster bombs in 2015, four of them were in the Middle East (Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen). The fifth country was Ukraine.
2016 saw increased use of cluster bombs in Syria in addition to reported use of unconventional weapons like chlorine bombs.
Technology Not An Answer
Recently US military experts have been developing new designs that use advanced technology to make them “smart.” The new bombs have sensors fused into them that target their destructive power on specific objects (tanks, aircraft, etc) and can be programmed to make their bomblets self-destruct or become inert. When dropped from aircraft, pilots will be able to pre-program the bombs to explode at certain altitudes, intervals, or across specific areas.
New technology, however, does little to address legacy problems from the millions of older cluster munitions that remain stockpiled and ready for use by countries that never signed the CCM treaty. While no accurate inventory of the world’s remaining cluster bombs is available, it is safe to assume that they number in the millions.