Here’s What You Need to Know About the US Military’s New Cluster Munition Policy

The Pentagon says it is indefinitely delaying plans to stop using certain cluster munitions because it needs more time to develop adequate alternative weapons. The policy change exposes the difficulty the U.S. military has had in finding replacement bombs , rockets , and artillery shells that both meet its legitimate operational needs and take humanitarian concerns in account.

On Nov. 30, 2017, Reuters was the first to obtain and report on a copy of the new memorandum. The new policy rescinds the previous requirement for all branches of the U.S. military to dispose of any cluster weapons in which the individual bomblets or grenades inside fail to function properly more than one percent of the time by Jan. 1, 2019. It also says that weapons that do not meet this one percent threshold, but have a system to disarm or self-destruct within 15 minutes, will now be acceptable, as well. Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates first formalized the earlier plan under President George W. Bush in June 2008. Why cluster munitions?

Cluster munitions are “legitimate weapons with clear military utility,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in the memo, according to Reuters. “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.”

Under the most basic definition, cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, artillery shells, and other projectiles that, when fired, subsequently release a number of smaller weapons. These submunitions are most commonly high explosive charges or land mines, which are types covered by various international treaties including the Convention on Cluster Munitions , which we will return to in detail later on.

In addition, there are numerous examples of special purpose clusters can consist of smoke generating chemicals to mark targets or hide friendly forces, bundles of metal filament or similar materials to confuse radars or knock out power transformers, flares, or even propaganda leaflets . In the past, the U.S. Army has even experimented with artillery rounds full of foul-smelling bomblets as a non-lethal weapon. These weapons are inherently best suited to attacking large, concentrated, and mobile enemy formations, especially if they appear suddenly and threaten to overwhelm smaller friendly positions. It’s also a more practical option for engaging hostile forces when they are on the move and their exact position

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the U.S. military’s approximately 1.5 million forward deployed cluster munitions are in and around South Korea, according to The New York Times . There, an American force and its South Korean allies face the ever present prospect of hundreds of thousands of North Korean troops, backed by largely dated, but still threatening tanks and artillery , launching a sudden attack across the demilitarized zone .

Those concerns have undoubtedly only become more pronounced in 2017 in light of North Korea’s dramatic ballistic missile and nuclear weapon developments , which it has coupled with a steady flow of bellicose rhetoric . The […]