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U.S.: Destroy Stockpile of Unsafe Cluster Submunitions

Pentagon’s Outdated Cluster Submunitions Pose Great Risk to Civilians

Despite some positive developments in its cluster munition policy, the United States retains—and still is willing to use—at least 728 million old, unreliable and inaccurate cluster submunitions, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper.

“The Pentagon should destroy its stockpile of dangerous and outdated cluster submunitions,” said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division. “These submunitions pose great risks to civilian populations and should never be used.”

Cluster munitions are large weapons that usually contain hundreds of smaller submunitions. The U.S military’s current inventory of submunitions, if employed, would leave behind more than 27 million hazardous “duds” even when calculated using the Pentagon’s very conservative dud rates. The duds become de facto antipersonnel mines that can harm civilians even years later.
Any submunitions that are not destroyed must, if technically possible, be drastically modified to improve their accuracy and reliability rate so that they do not put civilians in excessive danger. Human Rights Watch said any technical improvements should be accompanied by changes in U.S. targeting doctrine, most notably a prohibition on use in or around populated areas.

No weapons used by U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq in 2003 caused more civilian casualties than cluster munitions. These weapons pose an immediate danger to civilians during attacks, especially in populated areas, because they are inaccurate and have a wide dispersal pattern. They also endanger civilians long after the conflict due to the high number of submunition duds that do not explode on impact and then function like landmines.

“Cluster munitions now stand out as the weapon most in need of stronger national and international regulation to protect civilians during armed conflict,” said Docherty.

The 20-page briefing paper examines the U.S. inventory of cluster munitions, drawing on a recently obtained Pentagon report to Congress. The paper also looks at requests in the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2006 budget related to cluster munitions.

The Defense Department’s budget for fiscal year 2006 is the first to implement fully an important new U.S. policy toward procuring cluster munitions: the Pentagon may no longer acquire cluster munitions with a dud rate of 1 percent or more. Although this policy was first declared by then Secretary of Defense William Cohen in January 2001, it is only now taking full effect. Regrettably, the policy applies only to new purchases and does not affect the existing stockpile (which includes so-called “legacy” submunitions).

“It’s illogical to apply one standard to new cluster submunitions, and a radically different standard to nearly one billion old, extremely dangerous submunitions,” said Docherty.

The Pentagon report to Congress details a stockpile of 5.5 million cluster munitions containing about 728.5 million submunitions. Human Rights Watch has previously calculated that the U.S. inventory, including War Reserve Stocks for Allies, totaled about one billion submunitions. Cluster munitions are particularly ubiquitous in the stores of U.S. ground forces.

Of the 728 million submunitions, only 30,990 (or about 40 per 1 million) have self-destruct devices to lower the dud rate. Both ground and air forces continue to maintain stockpiles of large numbers of outdated cluster munitions that have caused significant harm to civilians in recent conflicts.

While some submunitions will be destroyed when they reach their expiration date, a total of 480 million of the “legacy” submunitions will still be in the inventory in fiscal year 2011, according to the Pentagon report to Congress. Any future improvements brought about by implementing Secretary Cohen’s policy will be undermined by continued insistence on stockpiling and using old, inaccurate and unreliable submunitions.

Human Rights Watch concluded that the United States should prohibit the use of any submunitions that have a failure rate of greater than 1 percent, and should destroy or retrofit existing stocks that do not meet that standard. The United States should also prohibit the use in or near populated areas of all submunitions that are not precision-guided, including those with self-destruct devices. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to increase the accuracy of cluster munitions and their submunitions.

In addition, Human Rights Watch recommends that Congress, in adopting the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2006 budget, place conditions on certain procurements related to cluster munitions. For example, Congress should require that the U.S. military use rocket launchers only with unitary warheads or submunitions with less than a 1 percent dud rate. Moreover, the Department of Defense should provide fuller information about the numbers and types of cluster munitions and submunitions it is requesting, and their dud rates, so that Congress can make informed decisions.

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