NATO's Use of Cluster Munitions in Yugoslavia

The U.S. Defense Department at the end of April announced a move toward the use of more "area weapons" in Operation Allied Force. At the same time, there are reports of NATO's growing shortage of precision-guided weapons. These factors suggest NATO may increasingly rely on unguided ("dumb") weapons, including so-called cluster bombs.

Both the U.S. and Britain have acknowledged using cluster bombs in Yugoslavia already. U.S. F-15E and F-16 aircraft have dropped CBU-87 cluster bombs, and British Harrier GR7s began dropping RBL755 cluster bombs on April 6. The CBU-87 and RBL755 weapons have been used against airfields, communications and early-warning sites, vehicle concentrations on roads, Yugoslav Army command posts, troop compounds and concentrations, artillery, and armor units. There have been reports of cluster bombs being used at Batanica airbase near Belgrade and Podgorica airfield in Montenegro, as well as in the following areas in Kosovo: an "agricultural school" on the outskirts of Pristina, near Belacevac, Djakovica, Doganovic, Lukare, Mt. Cicavica (northwest of Pristina), Mt. Pastrik (near Prizren), and Stari Trg (near Kosovska Mitrovica).

Though probably no more than a few hundred air-delivered cluster bombs have been used to date in Yugoslavia, there reportedly already have been civilian casualties. A NATO airstrike on the airfield in Nis last week went off target, hitting a hospital complex and adjoining civilian areas. In an earlier incident on April 24, five boys were reported to have been killed and two injured when what was evidently a cluster bomb submunition exploded near the village of Doganovic, fifteen kilometers from Urosevac in southern Kosovo. The munition was described as having a yellow-colored jacket, identical to that of the CBU-87 or RBL755 bomblets.

The U.S. Army is deploying 155mm artillery guns and Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) launchers as part of Task Force Hawk in Albania. Both of these systems are capable of dispensing submunitions-the ATACMS missile fired from the MLRS launcher dispenses as many as 955 bomblets. There has also been speculation that the CBU-89 Gator scatterable mine is available for use, and the U.S. government has stated that it reserves the right to use this weapon should the need arise.

The CBU-89 Gator has been banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which came into force in March 1999. The United States has not signed the treaty, but all other NATO members, except Turkey, have. Human Rights Watch calls on the United States not to use the CBU-89 Gator scatterable mine system, because this is an inherently indiscriminate weapon.

Human Rights Watch condemns NATO's use of cluster bombs in Yugoslavia, given the proven high dud rate of the submunitions employed. These weapons are indiscriminate in effect-the equivalent of using antipersonnel landmines. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that cluster bombs may be used in attacks on urban centers. This would present a particularly hazardous condition for the civilian population and should therefore be avoided.

Recognizing the danger to civilians inherent in the use of cluster bombs, air combat commander Maj. Gen. Michael Ryan (now U.S. Air Force chief of staff) decided during Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in 1995 to prohibit their use. "The problem was that the fragmentation pattern was too large to sufficiently limit collateral damage and there was also the further problem of potential unexploded ordnance," says one Air Force-sponsored study.

High Dud Rate

The CBU-87 and RBL755 are both mixed antipersonnel/antiarmor weapons that dispense explosive and incendiary submunitions fused to explode on contact. With 202 individual bomblets, the CBU-87 disperses its submunitions over an area at least the size of a football field. The RBL755 dispenses 147 bomblets. Most cluster bombs are intended for "soft" targets, that is, troops or unarmored vehicles, as well as fixed targets of a dispersed yet unprotected nature, such as communications sites.

The weapons are kept relatively inexpensive (in comparison with guided weapons) through the economical use of fuses and materials. The side-effect of keeping the expense of individual bomblets low is a significant dud rate. Estimates of overall dud rates vary from the conservative 2-5 percent claimed by manufacturers, to up to 23 percent observed in acceptance and operational testing, to some 10-30 percent observed on the ground in areas of Iraq after the Gulf War. Human Rights Watch has used a conservative estimate of 5 percent mechanical and fuse failures to estimate the humanitarian effect. This number seems credible to most experts.

Thus for Operation Allied Force, the historical record and testing experience would tend to indicate that for every single CBU-87 used, there will be an average of some ten unexploded bomblets, and for every RBL755, there will be an average of five unexploded bomblets. Bombing in Operation Allied Force to date has been almost exclusively from medium altitudes (circa 15,000 feet), raising important questions regarding the ability to control the collateral damage effects of the use of cluster bombs, and the number of dispersed unexploded bomblets. It is also important to note that the experience of cluster bomb use in the Gulf War and other conflicts indicates that the failure to fuse properly does not mean that submunitions on the ground are harmless. Cluster bomb submunitions, however fused, may explode at the slightest touch, even after extended periods of time.

Widespread Cluster Bomb Use in the Gulf War

The 1991 Gulf war saw the most extensive and widespread use of cluster bombs in the history of armed conflict, both air- and ground-delivered. Given the flexibility in delivery modes for the newer bombs, particularly the capacity for delivery at extremely high speeds, and the reliability in comparison with Vietnam-era cluster bombs, CBU-87s became, according to the U.S. Air Force, the "weapon of choice." About one quarter of the total number of weapons dropped by aircraft on Iraq and Kuwait were cluster bombs, a total of 62,000 air-delivered cluster bombs. In addition, some 100,000 Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM) artillery shells and 10,000 MLRS rockets were expended (see Table 2). This translates, overall, into the dispersal of somewhere on the order of 24-30 million submunitions. Assuming a dud rate of 5 percent, the number of individual live submunitions left on the battlefield, and in other areas of Iraq and Kuwait, can be reasonably estimated to be, at a minimum, 1.2 to 1.5 million.

Cluster bombs were used in attacks demanding dispersed yet fairly accurate damage against fixed "soft" targets (for example, radar, surface-to-air missile, and communications installations). Bombing from medium or high altitudes had a significant impact on both cluster bomb accuracy and reliability. Not only was there a greater dispersal pattern for the submunitions than was intended with low-altitude delivery, but pilots were outside the range needed to make sighting corrections or assess damage. Vietnam-era CBU-52/58/71 cluster bombs, intended originally solely for low-altitude delivery, also "performed poorly throughout the war," according to the Gulf War Air Power Survey.

One of the unexpected problems involved in medium- and high-altitude delivery of cluster bombs in Operation Desert Storm, even with the newer CBU-87s, was that the weapons began to experience what has been termed "excessively high dud rates." Despite contact fuses and secondary firing systems, an enormous number of submunitions failed to detonate, particularly when landing in soft sand, shallow water, or mud.

One of the most immediate problems raised by the large number of unexploded bomblets that was being observed on the ground was the threat to U.S. and coalition forces in ground operations. The situation became so critical that the use of cluster bombs by aircraft was cut back by U.S. Central Command during the ground war for fear of friendly casualties. As the ground war began, in some instances, "ground movement came to a halt because units were afraid of encountering unexploded ordnance." Troops with the U.S. 1st Armored Division said that the principal threat they faced was "unexploded ordnance believed to have been left over from an earlier American bombardment." The Washington Post observed on March 3 that "units of the army's 1st Cavalry Division that had suffered no combat casualties in their unopposed drive through southern Iraq have seen several of their soldiers killed or wounded by bombs or mines in the area they are holding."

Post-war injuries to U.S. and U.K. soldiers from submunitions on the battlefield, mostly because of excessively high dud rates of one type of grenades in the 155mm artillery projectile and MLRS rockets, subsequently received much press attention in the United States and Britain, as well as U.S. Congressional interest. The General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that during Operation Desert Storm at least twenty-five U.S. military personnel were killed and others were injured by submunitions fired by their own forces. Unexploded submunitions also caused many casualties among disposal specialists.

Dangers to the Civilian Population

The use of cluster bombs in Kuwait, on and around roads in southern, northern, and western Iraq, as well as in urban areas in Iraq led to a particularly hazardous situation for the noncombatant civilian populations of both Iraq and Kuwait. In the Iraqi town of Safwan, for example, as the refugee population swelled after the cease-fire, "the number of injuries caused by unexploded ordnance rose alarmingly." There were widespread and consistent reports of Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians being killed or injured by unexploded bomblets from coalition cluster bombs. Unexploded submunitions were a hazard to Kurdish refugees and foreign relief operations in the north.

The widespread and indiscriminate use of cluster bombs in civilian areas thus generally impeded post-war recovery for the civilian population. Iraqi authorities claim to have cleared over one-half million items of unexploded ordnance in urban areas of the country, and removed tens of thousands of unexploded submunitions from electrical power plants and telephone, television, and radio communications installations, from the approaches to bridges, and from civilian neighborhoods. Even if the Iraqi authorities and the experiences of other observers in Iraq were not to be believed, one of the first tasks of the Allied forces in extinguishing the oil fires in Kuwait after the war was clearing unexploded ordnance, particularly coalition submunitions. The Kuwaiti minister for electricity and water stated that delays in restoring services were caused by the discovery of "unexploded cluster bombs and minefields at crucial spots in the electric grid."

Cluster bomb submunitions that failed to detonate were also responsible for a considerable portion of the immediate post-war civilian injuries in Iraq. It is estimated that more than 1,600 civilians (400 Iraqi and 1,200 Kuwaiti) were killed and over 2,500 injured in the first two years after the end of the Gulf war from accidents involving submunitions.

A particular problem for the civilian population, particularly children, was the very design of the submunitions. "Toy-size bombs designed to kill tanks and soldiers [also] appear as white lawn darts, green baseballs, orange-striped soda cans," one report from Kuwait reported almost a year after the war ended. These attractively arrayed and intriguing unexploded submunitions "proved deadly to children." Kuwaiti doctors stated that some 60 percent of the victims of unexploded ordnance injuries were children aged fifteen and under.

The "lawn darts" referred to are Vietnam-era Rockeye submunitions that were used in huge numbers in 1991. The baseball-like remnants are from older CBU-52/58/71 cluster bombs and the ground artillery- and rocket-delivered bomblets. The orange-striped "soda cans" are the distinct remnants of the BLU-97 bomblets from the CBU-87 and the British BL755.