USA military to indefinitely delay ban on cluster bombs

Honest John missile warhead cutaway revealing M134 Sarin bomblets circa 1960

The Pentagon said safety improvements in munitions technology had failed to advance enough to replace older stockpiles of the explosives, which opponents say kill civilians indiscriminately.

Cluster bombs contain bomblets that scatter widely and can detonate months or years later. The munitions sometimes fail to detonate on impact and continue to pose mortal danger to civilians for years after conflicts end.

A 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions bans all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of the weapon.

Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson acknowledged it has been years since the us military has used any significant amount of cluster munitions and the new Pentagon policy puts emphasis on eventually shifting to safer cluster munitions.

Bush administration declared in 2008 that after January 1, 2019, the U.S. would continue its use of cluster bombs only if they met a performance standard of failing to detonate 1 per cent or less of the time.

Reuters has seen a copy of the memo changing US policy and confirmed the changes with Pentagon officials.

"Although the Department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we can not risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities", the document reads.

In an urgent, wartime situation, the new policy also envisions the possibility that the deputy defence secretary can waive safety requirements on the use of cluster munitions.

Disclosure of the new policy met sharp criticism from Congress and human rights groups. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

'The aftermath of the use of cluster munition use in Laos is particularly painful, with estimates of as many as 300 people killed every year, even 40 years after the war's end'.

HRW disputed the notion that the USA needs the weapon in its stockpile, noting that to their account the US has not used a cluster bomb since 2003 in Iraq with the exception of a single 2009 airstrike in Yemen.

"After spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching alternatives to cluster munitions, the USA has decided it can't produce "safe" cluster munitions so it will keep using "unsafe" ones", Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.

"We condemn this decision to reverse the long-held U.S. commitment not to use cluster munitions that fail more than 1 per cent of the time, resulting in deadly unexploded sub-munitions." she said.

Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson said it has been years since the U.S. military has used any significant amount of cluster munitions and, by law, it can not sell older cluster munitions to partners or allies. Instead, commanders are allowed to authorize using "sufficient quantities" of the bombs if deemed necessary.

The Defense Department memo also calls on the Pentagon to purchase only the newer, safer version of the bombs and bans exports of the older versions.

Under the new policy, the Defense Department will only procure new cluster munitions that have either a 99 percent detonation rate or have a self-destruct or deactivation feature that disables the munition within 15 minutes of it being armed.

An global treaty banning cluster bombs, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, went into force in 2010.

"The USA must go much further than past initiatives and immediately join the Convention on Cluster Munitions".

"A decade ago, the Pentagon announced that by 2018 it would no longer use cluster munitions with a failure rate exceeding one percent".

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