WASHINGTON – The Pentagon will indefinitely delay a ban on the use of older types of cluster bombs due to take effect on Jan. 1, 2019, U.S. officials tell Reuters, saying safety improvements in munitions technology failed to advance enough to replace older stockpiles.
Cluster bombs, dropped by air or fired by artillery, scatter bomblets across a wide area that sometimes fail to explode and are difficult to locate and remove. That can lead to civilian deaths and injuries long after conflicts end.
The U.S. military had hoped to transition to cluster munitions that explode at least 99 percent of time, greatly reducing the risks.
But with just over one year to go before the ban’s slated implementation, a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters that safety technology had not progressed enough to replace existing stockpiles with safer weaponry.
“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,” according to a Pentagon memo seen by Reuters.
The memo, which was expected to be signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday, called cluster munitions “legitimate weapons with clear military utility.”
Disclosure of the new policy met sharp criticism from Congress and the human rights community.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has helped lead efforts to restrict use of cluster bombs, said the Pentagon was, in effect, “perpetuating use of an indiscriminate weapon that has been shown to have high failure rates.”
Human Rights Watch disputed the idea that the U.S. military needed the weapons, saying that with the exception of a single strike in Yemen in 2009 it had not used the weapons since 2003 in Iraq.
“We condemn this decision to reverse the long-held U.S. commitment not to use cluster munitions that fail more than 1 percent of the time, resulting in deadly unexploded submunitions,” said Mary Wareham, arms division director at Human Rights Watch.
Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson acknowledged it has been years since the U.S. military has used any significant amount of cluster munitions and the new Pentagon policy still puts emphasis on eventually shifting to safer cluster munitions.
Still, it was unclear at what point in the future the Pentagon might be required to stop using its existing stockpiles, since there would also need to be not just higher-tech weaponry, but sufficient quantities of new cluster munitions for U.S. stocks.
The new policy does not allow the Pentagon to buy any additional cluster bombs that do not meet new standards that were outlined in the memo.
The new rules broaden the definition of which types of munitions meet safety requirements beyond the 99 percent detonation rate.
Under the new policy, the Pentagon says bombs that have advanced self destruct or deactivation technology would also be acceptable for future acquisition.
The new policy also outlines possible waivers.
In an urgent, wartime situation, the new policy also envisions the possibility that the deputy defense secretary can waive safety requirements on the use of cluster munitions.