BBC Home > BBC News > Americas

US 'shifts cluster bomb policy'

8 July 08 12:44 GMT

The US is set to change its policy on cluster bombs and make them less deadly to civilians, AP news agency reports.

A memo signed by defence secretary Robert Gates says that after 2018, more than 99% of bomblets in a cluster bomb must detonate, the agency says.

Unexploded bomblets go on posing a threat to civilians for many years after the bomb has been dropped.

The US was not among more than 110 nations which agreed to ban cluster bombs, after talks in Dublin in May.

AP says the three-page Pentagon memo it has seen also says that by June 2009 the US will start to cut the number of cluster bombs that fail to meet the new requirements.

See how a cluster bomb works

Opponents have accused the Pentagon of moving too slowly to reduce cluster munitions from its armoury.

The US - along with Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan - did not attend the Dublin talks. All are leading cluster bomb makers which say the deadly weapons have strong military value.

Speaking at the time, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr Bob Mehal said getting rid of cluster bombs "would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk".

The latest reported move failed to impress Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who has campaigned against the use of cluster bombs.

He said that a defence policy issued in 2001 by then Defence Secretary William Cohen had called for a similar reduction in unexploded bomblets from cluster weapons by 2005.

"Now the Bush administration's 'new' policy is to wait another 10 years," he said.

He added that the Pentagon's reported plan to wait another decade before requiring the 99% detonation rate could not be justified in the wake of the international treaty agreement.

Last year, US Congress passed a one-year ban on exports of cluster munitions.

The ban, which received cross-party support, is expected to be extended.

However, the new Pentagon policy appears to plan for a possible end to that ban, says AP.

The memo states that until 2018, the Defence Department would look to transfer cluster munitions that do not meet the new 1% failure rate to other foreign governments.

Those governments would have to agree not to use them after 2018 and the sale would have to be "consistent with US law", the memo says.

The memo concludes by saying that "blanket elimination of cluster munitions is unacceptable".

Laboratory conditions

The question of whether cluster bombs can be made to detonate 99% of their bomblets was questioned in a report by the US Congressional Research Service in June.

Although laboratory conditions might see that target met, the report said, real life conditions where bomblets land on soft ground or fall through trees, might mean a higher percentage of munitions not exploding.

The report revealed that the US had dropped more than 1,200 cluster bombs - containing nearly 250,000 bomblets - in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002.

In the three weeks following the invasion of Iraq, American and British forces used about 13,000 of the bombs - with more than 1.8 million bomblets.

Return to top

Related BBC sites