Nussair’s mother was huddled over his hospital bed when I entered, his hands and feet wrapped in white gauze, blood stains peeking through his right ankle. The kid lay against a pillow in a large wing of the hospital in Najaf, Iraq that smelled like earth mixed with antiseptic. Hospital beds were packed with patients, dark sheets hung from the ceiling provided a modicum of privacy. Nussair’s mother, a slight woman covered completely by her black Niqab was happy for me to interview him and called his doctor over. Nussair had been tending sheep when U.S. forces blanketed acres outside the city with cluster munitions. Fragments from one of the bomblets shredded his ankle and he had received skin grafts. That had been two months ago. He was lucky. Two of his neighbors didn’t fare as well. Jassim (age 6) was paralyzed and had severe abdominal injuries; his three-year-old brother Ja’far had a brain injury.
It was the spring of 2003, one month after Saddam’s statue had fallen, and massive fields of unexploded cluster munitions were everywhere I went. The hospitals were full of their victims. After a cluster bomb strike in al-Hilla, 109 civilians — including 30 children — were treated on March 31st in one hospital with 38 civilians killed and156 injured in that single cluster strike. People weren’t just killed and injured during the war though. A farm I toured west of Baghdad was littered with unexploded DPICMs, some of their grey metal bodies sinking in the earth softened by two months of morning dew. Several locals had died or had their legs blown off after they stepped on them. Elsewhere in Iraq DPICMs hung from trees like Christmas balls. One person I interviewed told how a friend had pulled at one, only to initiate the firing sequence and have his head blown from his body.
These are weapons that kill civilians during war and continue to do so long after. On Friday, the White House announced President Biden had agreed to send such weapons to Ukraine.
The last time the U.S. used cluster bombs anywhere in the world was in April 2003 in Iraq. Along with the United Kingdom, they fired some 2 million. The majority were known as DPICMs, or Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions. This wasn’t the first time Iraq suffered under these bombs: In 1991, 13 million DPICMs were used in Iraq during the first Gulf War with similar results.
The basic idea is that these bombs create a “steel rain” over the target, saturating a football field area with lethal fragments. Cluster bombs can be artillery shells, artillery rockets, or bombs dropped from planes that carry a lot of smaller bombs. They give the military something called “economy of force.” This means it can send a few bombs out but have an outsized effect, because when the cluster bomb opens, a whole lot of little bombs will come raining down. That means you need to send fewer planes, launch fewer rockets, and fire fewer artillery shells to have the same effect as a massive barrage.
Just because the cluster munitions are little doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. They can punch through tank armor and kill anyone within 50 feet of where they explode. Each of the mother bombs releases dozens to hundreds of these small bombs sometimes called bomblets or submunitions – the military uses these terms interchangeably.
DPICMs aredual-purpose, meaning they have anti-armor and anti-personnel capability. There is a copper shaped-charge inside facing downward and if it hits the thin top of armored vehicles it will punch through about 2.5 inches of armor. The outer walls of the bomblet are designed to fragment and fly out to 50 feet shredding personnel.
These bombs are lethal. They are also a moral atrocity — so much so that the White House accused Russia of potential war crimes when the first reports of Russia using cluster bombs on Ukraine surfaced.
There are two issues: indiscriminate wide-area effects, and the deadly legacy of “duds” left behind after the attacks end.
When cluster bombs release their bomblets, they blanket an area the size of a football field, blowing up military vehicles and troops but also often killing civilians caught in the area of effect. These bombs are unguided, meaning they are not like the precision weapons you are used to seeing on television that hit their targets through a window. These are saturation weapons, where you dump a lot of boom over a massive area, killing everything underneath. That may work in a field, but it is a problem in towns and cities, because they will hit pretty much everything — from tanks to homes to civilians sheltering inside them.
Hundreds of Iraqis were killed by American and British cluster bombs during the Iraq invasion and many more died later from duds. Since their first use in World War 2, cluster bombs have killed upwards of 86,500 civilians and dozens of American servicemembers. But Ukraine has given assurances in writing they will not be used in urban areas, thus obviating the wide-area danger at the time of use. Let’s say we believe that (though the US has a horrendous record of keeping tabs on how its weapons are used once they are provided.) The next problem is the dud rate, and that is a problem for Ukrainian civilians AND soldiers alike.
To function properly every step in the DPICM’s arming process has to go off without a hitch – if one of them doesn’t the bomb won’t work. When the DPICM’s carrier releases the small bomblets, they spin, arm, and have to hit the ground at the right angle to explode. But there is a long, long list of things that can go wrong, meaning the bombs drop without exploding. And when that happens, you get a dud: a lethal piece of weaponry lying in wait for a passerby. As the Red Cross wrote in 2000: “When armed but unexploded, DPICM are among the most sensitive types of UXO, requiring substantially less force to operate [i.e., detonate] than most mines.” If anyone touches it, BOOM. If the wind blows it over in the right way, BOOM. You get the idea. Duds are REALLY dangerous, and they are lethal within about 50 feet. And remember: We are talking about a SATURATION weapon. The big bomb releases dozens to hundreds of smaller ones. That means if the dud rate is high, you get a minefield.
Guess what? The dud rate is high. REALLY high. Upwards of 23 percent.
On Friday the 7th when the Pentagon announced they were sending DPICM they stated the US would only send DPICM with a dud rate of 2.35 percent or less. The problem is there is no DPICM with that dud rate in the real world. The tests the military conducted were under perfect and unrealistic conditions at a testing center in Arizona where they used them against flat and hard earth with no vegetation. Where is there a battlefield like that? Certainly not Ukraine. According to earlier American tests the dud rate is at least 14 percent and can be as high as 23 percent. I have been researching DPICMs for 20 years, first seeing them in Iraq in 2003 and most recently used by the Russians in Syria and Ukraine. In my research, the typical dud rate is at least 20 percent. When you combine the high dud rate with a lot of bombs you get huge minefields. If we use just the low-end test number of 14 percent, then every single artillery shell produces ten duds. Ukraine is going to be getting hundreds of thousands of shells. For every 100,000 shells that is 1 million unexploded bombs littering Ukraine.
The impulse to send these weapons is obvious. Ukraine is short on ammo and needs to beat back the Russians. This is a stop-gap way to get them bombs fast while we work on resupplying them with better weapons. There are two problems with this, and one of them is that these bombs may kill more Ukrainian soldiers than Russians.
Russia has built up World War 1-style defensive trenches. The Ukrainians want these cluster bombs so they can attack the trenches, assault through, and liberate their country. But DPICMs are no good at that – and if you don’t believe me just look at what former head of the 1st Armored Division General Mark Hertling wrote/said about DPICMs, “They CAN’T clear minefields & they AREN’T effective in clearing trenches.” What will they do? They will severely hinder Ukraine’s ability to maneuver, and they will kill Ukrainian soldiers that attack through the fields of duds.
During the Iraq Invasion in 2003 DPICMs were a huge impediment to military operations, so much so that military developed a replacement weapon to do the same job and replace the DPICM because it is so utterly unreliable and dangerous. American soldiers have been killed by dud cluster bombs, and most damning, an after-action report from the 4th Infantry Division called the DPICM a “LOSER” because of the duds. There is a reason the U.S. hasn’t used them even during the last 20 years it has been at war with Isis, the Iraqis, and the Taliban. They are a shit weapon.
It isn’t just the U.S. that has used DPICM cluster bombs, but the results are always the same: dead civilians, massive minefields, military forces unable to maneuver, and dead soldiers and deminers. In 2006 I investigated Israel’s use of some 4 million submunitions in its war against Hezbollah, with about 2.8 million being DPICMs, killing and maiming civilians while contaminating over 540 square miles with duds that continued to kill for years. In 2008, I was in the Republic of Georgia when Russia invaded. The Russians used cluster bombs throughout the war, contaminating large swathes of the country, but it was also the Georgians that launched DPICMs at Russia, with many of them failing catastrophically, creating massive dud fields. In Syria I investigated war crimes for the United Nations and found widespread use of cluster bombs by Russia, including DPICMs used in populated areas where civilians were killed and where fields of duds continue to contaminate the country. Most recently I have been training Ukrainian war crimes teams in international investigation standards, and there too we have seen widespread use of cluster bombs by Russia —this time in unlawful direct attacks against civilians which are clearly war crimes.
Human Rights Watch estimated nearly 700 Ukrainian civilians have been killed or injured by Russian cluster munitions in just the first 5 months of fighting. When new numbers are released later this summer, that count will be far higher.
Since Russia is using cluster bombs in Ukraine, why not let Ukraine? And if the country is already contaminated the duds won’t matter, right?
I hear this a lot from supporters of Ukraine — and I count myself among Ukraine’s supporters. But lines must be drawn, and bans exist for a reason. If they didn’t, why not send chemical and biological weapons? Cluster bombs are not just the next weapon in a series of steps of arming Ukraine. We sent them anti-tank missiles, then HIMARS – the precision rocket launcher that has decimated Russian forces — then tanks, so why not clusters? Just because Russia is using these indiscriminate killers doesn’t mean Ukraine should. In fact they will be ceding the moral high ground. Until now, there have been few and sporadic reports of Ukraine using cluster bombs against Russia — possibly captured or legacy stores from the Cold War. If there is widespread use by Ukraine, they’re joining Russia in using a weapon banned by more than two-thirds of NATO. If Ukraine has hopes of joining the alliance, then using a weapon banned by most is not a good look.
More important are the humanitarian concerns of Ukrainian civilians returning home after the war — only to be killed by their own duds. Don’t tell me the Ukrainians will map the bombs and make the areas off limits. That is bullshit. In Lebanon I saw civilians rush home after the cease-fire only to be blown up by duds. The same in Georgia and elsewhere. Just because Ukraine is already contaminated, doesn’t mean we need to add to the problem. Plus, the DPICM is such a shit weapon the number of duds might be in the millions. Do we really want to contaminate Ukraine with millions more bombs? This also doesn’t even touch on the number of Ukrainian soldiers that will likely die from their own cluster bomb use.
Cluster bombs are inhumane and must never be used again. 123 countries have signed the cluster bomb ban treaty including allies like the UK, Germany, and France. Sweden is set to join NATO soon and they have also banned these bombs. These countries have joined together to ban these indiscriminate killers because we have decades of data that shows when cluster bombs are used civilians die, soldiers are killed by their own weapons, and vast swathes of countries are contaminated requiring dangerous and expensive clean-up that also kills the professionals trained to remove them.
What is the alternative?
Ukraine is winning this war using precision-guided munitions like the HIMARS rockets and Storm Shadow cruise missile. Some countries are playing an outsized role in helping Ukraine fight Russia’s illegal invasion. It is time more countries step up, provide weapons like the long-range and precise ATACMS, defensive weapons like F-16s, and remove so many of the economic loopholes that allow Russia to continue functioning. I want Ukraine to win this war. I want them to win with moral courage using the highest ethical standards. Ukraine must never stoop to Russia’s level using weapons much of the world has banned while targeting civilians and committing war crimes. I don’t want to go to Ukraine and investigate a bunch of kids like Nussair that have been maimed or the hundreds of dead I have investigated over the last twenty years. The victims of the DPICM are enough already. No more.
Marc Garlasco is the military advisor at PAX, a Dutch NGO where he works to protect civilians in armed conflict. He leads the organization’s work on civilian harm mitigation with the U.S. military, NATO, and the United Nations. Before coming to PAX Marc was a war crimes investigator for the United Nations in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, and he continues to train war crimes investigators for the ICC, UN, and Ukraine.
Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/biden-ukraine-russia-cluster-bombs-human-rights-1234785326/