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U.S. Selling Cluster Bombs Worth 641 Million to Saudi Arabia

A B-1B Lancer unleashes cluster munitions. Credit: US Army

WASHINGTON, Aug 23 2013 (IPS) - Arms control advocates are decrying a new U.S. Department of Defence announcement that it will be building and selling 1,300 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, worth some 641 million dollars.

The munitions at the heart of the sale are technically legal under recently strengthened U.S. regulations aimed at reducing impact on civilian safety, but activists contend that battlefield evidence suggests the weapons actually exceed those regulations.

These weapons have not been used by the U.S. in over a decade, so it’s hard to see why it’s in our interest to sell these to Saudi Arabia.” -- Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association

Opponents say the move runs counter to a strengthening push to outlaw the use of cluster bombs around the world while also contradicting recent votes by both the U.S. and Saudi governments critical of the use of these munitions.

“Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have recently condemned the use of cluster munitions by the government of Syria – that’s ironic given this new sale, because a cluster munition is a cluster munition, no matter what kind it is,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a watchdog group here in Washington, told IPS.

He was referring to the May 15 vote before the U.N. General Assembly in which both the United States and Saudi Arabia joined 105 other countries in strongly condemning Syria’s use of cluster bombs.

“To my knowledge, the sale of cluster munitions by the United States is infrequent today, so this sale is surprising in the sense that this is a very sophisticated, controversial system because these are cluster bombs,” Kimball continues.

“Further, that these weapons are used by Saudi Arabia is questionable from a military standpoint. These weapons have not been used by the U.S. in over a decade, so it’s hard to see why it’s in our interest to sell these to Saudi Arabia.”

Cluster bombs are air-dropped munitions meant to open in mid-air and release hundreds of additional “bomblets”, thus significantly expanding the potential damage inflicted in the attack. Yet for years global sentiment has coalesced against the use of cluster bombs due to the fact that some of the bomblets invariably fail to explode, resulting in lingering danger for civilians long after conflicts end.

As of 2011, 39 countries were dealing with the after-effects of cluster bomb use, according to the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines, an advocacy group. The group says that list includes Saudi Arabia.

“Cluster munitions stand out as the weapon that poses the gravest dangers to civilians since antipersonnel mines, which were banned in 1997,” the Campaign states on its website.

“Israel’s massive use of the weapon in Lebanon in August 2006 resulted in more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ceasefire and served as the catalyst that propelled governments to secure a legally binding international instrument tackling cluster munitions.”

One percent failure

In 2007, 47 governments endorsed a binding agreement, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, to outlaw the production, use or even transfer of cluster bombs. Some 112 countries have now signed the convention, and 83 have ratified it.

In mid-September, more than 100 countries will meet in Zambia to discuss progress in implementing the accord.

Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has signed onto the convention, however, which means that the newly announced sale is legal. According to reports, the U.S. has also continued to make irregular sales of cluster munitions to India, South Korea and Taiwan.

“Cluster munitions have been banned by more than half the world’s nations, so any transfer goes against the international rejection of these weapons,” Sarah Blakemore, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, a London-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

“We are disappointed with the U.S. decision to export cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, as both countries acknowledge the negative humanitarian impact of these weapons on civilians. The U.S. should acknowledge the treaty’s ban on cluster munition exports and re-evaluate the criteria for its export moratorium so that no cluster munitions are transferred.”

There are currently legislative moves afoot here that would severely limit the scope of potential U.S. sales of cluster bombs, beyond an export ban signed into law in 2009. In mid-July, Senator Diane Feinstein, who introduced a related bill in the Senate in February, co-authored a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to halt the use of cluster munitions with high failure rates.

“Cluster munitions are indiscriminate, unreliable and pose an unacceptable danger to U.S. forces and civilians alike. The U.S. government’s cluster munitions policy is outdated and should be immediately reviewed,” the letter states.

The lawmakers call for an immediate halt of the use of cluster bombs with an unexploded rate higher than one percent, a failure rate that also forms the basis of the current export ban. In fact, that one percent limit will become military policy by 2018, though Feinstein and other lawmakers are hoping to expedite that deadline.

Yet even if the Feinstein bill were to become law, the weapons system being sold by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, known as the CBU-105, may still be legal. According to both the Defence Department and the weapon’s creator, the Mississippi-based Textron Defense Systems, the system’s failure rate is indeed less than one percent.

Proponents have hoped that this “safer” cluster bomb would be able to continue being used and sold, even in the context of the growing crackdown on these munitions. Indeed, the sales to India, South Korea and Taiwan were reportedly of CBU-105s.

No clean battlefield

Yet the Arms Control Association’s Kimball says there is evidence to suggest that this number is higher. Such evidence comes from the last period in which this model of cluster bomb was used, back in 2003 in Iraq.

“Despite the [public relations] that has been put out regarding the low failure rate of this weapon, in the field its failure rates are much higher,” he says. “This sale to Saudi Arabia should prompt even greater Congressional scrutiny about U.S. cluster munitions policy, particularly the sale of these controversial weapons to other countries.”

Researchers looking at the weapon’s unexploded rate in 2003 in Iraq found that the weapon “clearly does not leave a clean battlefield”.

“The percentage of submunitions which have failed is higher than 1%. Perhaps substantially so,” Rae McGrath, a spokesperson on cluster munitions for the Handicap International Network, stated in a 2008 presentation on findings for this type of weapon.

“At best, these unexploded submunitions would deny access to land for civilian communities until cleared.”

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  • jiacovelli

    The statement that cluster bombs “have not been used by the U.S. in over a decade” is demonstrably incorrect. They have been used in at least one cruise missile attack in Yemen in 2009. This suggests that the Saudi government will very likely use their purchases in countries in which the fall of an authoriarian government might be seen as a precursor to the fall of their own authoritarian government.

    See also for a photo of a U.S. made cluster bomb used in Yemen.

  • MissV

    So when is it legal for the USA to sell weapons to a terrorist nation? If Saudi Arabia is a democracy, then I guess it would be okay for us to take criminals in DC out and let them be beheaded. Women are STILL not allowed to vote (in 2015, so they say). It is illegal to support a terrorist nation and Saudi Arabia was also involved in the military rendition along with the USA.

    The USA government is one of the biggest terrorist nations and trying to bully other countries to become just like us. Why do you think they place a military base in every corner of the world? The US government is in your bedroom around the world. The government can’t help themselves, they are all a bunch of perverts that the only way they ever have sex is to force it from someone, or watch through cameras. Look at the way the USA does nothing to protect women from rape in our military. OBAMA the imperial world dictator! Will be labeled as the third or fourth terrorist president responsible for destroying the United States constitution.

    Some day a country will decide enough is enough and we will find what Hiroshima found on a morning they once woke up to the US military destroying their nation, because we had a coward in the presidents position that was like Obama. A loser with no backbone. In other words A COWARD!

    I found this while searching out facts on US History: Worth reading and happy to give a link to anyone who wants to read more:

    “Critics have charged that Truman’s decision was a barbaric act that
    brought negative long-term consequences to the United States. A new age
    of nuclear terror led to a dangerous arms race.

    Some military analysts insist that Japan was on its knees and the
    bombings were simply unnecessary. The American government was accused of
    racism on the grounds that such a device would never have been used
    against white civilians”.

    Other critics argued that American diplomats had ulterior motives.
    The Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan, and the atomic bomb
    could be read as a strong message for the Soviets to tread lightly. In
    this respect, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been the first shots of
    the Cold War as well as the final shots of World War II. Regardless, the
    United States remains the only nation in the world to have used a
    nuclear weapon on another nation.

    Truman stated that his decision to drop the bomb was purely military.
    A Normandy-type amphibious landing would have cost an estimated million
    casualties. Truman believed that the bombs saved Japanese lives as
    well. Prolonging the war was not an option for the President. Over 3,500
    Japanese kamikaze raids had already wrought great destruction and loss
    of American lives.

    The President rejected a demonstration of the atomic bomb to the
    Japanese leadership. He knew there was no guarantee the Japanese would
    surrender if the test succeeded, and he felt that a failed demonstration
    would be worse than none at all. Even the scientific community failed
    to foresee the awful effects of radiation sickness. Truman saw little difference between atomic bombing Hiroshima and fire bombing Dresden or Tokyo.

  • MissV

    Shhhh! Did you not know we are supposed to be the state of amnesia? Our government wants us to fail to remember history, so our country can continue their wild west tactics. Ride em drones! Hey how about we put a drone on a cluster bomb and see what happens. We can try it out on DC. Nothing there worth protecting other than a bunch of thugs that should already be behind bars. Why not test these things on our own corrupt defense companies before sending them to murder innocent people? They like to build and destroy. Let’s see what would happen if they ever had to piece something back together LEGITIMATELY!

  • the greatest

    dude you need to calm down
    i’m from saudi arabia and lifes good man

  • Charles Frith

    People who join the military are puppet slaves.

  • Kevin byDesign

    I knew when the Iraq war “ended” America could not go a business quarter without stoaking the military industrial complex. Sadly, I was right. War for profit will not be denied by the corporatists. Its about profit first under the guise of, “Our Security”.
    Do you know what makes for security? Having clean water, food ,shelter & health care.
    Instead of manufacturing cluster bombs lets build something with that money.
    Build anything, other than more weapons.
    Lets have a debt ceiling on war and the contractors that make it happen.

  • Ulus Karaman


  • sleat

    The anti-thug cluster-drone…genius!

  • Peter P.

    Let’s do some research and not have such a misleading article, something the author should have done. The CBU-97 is a Anti-Tank bomb, not anti personal. It used thermal as well as other sensors to detect vehicles and then used a EFP ( to attack the target. These are not the anti-personal sub munitions and therefore has LESS of a chance of hurting civilians. They also do not have a delayed fuse as most anti-personal sub munitions have because they can only be used when attacking from above the target, they are useless once they hit the ground.
    TO CLERIFY: I do not support Saudi Arebia nor do I suppor the Military Industrial Complex’s contunied use of briebery and intimadation of our law makers to get us needlessly into wars for their own profit. But Iam also very bothered by not putting the article into context.

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