How the World Let Qaddafi Get Cluster Bombs

Libyan government forces are deploying the horrific -- and, throughout much of the world, banned -- weapons against rebels, proving that we will have to do more if we want to end their use

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Despite the Libyan government's claims to the contrary, The New York Times recently found conclusive evidence that Qaddafi's military is using cluster munitions in urban areas, deploying them against the rebels in Misrata. As is often the case with these weapons, which are banned by much of the world, Qaddafi's cluster bombs appear to have caused far more civilian casualties than damage to legitimate military targets, raising the perennial question of the place of these weapons in modern warfare and what can be done to mitigate their terrible effects.

First deployed during World War II, cluster munitions have been used in at least 23 countries by at least 15 different countries' militaries. The bombs, which open up mid-flight to spray smaller bombs across a wide area, were originally developed to be used against ground troops and vehicles. The number of submunitions in a given missile varies from 2 to 2,000 bomblets, which are small -- think a baseball or a size-D battery -- and brightly colored to provide visual warning of the danger they pose if they fail to explode on impact. Early models of submunitions lacked a guidance system; more recent designs have incorporated autonomous target detection and self-destruct capabilities, features which were developed in an attempt to mitigate the indiscriminate nature and the high rate of nonperformance of earlier models.

Qaddafi found Europe more than willing to sell a full range of weapons systems

Cluster munitions have historically been used to great effect against massed enemy troops and armor or vehicle formations. They provide a certain economy of force: one munition can incapacitate or kill many targets in its impact area, which is generally larger than that of unguided unitary munitions. Most modern cluster munitions are multi-purpose and may contain a mix of anti-armor, anti-personnel, and anti-materiel submunitions that offer an unparalleled opportunity to debilitate both enemy tanks and the men who attempt to repair the tank.

Their use in Libya, however, provides an important reminder of why cluster munitions are so problematic, especially in urbanized warfare where the enemy may not wear a uniform. These weapons are infamous for the harm they cause to civilians, which happens for two reasons: the indiscriminate, unguided nature of most models of cluster munitions and the high failure rate of submunitions currently in use. In the initial attack, individual submunitions strike at random. While this can be desirable when striking military positions, when used in urban areas, civilians are inevitably killed or maimed and non-military infrastructure is damaged, regardless of the intentions of the attacking force. During the invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops fired hundred of cluster munitions into Iraqi cities; in just one neighborhood, at least forty civilians were killed, even as the military tried to minimize civilian casualties.

The days, months, and years after an initial strike, however, are where the real danger to civilians lies. Submunitions frequently fail to explode on impact, especially as they age and component parts degrade. However, they can still explode if jostled, and no public education campaign has been able to convince children not to pick up colorful objects or prevent pedestrians from accidentally stepping on an unexploded bomblet. Even now, doctors in Misrata are reporting an uptick in amputations, a common result of unexploded ordnance. De-mining is expensive, slow, and underfunded; in 2011, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted that the U.N. had secured "only about one-quarter of the needed resources [for the 2011 mine removal project portfolio], leaving a funding gap of $367 million."

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Diana Wueger writes on international and domestic small-arms topics at Gunpowder and Lead.

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