In a policy shift, the United States removed a ban on the use of most of its cluster munitions inventory that was to take effect at the end of 2018. A Nov. 30 memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan revised a 2008 policy that called for completely phasing out the possible use of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time.
The new policy keeps those weapons in active U.S. stocks until the “capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.” How that might occur remains unclear. The last U.S. manufacturer who produced cluster munitions that Washington claims meet the 1 percent threshold stopped making them in 2016 and does not intend to renew production, according to The New York Times. The United States stopped buying new cluster munitions for its military in 2007 and, except for a single strike in Yemen in 2009, has not used them since early 2003.
Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. More than 100 countries are states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of the weapons. At the latest convention meeting, treaty members, which include a majority of NATO countries and many U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan, renewed their condemnation of any use. (See ACT, October 2017.)
The new policy retained the previous policy’s requirement for a combatant commander to authorize the use of cluster munitions that would have been phased out. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who in April 2017 introduced legislation that would have barred the use of such weapons, criticized the new policy. “It’s a shame the United States will continue to be a global outlier in using these unreliable and dangerous weapons, and I call on the president to reverse course and reinstate the 2008 policy,” Feinstein said.
Although the policy memo did not list specific places where cluster munitions would be needed, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Dec. 4 said the administration made a “prudent decision to preserve cluster munitions to deter North Korean aggression.”—JEFF ABRAMSON