By James Brooks
On September 26, the UN announced that the number of unexploded cluster “bomblets” left in southern Lebanon by Israeli forces may be three times higher than previous estimates. A million or more antipersonnel weapons may be strewn across a region one-third the size of Rhode Island.(1)
Israel has yet to respond to repeated requests for information about the locations of its cluster bomb strikes in Lebanon. UN demining experts say this has made their job ‘far more difficult’.(2) Two hundred thousand people cannot return to their homes due to the severity of destruction and the massive quantities of unexploded ordnance and cluster bomblets covering their communities.(3) Since the beginning of the ceasefire less than two months ago, 20 people have been killed and 120 others have been injured by cluster bomblets and unexploded ordnance.(4)
UN humanitarian coordinator David Shearer wants to know why the IDF deployed 90 percent of its cluster bombs during the last 72 hours of the conflict, while the UN ceasefire resolution was being approved.(5) UN officials are reportedly “dumbfounded”.(6) What could explain Israel’s intention in such an act, when peace was at hand?
The IDF responds that the “use of cluster munitions is legal under international law,” and claims its military “uses such munitions in accordance with international standards.”(7) Yet reports from deminers, aid workers, and civilians in the region clearly state that cluster bomblets are being found on roofs, in gardens, streets, and yards, everywhere people live.(8) To say that Israel used cluster bombs indiscriminately in Lebanon would miss the point. Israel deployed cluster bombs heavily in civilian areas. A number of villages were hit with multiple cluster munitions attacks. Well over a million of these antipersonnel weapons were fired by highly accurate artillery batteries, frequently at targets that were civilian beyond a shadow of a doubt.(9)
The explosive and destructive powers of these bomblets range roughly from those of a hand grenade to those of an anti-tank landmine. One type is designed to hurl projectiles that penetrate up to seven inches of steel armor. In shape and size they are similar to toy balls, candy bars, and cans of soda.(10)
In the lexicon of cluster bombs, the “dud rate” is the percentage of deployed submunitions (bomblets) that fail to explode when deployed. Unexploded cluster bomblets continue to kill and maim innocent people, especially children, for decades. In effect, Israel has left a million small, soulless suicide bombers in south Lebanon, each awaiting its call to action.
The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UN-MACC) has documented and cleared cluster munitions in several theatres of war. Working with NGOs and the Lebanese Armed Forces in southern Lebanon, UN-MACC continues to report that approximately 40 percent of Israel’s bomblets failed to explode.(11) An overall dud rate of 40 percent is unusually high. We will explore possible reasons for this reported poor performance of Israel’s cluster munitions.
In terms of dud rates, two classes of cluster bombs are available on the market today: high dud rate and low dud rate. It appears the cluster munitions Israel used in Lebanon were predominantly, perhaps exclusively, of the ‘high dud rate’ variety.
The vast majority of bomblets reported from Lebanon have published dud rates ranging from 14 to 23 percent.(12) To explode, most of them must impact a relatively solid surface at an angle fairly close to vertical. Sloping or soft terrain can raise dud rates significantly. The drag ribbons attached to some of these bomblets can interfere with obstacles during descent, preventing detonation.
A cluster bomb, rocket, or shell opens in mid-air to spin out many bomblets over a wide area. Dud rates jump when the trajectory of the “parent” projectile is too high or too low. Cluster munitions also lose reliability with age, another common cause of dud rates significantly higher than manufacturers’ published rates.(13)
Low dud rate bomblets are a relatively recent alternative. They are usually fitted with a self-destruct fuse and a more sensitive detonator, and sometimes include other ‘failsafe’ features. The objective for designers of these antipersonnel weapons is a dud rate of less than one percent.
This is a long-delayed victory for the anti-cluster bomb campaigners who began advocating these simple changes four decades ago. At the time it was a pragmatic compromise to try to save Vietnamese children, who were being blown up by the unexploded forerunners of a bomblet that Israel uses today, the BLU 63.
Unfortunately, our government did not respond. Since the war ended in 1975, an estimated 38,000 Vietnamese have been killed by unexploded cluster bomblets. As bomblets deteriorate, death and injury rates are escalating.(14) In Laos, over 12,000 people have died, and the ‘bombies’ are now killing 120 people a year. Half are children.(15)
In the last six to eight years, the Israeli and US militaries have finally begun to show an interest in low dud rate cluster munitions, mainly for their own protection. It’s a significant and welcome improvement, but it does not address the other crucial question about cluster bombs: where are the civilians when the other 99 percent of the bomblets explode?
Israeli Military Industries (IMI) makes low dud rate M85 cluster bomblets to “ensure that no hazardous duds are encountered by advancing friendly forces.” They leave “a clean [sic] operating area after the firing ends”.(16)
In addition to cluster bombs, IMI produces the self-destruct fuses that are the key to low dud rate performance. Israel’s top defense contractor also enjoys a strategic alliance with ATK – Alliant Techsystems, a multibillion-dollar US defense contractor, with whom it produces Israeli-technology cluster munitions in the US.(17)(18)
Israel prizes such relationships, since the resulting IDF-spec weapons may often be purchased from the US at a steep discount, if not simply received as gifts, through Israel’s rapidly growing military aid package from the US, now approaching $3 billion per year.(19)
Israeli Military Industries says that its self-destruct fuses exceed the Pentagon’s requirements, which are reportedly “stringent”: they must produce a dud rate of no more than one percent at a cost of no more than $10 per unit.(20) (Although the military has not shied from the expense of packing titanium pellets and radar units into mass-produced cluster bomblets, it refuses to spend more than ten bucks to make sure one doesn’t lie in wait to blow up a GI, or an innocent civilian.)
IMI is seeking buyers for its self-destructing M85 DPICM (Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition) cluster bomblets. It has produced more than 60 million M85s. Until 1998, they had a published failure rate of 14 percent. That year the M85 was converted to a low dud rate bomblet: too many Israeli soldiers were being injured and killed by unexploded M85s.(21)
An obvious question arises: If Israel was already making cluster bombs that would not have turned southern Lebanon into a minefield, why didn’t it use them?
The early results of submunitions clearing efforts conducted by the Lebanese Army and NGOs indicate that some M85s were deployed. They comprise about 8 percent of the dud submunitions reported by type.(22)
One might assume that these would be low dud rate bomblets made after 1998. However, it’s quite possible that when the new ‘soldier-sparing’ M85 became available, the IDF mothballed its remaining ‘high dud’ M85s. If so, they were probably saved for use when Israeli soldiers would not have to enter target zones after the cluster bombing; for example, immediately preceding a ceasefire or withdrawal. This, however, is only speculation.
Until we learn more about the type(s) of M85s used, we’ll have to assume that around 90 percent of the submunitions deployed by Israel were high dud rate cluster bomblets fired primarily in artillery shells and rocket warheads.
The Israeli commander who famously told Ha’aretz that, "in Lebanon, we covered entire villages with cluster bombs…what we did there was crazy and monstrous," was an officer in the IDF’s Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) unit. He said the army had launched 1,800 rockets that dropped 1.2 million cluster bomblets on Lebanon.
Soldiers were ordered to “flood” target areas with the unguided rockets, ostensibly because they were inaccurate. Reservists were reportedly “surprised” that the army was using the MLRS rocket launchers. They had been told the rockets were ”the IDF’s ‘judgment day weapons’” and were “intended for use in a full-scale war.”(23)
Yet UN-MACC estimates that IDF artillery units fired even more bomblets than were carried by the “judgment day” rockets, probably between 1.4 million and 2.8 million.(24)
If the early clearance data is a rough reflection of the whole, an additional 500,000 BLU 63 bomblets may have been dropped by Israeli warplanes. When we add up UN-MACC’s most conservative estimates and modest estimates of BLU 63 and M85 deployment based on early data,(25) the lowest reasonable estimate for the number of cluster submunitions released over southern Lebanon is three million.
In that case, the roughly 500 square mile target region would have “received” one cluster bomblet for every 4400 square feet of land, or thirteen bomblets for every (American) football field.(26) If three million bomblets had been evenly dispersed, every living thing would have been within killing range—eventually.
If the 40 percent dud rate repeatedly found in the first 45,000 recovered bomblets is confirmed across the region, the total number of unexploded cluster submunitions in Lebanon may be 1.2 million or more, a possibility that must concern UN and Lebanese officials.
Why would Israel’s cluster submunitions perform so poorly? Part of the answer may lie in the IDF’s reliance on US-made M26 rockets and their M77 bomblets, which have posted wartime dud rates as high as 40 percent.(27) Meron Rapoport of Ha’aretz wrote that in some cases the IDF fired its M26 rockets “at a range of less than 15 kilometers, even though the manufacturer’s guidelines state that firing at this range considerably increases the number of duds.” (28)
However, the M77’s problems don’t explain the equally poor performance of the artillery’s M42 bomblets, or the dud BLU 63s. In the absence of evidence that the Lebanese terrain or other conditions were at fault, our search for a common “failure factor” must focus on the IDF and its weapons.
One possibility is that the IDF deliberately increased dud rates by “shooting” its cluster bombs, rockets, and shells too high or too low, as discussed above. However, without further evidence this is merely speculation.
Another possibility is that the IDF’s cluster munitions inventory may have been stocked with outdated weapons. Some could have been leftovers from Israel’s last war against Lebanon. Others could have come from the expired inventories of another nation that wished to dump its outdated munitions. This is a growing international problem that threatens to saddle the world with high dud rate cluster bombs for decades to come.(29)
Excepting the M85, Israel is believed to purchase most, if not all, of its cluster munitions from the United States. This factor may have significantly contributed to the abysmal performance of the IDF’s cluster bomblets in Lebanon.
The US hoards huge stockpiles of cluster munitions, including some types that date back to the Vietnam era. Human Rights Watch reported last year that Washington has 369,576 M26 rockets in its inventory.(30) They would presumably be capable of spinning out 238 million highly lethal M77 bomblets, 200 times as many as Israel spewed over south Lebanon this year. With the Pentagon debuting a new generation of lower dud rate antipersonnel and anti-vehicle weapons in Iraq, the US has an obvious interest in getting rid of these “notoriously inaccurate” rockets and the rest of its mountain of aging ‘cluster junk’—to the right buyer, of course.
On the other hand, it can be “useful” to have some supplies of suitably aged cluster munitions on hand. According to Captain Josef Dirschka of the German Armed Forces in Kosovo, 1999:
“Unexploded duds are also used deliberately just to spread insecurity. You can’t move around freely here as you don’t know what state the bombs are in. Will they go off or won’t they? If you drive too close to where unexploded duds are lying, it’s possible that the vibrations of the vehicle will set the bomb off. You can’t know for sure. A certain number of duds is desirable.”(31)
Thus, a nation out to “spread insecurity” might have an interest in acquiring and maintaining an inventory of outdated cluster munitions.
On August 11, the first day of the cluster blitz and three days before the ceasefire, the New York Times reported that Israel had made an urgent request to the Bush administration for the delivery of more M26 cluster munition rockets. They “can be effective against hidden missile launchers”, the Times explained.(32)
This report suggests one of two things: either the decision to launch the massive cluster bomb campaign was a last minute, ad hoc affair, or procurement specialists in Olmert’s administration really dropped the ball.
The peculiarity of Israel’s timing becomes acute when we consider how few targets were left for all those cluster bombs to kill. By the final week of the war, most people in the target zone had evacuated to escape Israel’s relentless bombing and shelling, which had erased several villages from the face of the earth. Hezbollah fighters should have been able to ride out Israel’s cluster bombing waves in the safety of their bunkers. Nonetheless, the IDF must have made an all-out effort to deploy nearly three million bomblets within 72 hours, probably involving all units capable of delivering such devices. What were they shooting at?
The specifics of the available evidence support one “logical” objective for this attack: Israel used cluster munitions as substitutes for landmines.
The IDF’s proclivity for mining southern Lebanon is well known. The IDF mined the region heavily prior to its withdrawal in 2000, especially the border area, where mines still line the length of Lebanon’s side of the Blue Line and plague adjacent fields and villages.(33) At the end of 2003, a staggering 410,000 landmines remained. By the end of 2005, 30 civilians had died and 173 had been wounded by Israel’s landmines.(34)
The most plausible short-term military objective of Israel’s cluster bomb campaign would have been to “demobilize” southern Lebanon with cluster duds, to deny safe passage to Hezbollah fighters on their home turf. Israel’s leaders clearly sought to make the region uninhabitable, probably hoping to also deny Hezbollah its sympathetic civilian base. The strategic objective may have been to force Hezbollah to redeploy the bulk of its forces to safer ground, which is now well north of the Litani River.(35)
The most intensively cluster-bombed region of Lebanon is home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are unable to return home. On the other hand, Israel considers Hezbollah’s fighting force to number about 1,500 men.(36) Simple math reveals the shocking truth: Innocent civilians were perhaps 200 times more likely than Hezbollah militants to be killed or maimed by Israel’s region-wide cluster bombing. This basic statistic could not have been unknown to Israeli strategists.
Faced with an apparently indisputable violation of several articles of the Geneva Conventions and a US-Israeli weapons trade agreement, the US State Department confirmed on September 1 that it had begun an investigation into Israel’s use of US-supplied cluster munitions in Lebanon.(37)
The likelihood that anything substantive will emerge from this “investigation” is slim. Even slimmer is the chance that Congress and the administration will act as they did in 1982, when Reagan suspended cluster munitions sales to Israel in response to its gross abuses at the time—in Lebanon.
Ten years later, America was cheering its own cluster bombing of Iraq. During the infamously “fast and clean” Gulf War, US and Allied warplanes dropped 20 million bomblets, while the artillery fired another 30 million submunitions. The dud rates of some of these bomblets ranged as high as 30 percent. According to Human Rights Watch in 2003: “At least eighty U.S. casualties during the war were attributed to cluster munition duds. More than 4,000 civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munition duds since the end of the war.”(38)
In the darkness of our own long and hideous record with cluster munitions, after al-Hilla and Fallujah and all the other cluster bomb massacres in the current wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, where can the US stand against Israel on the subject?(39)
Where, for that matter, is the political will to hold Israel accountable for any of the thousands of other crimes it has committed in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories? The State Department “investigation” is merely a sop to diplomats in Brussels and the UN, who were demanding that the US ‘do something’ about Israel’s behavior.
The long-running US-Israeli partnership in the manufacture, trade, and repetitive anti-civilian use of cluster bombs is emblematic of a larger relationship stubbornly mired in the ways of war. The US has dumped sixteen times more dud-prone cluster bomblets on Iraq than Israel seems to have fired on Lebanon this summer. Our government has created a yardstick by which Israelis can claim that “flooding” southern Lebanon with stay-behind cluster bomblets was a “proportionate response” to the crime of living in the wrong place.
International sanctions against the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas should be strengthened. But that would be unlikely to stop nations like Israel and the US from using cluster bombs as de facto landmines. We must also ban high dud rate cluster munitions altogether, through an internationally agreed timetable to phase in low dud rate standards and destroy high dud rate cluster bomb inventories. It is the logical, humane, and urgently needed sequel to the Mine Ban Treaty—which the US and Israel have so far refused to join.
1. ‘Million bomblets’ in S Lebanon
2. 9-Year-Old Boy, 4 Other People Hurt By Cluster Bomb Explosions
An Nahar, 9/27/2006
3. 200,000 remain displaced
Electronic Intifada/OCHA, 9/28/2006
4. South Lebanon Cluster Bomb Info Sheet
UN Mine Action Coordination Center, 10/10/2006
5. UN: Israel cluster bomb use in Lebanon ‘outrageous’
YNet News, 9/19/2006
6. Cluster Bombs a Vestige of Israel’s Lebanon Fight
NPR, All Things Considered, 9/27/2006
7. Israel used cluster grenades on civilians
8. LEBANON: Leftover Israeli cluster bombs kill civilians
IRIN – UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 8/21/2006
9. South Lebanon Cluster Bomb Info Sheet, op. cit.
10. Drop Today, Kill Tomorrow
Mennonite Central Committee, 1997
11. South Lebanon Cluster Bomb Info Sheet, op. cit.
12. Persian Gulf: U.S. cluster bomb duds a threat
Human Rights Watch, 3/18/2003
13. Cluster Bombs and Cluster Munitions: A Threat to Life
Aktionsbündnis Landmine.de, 1st edition 2004
Wendy Waldeck and Sarah Sensamaust, Journal of Mine Action, 2/2006
15. LAOS: More than 30 Years On, the Unquiet Land
By Lynette Lee Corporal, IPS Asia-Pacific/Probe Media Foundation
16. M85 dual-purpose bomblet
18. Employee Liabilities of Weapon Manufacturers Under International Law
19. U.S. Military Assistance and Arms Transfers to Israel: U.S. Aid, Companies Fuel Israeli Military (PDF)
By Frida Berrigan and William D. Hartung, World Policy Institute, 7/20/2006
20. M85 dual-purpose bomblet, op. cit.
22. Latest update on cluster munition problem in south Lebanon
Cluster Munition Coalition, 9/20/2006 (?)
23. IDF commander: We fired more than a million cluster bombs in Lebanon
24. South Lebanon Cluster Bomb Info Sheet, op. cit.
25. Latest update on cluster munition problem in south Lebanon, op. cit.
26. 770 Cluster Bombs Strikes Map
UN Mine Action Coordination Center South Lebanon, 10/10/2006
27. Cluster Bombs and Cluster Munitions: A Threat to Life, op. cit.
28. When rockets and phosphorous cluster
By Meron Rapoport, Ha’aretz, 9/30/2006
29. Cluster Bombs and Cluster Munitions: A Threat to Life, op. cit.
30. U.S.: Deny Israeli Request for Cluster Munitions
Human Rights Watch, 8/11/2006
31. [Speaking to Report Mainz, 11/17/2003] Cluster Bombs and Cluster Munitions: A Threat to Life, op. cit.
32. Israel Asks U.S. to Ship Rockets With Wide Blast
New York Times, 8/11/2006
33. 770 Cluster Bombs Strikes Map op. cit.
34. The Mine Problem: Southern Lebanon
UN Mine Action Coordination Center South Lebanon, 2006
35. 770 Cluster Bombs Strikes Map op. cit.
36. Peres: Israel achieved its war goals, weakened Hezbollah
37. US investigating Israel cluster bomb use in Lebanon
Yahoo! News, 9/1/2006
38. Persian Gulf: U.S. cluster bomb duds a threat op. cit.
39. America at War: Killing People in order to Save Them?
By Dave Lindorff, Baltimore Chronicle, 9/6/2006