Cluster Bombs in Afghanistan
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, October 2001
The United States-led alliance began its air campaign in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. While the Pentagon has been reluctant to talk of specific weapons used in the bombing, U.S. military sources have told Human Rights Watch that the Air Force began dropping cluster bombs within a matter of days. During the first week of the campaign, it is believed that Air Force B-1 bombers dropped 50 CBU-87 cluster bombs in some five missions. CBU-87 cluster bomb use has continued after the first week, and it is believed that other airplanes joined B-1s in dropping cluster bombs on both fixed and mobile targets.
Human Rights Watch has called for a global moratorium on use of cluster bombs because they have been shown to cause unacceptable civilian casualties both during and after conflict. Cluster bombs have a wide dispersal pattern and cannot be targeted precisely, making them especially dangerous when used near civilian areas. Cluster bombs are usually used in very large numbers and have a high initial failure rate which results in numerous explosive "duds" that pose the same post-conflict problem as antipersonnel landmines._ _United Nations officials have stated that on October 22 U.S. cluster bomb submunitions landed on the village of Shaker Qala, near the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, killing nine civilians and injuring fourteen. The head of the United Nations Mine Action Program in Afghanistan (U.N. MAPA) noted that villagers are afraid to leave their homes after encountering the yellow soda can-like objects characteristic of CBU-87 submunitions that were left scattered in the village after an air strike on a nearby military camp. He called upon the United States to provide information on the types of ordnance dropped on Shaker Qala and elsewhere.
On October 25, the U.S. for the first time publicly acknowledged using cluster bombs. In response to a media question, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said, "Yes, we have used cluster bomb units. There have not been a great number of them used, but they have been used."
Each CBU-87 cluster bomb contains 202 individual submunitions, also called "bomblets," designated BLU-97/B. The CBU-87s are formally known as Combined Effects Munitions (CEM) because each bomblet has an antitank and antipersonnel effect, as well as an incendiary capability. The bomblets from each CBU-87 are typically distributed over an area roughly 100 x 50 meters. They can be dropped from virtually any U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft.
Recent experience in Kosovo, and before that in the Gulf War, has shown that the exact "footprint," or landing area, of the CBU-87's bomblets is difficult to control and that an initial failure-to-explode rate of some 7 percent can be expected.
When the bomblets contained inside cluster bombs fail to explode on contact as intended, they become in effect antipersonnel landmines-volatile and deadly remnants of war that can explode from a simple touch. They have proven to be a serious and long-lasting threat to civilians, soldiers, peacekeepers, and even clearance experts, because of the high initial failure rate of the bomblets, because of the large number typically dispersed over large areas, and because of the difficulty in precisely targeting the bomblets.
A key United Nations clearance expert has expressed concern about the similarity of the coloring of the yellow BLU-97/B cluster bomblets and the small yellow food aid parcels being airdropped in Afghanistan, noting that people are being encouraged to pick up the food parcels, but that picking up a bomblet would be lethal. He said, "Our experience in Kosovo showed us that children and youths were highly susceptible to the submunitions. It is highly likely that many in Afghanistan will not know the difference between aerially delivered food aid and aerially delivered munitions." BBC Worldwide Monitoring reported that U.S. Psychological Operations units broadcast a radio message warning Afghan civilians of the similar yellow color of the cluster bomblets and the food packages, noting that cluster bombs will not be dropped in areas where food is air-dropped but stating, "[W]e do not wish to see an innocent civilian mistake the bombs for food bags and take it away believing that it might contain food."
It is noteworthy that during Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in 1995, air combat commander Major General Michael Ryan (later U.S. Air Force chief of staff) decided to prohibit the use of cluster bombs, in recognition of the inherent danger to civilians. "The problem was that the fragmentation pattern was too large to sufficiently limit collateral damage and there was also the further problem of potential unexploded ordnance," says one Air Force-sponsored study. During Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia in 1999, the White House prohibited further use of CBU-87s until technical adjustments could be made, after a cluster bomb malfunction on May 7 killed many civilians.
Afghanistan is already one of the countries most severely affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). Prior to October 7, 2001, the known contaminated area was estimated at 724 million square meters, including 344 million square meters classified as high priority land for clearance. From 1990 through 2000, more than 225,000 landmines and 1.3 million pieces of unexploded ordnance (including submunition duds) were detected and destroyed. The Taliban and the United Front (Northern Alliance) have used surface-delivered cluster munitions, fired from BM-21 122mm multiple rocket launchers.
According to information received by Human Rights Watch, the U.S. inventory alone contains more than one billion individual submunitions. The United States has more than forty different types of air and surface-delivered cluster bombs and submunitions. It is thought that at least eighteen nations produce cluster munitions and more than four dozen have stockpiles of the weapons.
What Are Cluster Bombs?
Modern cluster bombs are of two main types-those delivered by air and those delivered by surface artillery or rockets (including artillery projectiles and multiple rocket launchers). The bombs are designed to disperse submunitions (often called "grenades" in surface-delivered weapons and "bomblets" in air-delivered weapons) over a large area, thereby increasing the radius of destructive effect over a target. Typical targets for cluster bombs would include troop concentrations, airfields, and air defense units.
The large number delivered increases the density of explosives in the target area, with submunitions designed to strike every few feet or so. They saturate an area with explosives and tiny flying shards of steel. Depending on the type, bomblets can be dispersed to areas as large as the size of several football fields. An air attack typically disperses thousands of submunitions within a small space; a common target area for a single weapon under optimal conditions covers an area of roughly 100 x 50 meters.
Air-delivered cluster bombs are composed of a large dispenser with attached fins (called the tactical munitions dispenser, or TMD, in the newest systems); fuzes and electronic devices to control, spin, and direct the weapon during fall; and submunitions or bomblets. The bomblets themselves are of a variety of designs and shapes. Once released, cluster bomb units (CBUs) fall for a specified amount of time or distance before the dispenser opens and dispenses the submunitions, allowing them to cover a wide-area target. Depending on the type, the submunitions are activated by an internal fuze, and can detonate above ground, at impact, or in a delayed mode. Existing versions of submunitions do not incorporate self-destruct or self-deactivating mechanisms.
Modern air-delivered cluster bombs can be set to determine height of burst and the dispersal pattern. As the aircraft drops the TMD, tail fins open and stabilize the bomb body. At the selected time or altitude, the dispenser begins to spin, the spin rate determining the dispersal pattern. As the bomblets fall and disperse, they arm in different ways depending on their design.