The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) made a push for the moral high ground yesterday, announcing that the British forces would cease to use “dumb” cluster munitions with immediate effect.
"This is an important decision,” said Defence Secretary Des Browne. “We are doing this because it is the right thing to do – but we hope that other countries will now follow suit."
The usual definition of a dumb weapon is one which is not guided in flight or otherwise capable of hitting a precise point or small target. Examples would include simple free-falling aircraft bombs or ordinary artillery shells.
Cluster munitions are those which don’t use a single warhead but rather break open to shower their target area with large numbers of explosive bomblets. Typically a percentage of these will fail to detonate and remain scattered about the area afterward, effectively constituting a particularly nasty and troublesome field of land mines. This has led to strong condemnation and calls for their use to be discontinued.
The UK is to destroy all its remaining stocks of the RBL 755 air-dropped cluster bomb and the M26 heavy artillery rocket, which are both dumb and cluster in nature. The MoD notes that this will mean getting rid of 28 million bomblets in total.
Cynics might note that both of these weapons were marked for the bin long ago, well before much concern had arisen over cluster-submunition weaponry. The RBL 755 will be replaced by Brimstone, a guided rocket system which began development eleven years ago. The M26 rocket has never been used since 1991, with the British army declining to deploy it even for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Its replacement, the GMLRS, was ordered in 1998 and is already entering service. The MoD isn’t really responding to pressure here, it is merely carrying on with planned modernizations and trying to pick up a little credit.
There was no word on any plans to dispose of the army’s stocks of 155mm Extended Range Bomblet Shell (ERBS). These are Israeli-made dumb artillery shells which scatter submunitions. However, junior defence minster Adam Ingram has said “the UK does not consider that to be a so-called dumb cluster munition because it has a self-destruct mechanism.” The failure rate of ERBS bomblets has been only 2 per cent in trials, less than half what might be expected from submunitions without self-destruct. A heavy bombardment will still leave lethal duds scattered about, however.
As of last October, the UK still had 16,000 older bomblet-scattering M483 artillery shells which have no self-destruct mechanisms. The M483 has to be a dumb cluster munition even under the MoD’s rather elastic definition, and these rounds weren’t mentioned specifically by Mr Browne yesterday. However, they have previously been described as “withdrawn from service,” which would normally mean gradual disposal. ®