Cluster munitions are bombs that can be fired from the ground or air and typically open mid-air scattering smaller bombs over a wide distance. The munitions sometimes fail to detonate on impact and continue to pose mortal danger to civilians for years after conflicts end.
In response, Mary Wareham, from the Cluster Munition Coalition, an worldwide campaign seeking to eliminate cluster bombs, argued that there is no compelling reason for the use of cluster munitions. Amnesty International documented a 2010 U.S. attack on Yemen which apparently used cluster bombs and killed 41 civilians including 21 children.
The Pentagon in 2008 laid out a policy to update its stockpile with cluster bombs that explode at least 99 percent of the time come January 1, 2019. Crosson said the military remains committed to "acquiring safer and more reliable weapons". The new policy drew immediate criticism.
Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson said it has been years since the U.S. military has used any significant amount of cluster munitions and, by law, it can not sell older cluster munitions to partners or allies.
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"The US says it can't produce "safe" cluster munitions, so it has made a decision to keep using "unsafe" ones", she said. The law also prohibits exporting cluster bombs that did not meet the 1 percent standard.
"We condemn this decision to reverse the long-held United States commitment not to use cluster munitions that fail more than 1 per cent of the time, resulting in deadly unexploded sub-munitions." she said.
But on Thursday, the Trump administration scrapped that deadline, arguing that "the weapons are legitimate, not necessarily a humanitarian hazard, and important for wartime attacks on "area targets" like enemy troop formations".
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, an worldwide treaty that began in 2018 and has been signed by more than 100 countries, prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of the weapon.
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The US has used cluster munitions in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia (including Kosovo), Montenegro, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Still, it was unclear at what point in the future the Pentagon might be required to stop using its existing stockpiles, since there would also need to be not just higher-tech weaponry, but sufficient quantities of new cluster munitions for USA stocks. Instead, commanders are allowed to authorize using "sufficient quantities" of the bombs if deemed necessary.
The policy does not define what qualifies as "sufficient quantities" of safer weapons, and it sets no new deadline.
The memo, which was expected to be signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday, called cluster munitions "legitimate weapons with clear military utility".
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"Although the Department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we can not risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities", according to a Pentagon memo seen by Reuters.
"The USA must go much further than past initiatives and immediately join the Convention on Cluster Munitions".
In 2016, the Obama administration halted its transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia, after rights groups condemned use of indiscriminate weapons in Yemen.
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