Cluster Bombs Don’t Kill People, People Kill People

He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safer for children to grow up in.

— Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

A number of readers have written inquiring where cluster bombs can be conveniently purchased.  At first blush one might think that the question is being asked by readers who are tired of the limited ability of the AK 47 to inflict harm on a lot of people in a short amount of time, that weapon being a favorite of those who do mass murders.

The fact is that few of my readers are of that sort and so their inquiries are prompted by intellectual curiosity alone.  It is a reasonable question since cluster bombs are once again in the news and some of my readers thought that cluster bombs had been banned and, that being the case, wondered why anyone would continue to make them and, to whom they would sell them.  Those are both good questions and I am happy to be able to answer both of them. First, a word of explanation about cluster bombs is probably in order.

Cluster bombs are described as anti-personnel and anti-armor weapons.  They were used to tragic effect in Vietnam where they not only indiscriminately killed those within their purview, but in many cases failed to explode and were left lying in the countryside to later explode killing  children and others who came into contact with them.  According to one report, in Laos where they were also used, 80 million bombs failed to detonate and, long after the conflict there ended, have been responsible for countless injuries among those who encountered them.  Because they are both lethal and unpredictable, 109 states signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions that was adopted in 2008.  It prohibits the use, production and stockpiling of cluster bombs.

Although a treaty banning cluster bombs sounds like a great idea, only 109 states initially signed it. As of this writing there are 118 signatories.   Among the more prominent states that have refused to sign, for reasons best understood by them, are Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States.

Although the United States has not signed the treaty, it has proved sensitive to the tendency of the cluster bomb as a device to underperform. Many cluster bombs during the Vietnam war proved to have a failure rate of more than 1% and were used in areas where there were large civilian populations. Congress became concerned about this and, as a result, under the 2009 Omnibus Budget Bill, only cluster bombs that have a failure rate of less than 1% can be exported and they can only be used against “clearly defined military targets.” A country that buys cluster bombs from the United States has to sign a statement stating that they will not be used “where civilians are known to be present.”

Notwithstanding these reassuring restrictions, cluster bombs  acquired from the United States have been used by Saudi Arabia in its war with Yemen and, according to a lengthy and detailed report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) “Saudi Arabia is using them notwithstanding evidence of civilian casualties.”

According to Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch(HRW): “Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standards required for US export of the weapons.” By now, a reader (and perhaps a prospective buyer of a cluster bomb or two) probably wants to know who is supplying the cluster bombs that fail to meet the standards set forth in the omnibus bill so the reader can shop elsewhere.  The answer is Textron Systems Corporation doing business as “Textron Defense Systems”, of Wilmington, Massachusetts.

Textron’s website indicates that the cluster bombs (more formally known as SFW CBU-105 DF/ P31) made by it, exceed “stringent U.S. Department of Defense policy on multiple warhead systems by regulating unexploded ordnance (UXO) to less than 1 percent.  SFW [sensor fuzed weapon] has demonstrated greater than 99.6 percent reliability with U.S. Government verified performance in combat operations and during more than 600 operational tests.

In addition, SFW’s redundant self-destruct features and self-neutralization mode ensure that battery power dissipates minutes after a smart Skeet is released, rendering it safe.”  In its Valentine Day’s posting, however, HRW cites numerous examples of cluster bombs manufactured by Textron that failed to explode.  Whether the number of devices that failed to explode in Yemen are more or less than 1% of the cluster bombs used on that country is impossible to know.  Whether HRW’s report of civilian deaths is correct is also impossible for someone like this writer to know. And for obvious reasons, Textron cannot be held responsible for whether Saudi Arabia is careful not to use the bombs where civilians will be killed or injured.

If HRW’s facts are correct, and there are civilian victims, the fault lies with Saudi Arabia and not Textron. Saudi Arabia’s failure to honor its obligations is not Textron’s responsibility.  As noted song writer and satirist Tom Lehrer wrote many years ago:  “’Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down.  That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Nor is what Saudi Arabia does with the cluster bombs in Textron’s department. Of course it could quit making them.


Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at For political commentary see his web page at