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New Cluster Bomb Policy Aims to Reduce Collateral Damage

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2008 – The Defense Department today announced new standards for cluster bombs to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure from the unintended consequences of unexploded munitions.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signed the policy that aims to reduce collateral effects of cluster munitions used to pursue legitimate military objectives.

The new policy is designed to eliminate the number of bomblets dispersed by cluster bombs that don’t explode on impact, explained Air Force Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman. It sets new safety standards that, by 2018, would require 99 percent of all bomblets to explode on contact.

The military will begin reducing its inventory of cluster bombs that don’t meet that standard as soon as possible, and will stop using them altogether by 2018, the policy notes.

The new policy is designed to eliminate the chance that the bombs could remain active and pose a potential threat to civilians on the ground after the hostilities, Belk said.

A State Department white paper attributed fewer than 400 casualties to cluster bombs in 2006. Intent on reducing these numbers, the Defense Department launched a year-long review of its previous cluster munitions policy, Belk said.

The new policy strikes a critical balance between operational requirements and safety concerns, she said. “The United States believes that the new cluster munitions policy will provide better protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure following a conflict, while allowing the retention of a legitimate and useful weapon,” she said.

Belk noted that cluster bombs offer distinct advantages against a range of targets while reducing risks to U.S. forces and saving U.S. lives.

Defense Department officials view the new policy as a viable alternative to a complete ban on cluster bombs, as proposed last month by the Oslo Process in Dublin, Ireland, she said. With no alternative to cluster munitions, she said, eliminating them altogether would create a critical capability gap.

“This would make the wholesale elimination of cluster munitions unacceptable,” Belk said.

Future adversaries are likely to use civilian shields for military targets — for example, by placing a military target on the roof of an occupied building, she noted. Under circumstances like that, she said, cluster bombs would cause fewer civilian casualties and damage than other, far more destructive weapons.

The United States will use the policy in its negotiations toward an international agreement at the U.N. Convention of Conventional Weapons that began July 7. The United States hopes to see a new cluster bomb policy completed by the year’s end.

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