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Frequently Asked Questions
A cluster bomb is a small explosive submunition or bomblet that is delivered to its target in a large canister or shell. Cluster bombs can be delivered by air-launched systems (as bombs from aircraft), by ground-based artillery systems, by multiple launch rocket systems, or missile based systems (such as cruise missiles).
Cluster bombs have anti-personnel fragmentation features which can send hundreds of shards of steel at ballistic speeds over a wide area, or shaped charges which can penetrate heavy armor. Many of the cluster bomb canisters carry hundreds of bomblets. A drop of several canisters can easily create kill zones of a square kilometer or greater in size.
A working definition of cluster weapons could be as follows: Cluster warheads or other devices with many bomblets which act through the ejection of a great number of small-calibred fragments or pellets, including combined effects and dual purpose munitions.
For more details, see the following websites:
Federation of American Scientists: General description of cluster bomb technology (includes diagrams & photos)
Independent Television Service: Description of a one-hour documentary on the use of cluster munitions in Laos,
USA Today: Stories from the use of U.S. cluster munitions in Iraq, as well as good descriptions and graphics of how cluster munitions look and work.
The short answer is, “yes,” cluster bombs are banned by many countries, but there is a longer, more complex story to be told.
In 1976 thirteen nations called for a ban on anti-personnel cluster weapons. The call for a ban focused on the immediate effects of cluster weapons during war time:
This call for a ban did not receive wide support and cluster bombs have been used in many conflicts since the failed effort to ban them in 1976. The results have always been the same. Civilians are killed in time of war and for years after the conflicts end because of the high failure rates of these weapons.
In February of 2007, following several years of debate in the context of the Convention on Conventional Weapons discussions in Geneva, Switzerland, Norway invited all interested countries to Oslo to begin negotiating a treaty that would ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. At this meeting, 48 countries participated, and 46 agreed to continue what became known as the Oslo process. Over the course of nearly two years, 6 different meetings were held in different regions of the world. The result was the Convention on Cluster Munitions which was formally signed by 94 countries in Oslo, Norway in December of 2008.
This international treaty bans the production, transfer, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions. As of February, 2012, 111 countries have joined the treaty. Of this number, 68 countries have ratified the treaty with their own parliamentary process.
More than half of the countries that have cluster munitions have signed the agreement, including almost all of the U.S.'s NATO allies. Major hold outs include the United States, Russia, China, India, Israel and Pakistan. For more information on the treaty and on the process which led to it, see:
While landmines and cluster munitions do have many similar effects, the difference lies in their design. Landmines are designed to rest in the soil indefinitely and explode when stepped on or when someone disturbs a trip wire. While many landmines are placed in the ground by hand, they can also be scattered from the air via artillery, cruise missiles or bombs.
Cluster bombs are designed to explode when they hit the ground in the immediate context of a battle. They are not intended to “lie in wait” like a landmine to maim or kill at a later time.
However cluster bombs have a significant failure rate, ranging anywhere from 5%-30% or even higher. The cluster bomblets which fail to explode on impact are still dangerous and can explode when inadvertently kicked, hit with a farmer’s hoe or played with by a child. In this way, their actual effect on the ground is similar to that of landmines.
In a word, cluster bombs are indiscriminate. They cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets. Their wide-area coverage and poor targeting mechanisms nearly guarantee that unintended victims will die or be injured, even when the weapons function as designed.
Secondly, cluster munitions continue to kill long after a war ends because these weapons often fail to explode on contact as designed. Lao villagers continue to die today, more than 30 years after the last cluster bombs fell on their soil.
Failure or dud rates are often in the 10%-15% range, but may be as high as 30% or more. While the term “dud” suggests deactivation, in reality many duds remain armed and dangerous. These highly lethal munitions may explode when bumped, moved, or touched, frequently killing more than one person because of their wide fragmentation patterns. Like landmines, cluster munitions must be located and destroyed one by one, a costly and time-consuming process.
The high failure rates of these weapons, coupled with the fact that they are small and numerous, make them particularly problematic. Some dispensers contain over 600 bomblets, and a salvo of twelve rockets from a Multiple Launch Rocket System would pepper a wide area with over 7,000 bomblets in a matter of minutes.
The fi rst step to clearing cluster bombs is to collect information. Usually this includes obtaining records (like maps) from the cou ntr y th at dro pped the bombs, interviews with the local people and soldiers who were in the area. Once the information is gathered, surveyors use the information and either mark the actual unexploded ordnance (uxo) with paint, hang up signs or tell people not t o enter the area.
Deminers use m etal detectors to find cluster bombs or munitions that are buried in the ground, then probe the ground with a metal rod to locate the exact spot. Deminers then carefully brush away the earth to determine whether or not there is a piece of ordnance or mine in the ground. Many times they find only a piece of metal, but each signal must be treated as if it were a live piece of ordnance. This makes clearance work very slow and tedious.
It is important to note that deminers do not normally move cluster munitions. Instead they destroy the cluster munition or bomblet with explosives in the place where it is found. Before the bomblet is destroyed, the immediate area must be cleared of people so that no one is injured by the flying shrapnel.
There is no magic box that can destroy unexploded bombs at the push of a button. Different clearance technologies are used to deal with different ordnance and different types of conditions. In summary, clearance work is expensive, slow, and dangerous.
The footprint of a cluster bomb is the area covered by the bomblets or submunitions when they hit the ground. The size of the footprint is determined by a variety of factors, including design, altitude from which the dispenser is dropped, altitude at which the dispenser opens, the dispenser spin rate, wind, and slope of the ground on which the bomblets fall. Given the many variables which determine footprint size, it is not surprising that reported cluster bomb footprint sizes also vary.
Defense analyst William Arkin notes that “a medium to high-altitude delivery will generally result in submunitions covering an area 400 X 800 ft., or roughly 125 meters by 250 meters.” The Asian Defence Journal estimates the footprint from a high spin dispenser to be 90 meters by 110 meters.
Testimony by Major General Charles Wald of the U.S. Department of Defense sets the footprint for the CBU-87 cluster bomb at approximately 200 meters by 400 meters.
When an MCC worker visited with deminers working in Kosovo, the deminers routinely referred to a cluster bomb strike area as covering a square kilometer. Cluster bomb strike areas often involve several cluster bombs.
Cluster bombs that are fired from Multiple Launch Rocket Systems also cover a wide area. Again, estimates on the size of the actual footprint vary depending on the specifics of the situation. A single M-270 launcher can deliver 12 rockets, covering an area of 30-60 acres in one minute with more than 7,700 individual bomblets.
Since cluster bomblets explode into tiny fragments of flying metal, the actual area of danger from a cluster bomb strike extends beyond the perimeter created by the falling bomblets.