Saudi-led coalition forces have dropped US-made cluster bombs on Yemeni neighborhoods. This is what it means for civilians.

Google “Sanaa” this week, and you will find images of new destruction: broken glass, collapsed roofs and sandal-clad feet navigating rubble across the Yemeni capital. And you will find photos of a CBU-58 cluster bomb casing with clear white markings that indicate the weapon was made at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee.

Between 1970 and 1995, the United States reportedly transferred 1,000 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. This week, Saudi Arabia-led forces dropped some of those American-made bombs on residential neighborhoods in Sanaa. According to Human Rights Watch, this constitutes a war crime. Add to that: Russian activists reported this week they have new evidence of Russian aircraft armed with cluster bombs, deployed in Syria.

Cluster bombs are weapons with large casings designed to open mid-air, dispersing multiple bomblets across a target area. Every CBU-58, for example, is packed with 650 individual submunitions. When a single bomblet explodes, it sends metal in every direction at ballistic speeds. These weapons are more lethal than landmines, and they can remain volatile for decades after war. In Southeast Asia these bombies, as they are often called, can sit for half a century before a farmer inadvertently hits one with a hoe or a kid finds one in a schoolyard, and then it explodes. Still deadly.

BLU-63 submunitions that broke apart on impact after being dispersed by CBU-58 cluster bombs in the Hayal Sayeed neighborhood of Sanaa on January 6, 2016.  © 2016 Private/ Via HRW
BLU-63 submunitions that broke apart on impact after being dispersed by CBU-58 cluster bombs in the Hayal Sayeed neighborhood of Sanaa on January 6, 2016.
© 2016 Private/ Via HRW

Critics rank these bombs among the world’s worst antipersonnel weapons: “indiscriminate and barbaric,” with historically high failure rates. To date, 118 countries have banned the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs through an international treaty. Yemen and Syria are not parties to that ban. Neither are Saudi Arabia, Russia or the United States.

Cluster bombs were used in World War II and later dumped by the millions in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. An estimated 30 million or more submunitions were used in the Gulf War. The US and UK dropped up to 2 million in three weeks of major battle in Iraq. Unexploded cluster bombs contaminate 24 countries and three territories worldwide. These bombs will litter the ground for decades to come. According to Handicap International, 98 percent of cluster submunition casualties worldwide are civilians going about their daily lives in the aftermath of conflict.

Still, many military leaders say cluster munitions are necessities critical to national security, and that modern designs with lower failure rates eliminate most concern over civilian casualties resulting from accidents with dud bombs. But this argument rests on a few key misconceptions.

The first is semantics. Undetonated submunitions actually aren’t “failures” or “duds,” as they are frequently called. If they truly were, they would never explode—harmless. Instead, many sit idle for years before doing exactly what they were engineered to do—explode (albeit off schedule). The reason militaries defend cluster munitions is that they succeed in the precise mission for which they were designed: they can kill or destroy multiple targets. The problem is, those targets are often hit unintentionally, long after war.

A second misconception is one of engineering. Early designs (such as those used during the Vietnam War, and again in Yemen this week) had estimated failure rates of up to 30 percent. After 2018, U.S. policy prohibits the use of cluster munitions with failure rates exceeding 1 percent. But a Congressional Research Service report says there is disagreement between manufacturers and clearance workers about what happens on the ground. “While such a high level of performance might be achievable under controlled laboratory conditions,” the report notes, engineers can’t truly account for everything that can happen to bombs once they are deployed.

No matter how “smart” a bomb’s design might be, things go wrong in warfare. Environments are unpredictable. Submunitions get stuck in trees or sink in mud. A good rainstorm can carry them downstream or push them downhill. Engineers aim for smarter bombs with self-destruct mechanisms, armor sensory devices and tail kits for better precision. But ordnance experts point out that engineering cannot eliminate all unknowns in war.

A third misconception about cluster bombs is one of scope. A 1 percent fail rate sounds low, but the number is relative. When any technology fails, an appraisal of consequence and mitigation is necessary. If our smartphones misbehave, the consequence is typically frustration, perhaps a missed date or a few hurt feelings. Only very rarely could it become a matter of life or death. If a big bomb fails to explode when dropped, it’s often seen and cordoned off; mitigation is possible. But it’s not so easy with cluster munitions, dropped in multiples, scattered randomly, lodged in obscure places, all by design. Farmers think they see rocks, kids think they see toys. If one bomblet is found, there could well be more—but where? How many? There might be none, there might be 500. Unknowns abound, and fear sets in. The perception of risk—if not risk itself—multiplies. It alters behavior. People act as though an entire field or village or yard is contaminated, even if it isn’t, because they don’t know for sure that it is safe until it is cleared—an expensive, painstaking task. So, even a 1 percent “fail” rate sows terror because the stakes are as high as they come: life and death.

When an accident happens, it doesn’t matter if the bomb had a failure rate of 1 percent or 90 percent or anything in between. Statistics are irrelevant to victims.

As long as cluster munitions of any kind exist in the world, there will be bombs that misbehave—renegades. And there will be civilian victims.