U.S. Weapon Manufacturers Feeling the Wrath of Arms-Control Activists

By Sandra I. Erwin
U.S. production of air-launched weapons that are widely used by the Air Force and foreign allies might be in jeopardy as a result of a global advocacy campaign that targets manufacturers of military hardware.

Antiwar and arms-control groups over the past decade have homed in on landmines and cluster munitions, and are now also targeting armed drones as another category of weapons that should be banned because they harm and kill civilians.

The manufacturing of one of the U.S. military’s most widely used precision-guided munitions, the Sensor Fuzed Weapon, could be imperiled, industry sources said, because several multinational banks and insurance companies — under pressure from advocacy groups — have decided to no longer do business with producers of weapons that fall under the broad rubric of cluster munitions.

The Sensor Fuzed Weapon, made by Textron Defense Systems, of Wilmington, Mass., is a 1,000-pound dispenser that deploys 10 guided submunitions, each equipped with antitank warheads. The Pentagon, in response to pressure from the arms-control community, has defended the use of SFW on the grounds that its self-deactivating features prevent unintended civilian casualties. Officials have insisted that precision-guided systems such as SFW should not be confused with indiscriminate “dumb” munitions.

As a result of steady efforts by antiwar groups, several munitions suppliers in the United States have seen their lines of credit and insurance coverage pulled back by major financial institutions. International banks that have terminated commercial relationships with cluster munitions and landmine manufacturers include Credit Suisse, BNP, HSBC, Societe Generale and UBS, among others, according to a report by the antiwar group IKV Pax Christi, titled, “Worldwide Investments in Cluster Munitions: a Shared Responsibility.”

These banks’ policies explicitly state that they will not invest in companies that are involved in the production of weapons banned under the U.N. Convention on Cluster Munitions and the U.N. Convention on Antipersonnel Mines.

One of the most forceful lobbying campaigns against banks that do business with weapon manufacturers has been by the Cluster Munition Coalition. On its website,, the alliance praised the November 2010 announcement by Credit Suisse that it would end investments in producers of landmines and cluster munitions. “Credit Suisse should be commended for this strong new policy that puts civilian lives ahead of profits at all costs,” said Paul Vermeulen, director of Handicap International Switzerland, a CMC member.

Pressuring banks is part of a broader strategy by peace groups to outlaw weapons, said Steven Groves, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank. He said this might create problems for some U.S. companies, as most major banks today are global, multinational organizations. The challenge for manufacturers, and for the Defense Department, is that precision-guided systems that the U.S. military regards as legitimate weapons of war are being lumped with indiscriminate cluster munitions, he said.

“Cluster munitions are designed to split apart during descent, scattering multiple, smaller explosive submunitions across a wide area and striking multiple targets on the ground, such as armored columns, massed infantry, and aircraft parked in the open,” he said. Cluster munitions are categorized as an “area weapon” as opposed to a single warhead, which is a “unitary” weapon.

Low-tech “legacy” cluster munitions can leave unexploded ordnance when the submunitions do not detonate upon impact with the target or the ground. If not removed, they create hazards to civilians for decades after a conflict ends. To address the humanitarian effects of undetonated munitions in 2001 the United States and other nations began to negotiate a protocol to minimize the dangers from explosive remnants of war, Groves said. The U.S. position is that discriminate weapons with self-deactivating mechanisms prevent unexploded ordnance hazards.

In the aftermath of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, several European nations began calling for a global treaty to ban cluster munitions. Talks that began in 2007 led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions that met in 2008 in Oslo. The treaty came into effect in August 2010 and has been signed by 68 nations. The United States, Russia, China, Israel, Egypt, India, and Pakistan did not participate in the Oslo talks or sign the agreement.

Israeli use of cluster munitions against Hezbollah forces in Lebanon resulted in widespread international criticism. “Israel was said to have fired significant quantities of cluster munitions — primarily during the last three days of the 34-day war after a U.N. cease fire deal had been agreed to — resulting in almost 1 million unexploded cluster bomblets,” said a Congressional Research Service report.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions does not outlaw self-deactivating cluster munitions such as the SFW, but its use creates a tough dilemma for the Pentagon, as other countries don’t necessarily trust the opinion of the Defense Department, said Kenneth R. Rutherford, director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va.

The United States campaigned against the cluster munitions convention and still many U.S. allies, including NATO members, signed on, said Rutherford. The U.S. government strongly believes that it uses every weapon in its inventory legitimately, he said. This view squares with the government’s premise that the United States must meet unique security responsibilities around the world that other countries don’t have, Rutherford said.

The United States walks a fine line on these issues, he noted. On one hand, it insists it needs to be able to produce and deploy cluster munitions. At the same time, the United States is the world’s top contributor to humanitarian landmine removal and unexploded ordnance clearance efforts. One reason the Defense Department is adamantly against the Oslo treaty is that it worries about the legal implications of working with allies, said Rutherford. “If we are in a joint operation with an ally that signed the treaty, what are the legal effects on our soldiers?”

Campaigns against munitions manufacturers by influential non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International can be successful, he said. “But if companies are producing weapons that have legitimate uses, then they should not be as concerned.”

The Obama administration launched a review of landmine and cluster munitions treaties in 2009, but that process has been stalled and is unlikely to move forward during a presidential election year.

“Moral pressure is effective,” Rutherford said.

Another concern for the U.S. military is that malfunctioning cluster munitions could kill or injure American troops. “They could be used as IEDs [improved explosive devices] against us,” said Rutherford.

Variations of cluster munitions exist for use by every combat aircraft in the U.S. inventory, and in some cases constitute up to 50 percent of Army and Marine Corps artillery fire support, said a January 2011 Congressional Research Service report. “U.S. forces simply can not fight by design or by doctrine without holding out at least the possibility of using cluster munitions.”

Cluster bombs have been used in at least 21 states by at least 13 different countries since World War II, the CRS study said. Cluster munitions were used extensively in Southeast Asia by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in Laos alone, 9 million to 27 million unexploded submunitions remained after the conflict, resulting in more than 10,000 civilian casualties to date. Cluster munitions were used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, by the British in the Falklands, by the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War and by the warring factions in Yugoslavia, the study said. In Kosovo and Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO forces dropped 1,765 cluster bombs containing approximately 295,000 submunitions.

From 2001 through 2002, the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 submunitions in Afghanistan before the U.S. government suspended use of cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, CRS said. “Confusion over U.S. cluster submunitions (BLU-97/B) that were the same color and size as air-dropped humanitarian food packets played a major role in the U.S. decision to suspend cluster munitions use in Afghanistan.” According to CRS, U.S. and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions containing an estimated 1.8 million to 2 million submunitions during the first three weeks of combat in Iraq in 2003.

In response to calls for eradicating cluster munitions, the Defense Department released a policy statement in July 2008 that affirms its stance that smart munitions such as SFW do not belong in same category of indiscriminate killers as buried landmines or dumb unexploded ordnance.

“Recognizing the need to minimize the unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure associated with unexploded ordnance from cluster munitions, the secretary of defense has approved a new policy on cluster munitions intended to reduce the collateral effects resulting from the use of cluster munitions in pursuit of legitimate military objectives,” said the policy, which was signed by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The policy states that cluster munitions are “legitimate weapons with clear military utility in combat.”

U.S. enemies, the Pentagon’s document said, use civilian shields such as locating a military target on the roof of an occupied building. “The use of unitary weapons could result in more civilian casualties and damage than cluster munitions. ... Blanket elimination of cluster munitions is therefore unacceptable due not only to negative military consequences but also because of potential negative consequences for civilians.”

The Congressional Research Service reported that in May 2008, then-Acting Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Stephen Mull said the United States relies on cluster munitions “as an important part of our own defense strategy,” and that Washington’s preferred alternative to a ban is “to pursue technological fixes that will make sure that these weapons are no longer viable once the conflict is over.”

The Pentagon’s cluster munitions policy stipulates that by the end of 2018, the Defense Department will no longer use cluster bombs that result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance. Any cluster munitions purchased, used or sold by the Defense Department after 2018 must meet this standard.

The Pentagon regards its 2008 policy as a “viable alternative to a complete ban under the Oslo treaty.”

The Sensor Fuzed Weapon falls well within the Pentagon’s 99-percent reliability mandate, said Stephen Greene, spokesman for Textron Inc. The submunition, known as CBU-105/BLU-108, has a 0.4 percent failure rate, which equals to a 99.6 reliability rate, Greene said. “Based on the technical definitions set by the Oslo treaty, the Sensor Fuzed Weapon is not subject to the treaty as its submunition, the BLU-108, weighs 29 kilograms, which is greater than the 20 kilograms or less threshold set by the treaty,” he said. “Even so, we believe that Sensor Fuzed Weapon with its highly reliable sensors and redundant safety mechanisms provides a solution that meets the intent of the Oslo convention — eliminating hazardous unexploded ordnance from the field.”

In the context of the Pentagon’s 2008 policy, Greene noted, SFW is the only area weapon that will be usable after 2018. “It is also the only weapon allowed by Leahy- Feinstein-sponsored legislation restricting the sale or transfer of cluster munitions overseas, again because it exceeds the U.S. 99 percent reliability requirement.” Greene stated that the 99.6 percent reliability rate has been verified by the U.S. government through thousands of tests, and the test results were reported to the U.S. Congress in November 2004.

Groves said it would be up to the Defense Department to determine whether the advocacy campaign to ban cluster munitions ultimately could jeopardize the SFW production line. Textron is a large enough company that losing one product will not put it out of business, Groves said. If Textron were unable to supply weapons, the U.S. government would have to decide how to proceed, he said.

“The banks that have ended relationships with all cluster munitions manufacturers are being shortsighted,” he said. “They are making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis just like many other businesses. If they see protesters picketing their banks, they might say, ‘We don’t need this.’”

But the idea that ceasing the production of SFW would end the profligate use of cluster munitions is foolish, Groves said. “The Chinese would be happy to supply them. ... And they would not have self- deactivation features,” he said. “Pressure tactics will not work in Beijing.”
Militaries buy cluster munitions because they are effective, Groves said. “If one supplier goes away, buyers will go elsewhere.”

Groves believes that similar shame tactics to disrupt the manufacturing of cluster munitions eventually will be used against producers of other weapons and armed drones operated by the U.S. military.

Organizations such as the Cluster Munition Coalition have a long-term goal of disarming the world’s militaries, he said. “They are starting with the least popular weapons like landmines and cluster munitions.” The next phase will be to target incendiary weapons that use white phosphorus and tank rounds that contain depleted uranium, Groves said. “They usually opt for weapons that U.S. and Israel use in armed conflicts.”

Armed drones also are on the activists’ hit list, he said. “The drumbeat on drones has been coming for some time.” But finding legal avenues to ban drones will be much tougher because unmanned aircraft are just vehicles that sometimes carry weapons but also have peaceful purposes. Some humanitarian groups actually have called on the U.S. military to use its drones to drop aid and supplies in Syrian towns that have been under siege from government forces and have no access to food or medicine.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles are very flexible platforms,” said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “UAVs are essentially ‘trucks’ that can carry weapons, but also sensors and most serve more benign purposes for both military and civilian applications.”

The former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, Werner J.A. Dahm, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article that the outrage against unmanned aircraft is misdirected. Drone strikes are directed by people, not machines, he explained. “The military is unlikely to employ fully autonomous lethal strikes. ... The actual launching of a weapon onto a target is one step in a sequential process that the military refers to as the ‘find-fix-track-target-engage-assess’ chain.”

The antiwar women-for-peace group Code Pink has taken up the cause of banning “killer drones.” Their members are known for picketing outside military trade shows and for interrupting congressional hearings. They blame unmanned air strikes for the deaths of thousands of civilians in war zones. Code Pink is planning to host a conference in Washington, D.C., in April, titled, “Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control.”

Antiwar groups “don’t like drones because they’re a projection of American power,” Groves said. “But if you ban drones, you’d have to also ban cruise missiles and F-16 fighter aircraft,” as they are all used in air-to-ground strikes. “You start with the most unpopular weapons and you work your way back. You attack the munitions, the depleted uranium, the drones, all the way to tanks and soldiers,” Groves said. “Antiwar activists want to ban war by banning all weapons of war.”                     

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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