Attrition: The Grief That Keeps On Giving


November 20, 2013: Landmines and dud munitions continue to be a problem in areas that were once fought over or simply borders of defunct (or active) dictatorships. The mines are the most dangerous because they were designed to explode whenever stepped on. But there are an even greater number of dangerous military explosives lying in wait for the unwary. These are the many bombs, shells, grenades, and other explosive devices that did not go off when they were supposed to. In the first half of the 20th century, over a billion fuzed devices were used in combat, and five to ten percent of them were duds. In Europe, the site of heavy fighting in two world wars, dozens of people are still killed or injured each year by duds.

In the last few decades of the 20th century it got worse, and the reason was submunitions. These were smaller bombs carried inside a container. The idea was that when the shell or bomb carrying submunitions was used, it would spread these smaller bombs over a larger area and do more damage than one large explosion. It worked, but it also created more duds. Not just more but smaller duds. Small enough for children to pick up and start playing with. Kids are more adventurous and less well informed than adults. A dud submunition looked like a new toy.

These weapons were developed in the 1960s and were not just bombs. Many devices used bomblets, from 88 in a 155mm shell to 400-600 in a bomb or rocket. The bomblets are basically anti-vehicle weapons with a fragmentation effect that kills or injures most people within six meters (twenty feet) of one going off. The bomblets (also used in cluster bombs) have a dud rate of about one percent now but it was as high as four percent with early models. That means one percent do not explode when they hit something. Some of these duds can explode later if picked up or stepped on. That's a lower dud rate than for most munitions (which can be over ten percent) but you can have thousands of bomblets dispersed over a few square kilometers, leaving dozens of potentially explosive duds (whose self-destruct mechanism might still go off). So you have a lot more dud munitions sitting around on the battlefield, ready to injure your own troops and civilians. The troops want to continue using cluster munitions because the bomblets are more than three times as effective as weapons that just contain an explosive charge.

There was a catch to all this. In actual use submunitions turned out to have a higher dud rate than any previous weapon. New artillery shells have a dud rate of about two percent. Israel went so far as to fire 10,000 new shells to confirm that dud rate. But many nations stockpile shells and as these grow older, their dud rate increases. Shells actually have an expiration date, reflecting the fact that the chemicals in the explosives and the fuzes grow more unstable as they age. The Third World and communist nations often had poor quality control to begin with and were more prone to keep old ammunition. During the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, Russian shells appeared to have a dud rate of some thirty percent. And even the United States would sometimes use submunitions that had exceeded their recommended shelf life.

Submunitions were originally designed to have a dud rate similar to that of artillery shells. But in practice it was much higher, closer to five percent. Part of reason for this is the lighter weight of submunitions. Shell fuzes detonate a shell when the shell hits the ground. The impact sends a pretty strong message to the fuze that now is the time to do it, and go bang. But submunitions, weighing from a few ounces to a few pounds, can make a soft landing and not generate enough force to activate the fuze. These make even deadlier duds, for the fuze is not defective, just deceived. When enough force is applied to activate the fuze, you have an explosion. The dud rate got higher depending on where the submunitions landed. When there is a lot of snow or mud on the ground, the dud rate was as high as fifteen percent.

When these high dud rate problems were discovered in the early 1980s, several solutions were at hand. More complex, expensive, and reliable fuzes were a possibility. But research showed that to halve the dud rate would double the cost of a submunition. To bring the dud rate down to one percent would quadruple the cost. At the time, submunitions cost about five bucks (in current dollars). In the United States, the largest manufacturer of submunitions, no change was made through the 1980s. To use the more expensive fuzes would mean buying fewer munitions. But the Gulf War of 1991 showed that all those dud submunitions tended to cause a lot of casualties among your own troops. The reason was simple, as you would fire a lot of submunitions at the enemy, and then overrun the enemy positions, your troops would suddenly find themselves amidst all those duds, and friendly casualties were the result.

Israel and Germany, who both manufactured their own submunitions, went for the safer fuze. Better designs brought the cost down and they ended up paying ten to fifteen dollars for each submunition. But they achieved dud rates of less than one percent. The safer fuze was basically a self-destruct device. If the submunition did not explode as it was supposed to, another fuze detonated it within 14-18 seconds.

Even with the better fuzes, submunitions are still more dangerous after the battle than older shells. Fire 10,000 artillery shells (a typical quantity for a battle in an area covering a few square kilometers or so) and you end up with a minimum of 200 dud shells, or as many as 3,000 if you are using old, poorly made stuff. But if you use the most modern submunition equipped shells, you are putting 200,000 or more submunitions into the area and a minimum of 2,000 duds. Fight this battle when there is a lot of snow or mud, with the older fuzes, and you end up with over 50,000 duds. It’s no wonder that most submunition fuzes are now of the more expensive, and more reliable, variety.

Submunitions seemed a good idea at the time, but as with any other new weapon, there were dangers no one anticipated. And thousands of additional dud munitions littering the battlefield turned out to be a rather serious problem no one has a satisfactory solution for yet. But these deadly duds are still insignificant in comparison to the much greater number of older shells and bombs still lying in wait.

There have been some efforts to deal with the problem via laws and treaties. In 2008 a hundred nations met in Ireland and agreed to a treaty that outlawed cluster bombs. By then most nations had grown wary of using them because of the danger to their own troops. The new treaty, like the 1999 Ottawa Convention to ban land mines, will largely be an illusion. For example, nations with large stocks of landmines have, so far, destroyed some 30 million of them. These include Italy (7.1 million landmines), Switzerland (3.9 million), Britain (2.1 million), Germany (1.7 million), France (1.1 million), and Japan (about a million). The ban on landmines was an attempt to stop the use of landmines against civilians. This had become a problem in the last three decades as China, Russia, and a few European nations provided rebel movements and participants in civil wars with large quantities of landmines. These weapons were used largely to control or terrorize civilian populations. This led to enormous civilian casualties. Soldiers are trained to deal with landmines, civilians are not. The 30 million landmines initially destroyed by the above nations were not intended for sale for use against civilians but are now unneeded Cold War stocks that would have to be disposed of anyway. The main suppliers of landmines to thugs (especially China) are still in business.

It's the same thing with cluster bombs. Those nations who don't have these weapons, or have some, but no opportunity to use them, sign the treaty. The U.S. refused to sign both the land mine and cluster weapon treaties, being opposed to this kind of feel-good hypocrisy.

Some user nations sign, safe in the knowledge that, if there's a major war, they can easily ignore the treaty and start making and using the more effective cluster munitions again. In war time, you do what you have to do. In peacetime, you do likewise.




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