UK paperback

Dumb bombs

‘Cluster’ munitions and ‘humanitarian values’

The British Ministry of “Defence” has decided to ban “dumb cluster munitions”. Des Browne told Parliament on Tuesday:

I am pleased to announce that we are withdrawing dumb cluster munitions from service with immediate effect.

We have considered carefully both military and humanitarian factors, reflecting our duty both to ensure that the armed forces have the capabilities they need to undertake the missions we ask of them, and to strive to reduce civilian casualties to the minimum.

Cluster munitions are legal weapons which have a valid role in modern warfare, particularly against an array of military targets in a defined area. However, they have also given rise to humanitarian concerns because they disperse sub-munitions over an area and those sub-munitions can have a high failure rate. Some cluster munitions address these concerns including through inbuilt self-destructing or self-deactivating mechanisms, reducing the risk of harm to civilians. Dumb cluster munitions do not.

At the moment, our inventory includes two dumb cluster munitions: the RBL 755 aerial delivered cluster munition, and the multi launch rocket system M26 munition. Both will be withdrawn from service immediately and disposed of. Although withdrawing them represents a theoretical risk to our operational effectiveness, until their direct replacement is in service, there is no current plan to deploy them on operations. I have decided that this is an acceptable risk.

The types of cluster munitions we intend to retain are legitimate weapons with significant military value which, as a result of mitigating features, is not outweighed by humanitarian factors. As with all weapons, our forces’ use of them will remain regulated by rules of engagement and internal scrutiny procedures designed to adhere to international law and reflect humanitarian values.

In line with Tony Blair’s philosophy of bombing our values into the enemy, Browne emphasized usefully that the bombs we intend to carry on using will “reflect humanitarian values”, no doubt through some ingenious set-up of mirrored shells and an orbiting laser projector pumping out comforting words such as “freedom” and “democracy”. It might still be objected that the term “cluster” itself, in “cluster bomb” or “cluster munition”, is a particularly successful euphemism, since they “do not drop in a tight ‘cluster’ of limited radius but are designed expressly to spray their cargo of sub-munitions, or cutely named ‘bomblets’, over a wide distance’ (Unspeak, p116).

But this fact is as nothing beside the real problem: that some of these munitions are “dumb”. We cannot but conclude that the remaining cluster bombs that we will carry on using must be “smart”, and everyone likes a smart suit, or a smart cookie. It’s true that the usual military connotation of “smart” weapons is that they are able to be guided precisely towards their targets, by laser or GPS etc. Our non-“dumb” cluster bombs are not actually “smart” in this way. They do, however, have “self-destruct mechanisms”, which implies that they won’t join the estimated 10,000 unexploded “bomblets” dropped by US and UK forces that already littered Iraq after the end of “major combat operations” in 2003, or the “up to a million” unexploded “bomblets” that the UN estimates remained in southern Lebanon after Israel’s massive last-gasp cluster-bombing assault, or cluster-fuck, in the three days of August 2006 between the announcement of the ceasefire and its coming into effect.

Reassuringly, then, the weapons that Browne wants to keep are those bombs that, if they don’t work the first time, will allegedly self-destruct later (it would be nice to know whether such self-destruction causes an explosion comparable to the intended detonation at the time of use), or munch on the bomblet equivalent of a cyanide pill and obediently turn themselves off. Or, of course, explode as intended when dropped. What’s so anti-humanitarian about that?

Naturally this announcement was greeted in some quarters with craven peacenik scepticism. Liberal Democrat “defence” spokesman Nick Harvey said:

The Defence Secretary has only made reference to banning ‘dumb’ rocket and air delivered cluster munitions and will still maintain so-called ‘smart’ artillery fired cluster bombs. This is a dubious distinction and one that is grossly misleading.

All cluster munitions are indiscriminate and there are serious concerns that even so called ‘smart’ munitions have a significant failure rate, making them a dangerous remnant of conflict and posing a serious threat.

We cannot allow that our Minister of “Defence” in this case has made a “dubious distinction”. The distinction is crucial. Bombs that either explode on cue or commit hara-kiri when they fail are a wonderful measure of our superior intelligence. It is right and proper, on the other hand, that we ban the “dumb” bombs: they just add insult to injury.

  1. 1  Richard  March 22, 2007, 8:50 pm 

    Being randomly blown up by a ‘dumb’ bomb is so demeaning. Indeed, it would be a meaningless death; a random act of unfulfilled violence left over from a war that nobody can remember the point of. Being randomly blown up by a non-dumb bomb, either in its act of ‘making itself safe’ or because it failed in its intended deployment, however, is the stuff tragedy is made of. And tragedy is Greek, and therefore proto-humanist, from where it’s only a few short letters to humanitarian. See?

  2. 2  fmackay  March 22, 2007, 10:04 pm 

    It is remarkable that the military would tolerate a failure rate as high as that encountered with “dumb” cluster bombs. A cynic might suggest that they prefer them that way, so that they produce what I understand is (unspeakily) known as an “area denial” effect. It is unfortunate that the Government supports the suggestion by preferring expensive “smart” bomblets where this effect can be retained, but with a time limit, over the presumably cheaper alternative of being a bit more rigourous with bomblet quality control.

  3. 3  abb1  March 22, 2007, 10:15 pm 

    Actually, I find it is surprising that any kind of weapon would be deemed barbaric and banned these days. Typically the mantra is “no option can be taken off the table”.

    And why should we ban anything? Our evil adversaries don’t have any of these weapons while we are always using them in a reasonable manner and for a good cause, because we are the good guys.

    Clearly: if it doesn’t make sense to use these dumb bombs, our generals are not going to do it whether it’s banned or not — obviously — because they are good, honorable, democratic generals. And if, by chance, there is an unlikely situation where it does make sense to use them – then if it’s banned, we will be lacking the valuable tool in our epic struggle to promote democracy and end all wars.

    Yeah, and btw, why is no one talking about the beheadings?

  4. 4  Steven  March 23, 2007, 12:14 am 

    Richard: I do see. Thanks!


    A cynic might suggest that they prefer them that way, so that they produce what I understand is (unspeakily) known as an “area denial” effect.

    That would be dreadfully cynical, though, wouldn’t it? For instance, if one were to think that Israel deliberately pursued an “area denial” effect in southern Lebanon, knowingly creating a vast minefield to act as a buffer zone. I do hope we’re not that cynical round here.

    I agree with abb1 that we should talking about the beheadings instead. They’re so much more videogenic.

  5. 5  Richard  March 23, 2007, 4:33 pm 

    Maybe there is some teeny tiny glimmer of hope in this; it used to be that every time someone got blown up by a land mine outside active war conditions it was regarded simply as an ‘accident.’ Now, only deaths from ‘smart’ land mines will be considered ‘accidental:’ a failure of the weapon to behave in the expected way. In practical terms that might not make much difference, it might even shift attention away from the evil of deploying such weapons in the first place to the engineering failure of having them behave in a manner contrary to intention – but it also suggests some level of recognition that there is a problem, and recasts some part of the global stock of land mines as ‘non accidental.’

    OK, I’m reaching here; I’m not saying it’s a big ray of hope.

  6. 6  Steven  March 24, 2007, 11:54 am 

    Interesting point. I wonder if it opens the way to lawsuits against the “cluster”-bomb (or, as you say, landmine) manufacturers when they fail to turn themselves off and do kill more people later on?

    I agree that this counts as some recognition of a problem, though the argument that our remaining weapons are all “humanitarian” is still a nasty fantasy.

  7. 7  dave  March 26, 2007, 4:08 pm 

    I wondered how long this talk of dumb cluster bombs had been going on. It does seem fairly recent: here’s the first usage I could find in Hansard, from 6 Nov 2006:

    Lord Garden: My Lords, if the Minister cannot say what the figures are overall, does he have any figures for the numbers of deaths and injuries to the Afghan people that have resulted from the unexploded bomblets left by the 248,000 cluster sub-munitions that were dropped during the 2001 campaign? In the light of those figures, does he agree with his colleague the Secretary of State for International Development that the time has come to ban these weapons?

    Lord Drayson: My Lords, cluster munitions are a legal weapon and fulfil a legitimate military role that cannot be performed by other means. However, they are not indiscriminate weapons, and we use them absolutely only in accordance with our obligations under international law. Nevertheless, my right honourable friend is right to raise important issues relating to cluster munitions, particularly the so-called “dumb” cluster munitions, which have a high failure rate. We should see what we can do further to ban such dumb cluster munitions and to ensure that we get the balance right between the military need and the effect on the civilian population.

    77 uses in Hansard since then, which I’d report on if their website was working about 10 times faster.

  8. 8  Alex Higgins  March 27, 2007, 9:53 pm 

    OK, this one was a bit obvious, but I went for it anyway…

    Lord Well-Kept-Garden: I entirely welcome the government’s belated decision to remove its stock of so-called “dumb” cluster munitions.

    But I remain concerned at the continued production and use of “dipshit” munitions. These weapons are noted not only for their lack of discrimination and high failure rate but also their strong advocacy of an aerial attack on Iran. These weapons are generally regarded as banned under the International Moron Convention 2004 signed by most UN member states, since they clearly fall under the category of moronic. However, both this government and our American allies have yet to ratify this treaty.

    Lord Drayson of the Duchy of Interestconflict: The fact is that “dipshit” weapons are an important part of the armed forces’ tactical arsenal and have played a crucial part in this country’s overseas campaigns since they were first deployed in France in 1914.

    The advice of the Attorney General is that while “dipshits” may fall under some definitions of “dull” or “slow-witted” munitions, they do not in fact merit the description of “moronic”.

    I have spoken to one of the leading figures in the defence industry, who also happens to be called Lord Drayson, and he has also given me this assurance.

    While my Right Honourable Friend is right to raise concerns regarding these weapons, the government must ultimately get the balance right between moral and humanitarian considerations and tearing weakly-defended foreigners into small, bloody pieces of gore which remains central to our national interests.

  9. 9  Alex Higgins  March 27, 2007, 10:01 pm 

    Incidentally, I think that the term “dipshit” is entirely to be preferred in discussing explosives over the misleading “dumb”.

    After all, “dumb” implies ‘mute’ or ‘silent’, whereas the Urban Dictionary defines “dipshit” as one who has “a habit of being wrong loudly and often”, which is considerably more accurate in this case.

  10. 10  Patrick McElwee  March 30, 2007, 8:13 pm 

    Thanks for a great post on cluster bombs!

    I wonder if you could help get the word out about a petition against cluster bombs, which mainly kill civilians, like the Lebanese victims of the cluster bombs dropped by Israel last summer.

    We are hoping to get several hundred more signatures before delivering this petition next week. It is available at:



  11. 11  Steven  April 4, 2007, 9:29 am 

    It was indeed a telling lacuna that the bombs we’re going to keep could not be explicitly described as “smart” even by their champions, this idea having to be accomplished through innuendo. Dipshit bombs is an excellent alternative to “dumb” ones.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts