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A step backwards: sale of US cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia


Today’s announcement of a massive deal for US firm Textron to make more than a thousand new cluster bombs for Saudi Arabia is a regressive step that goes against the norms of the treaty that outlawed these weapons in 2008.

In a deal announced today, Saudi Arabia will buy 1,300 new CBU-105 cluster bombs. The contract, awarded to Textron Defense Systems, is worth $641 million.

Cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, contain multiple explosive submunitions. They disperse their ‘bomblets’ in mid-air, and scatter them over a wide area. The humanitarian impact of this group of weapons is often extreme, particularly when they are used in or near populated areas, and they were outlawed in 2008 by the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Since the ban came into force, the CBU-105 has been sold by the US on three other occasions, to India (2008), Taiwan (2011), and South Korea (2012). This would be by far the biggest sale, more than double the value of the Indian contract.

Textron Systems are one of the richest arms dealers in the world. In 2011 Textron made a reported $2.9 billion in arms sales. Each CBU-105 costs $360,000.

Even though the US is not yet a member of the Convention, it has banned almost all cluster bomb exports. Only cluster bombs that claim to have a failure rate of less than 1% can be sold by the US. The CBU-105 is the only US-made cluster bomb claimed to meet this requirement.

The CBU-105 is an aircraft bomb that contains 10 explosive submunitions, each of which has four of its own warheads. A single one of these bombs affects an area of 121,000m². According to Textron Defense Systems, less than 1% of these submunitions failed to explode during testing. They make the improbable claim that their bomb ensures a ‘clean battlefield’.

It is worth noting that failure rates of submunitions have always been shown to be far higher in combat than in the controlled environment of manufacturer’s testing. As the US Congressional Research Service noted in a recent assessment, the potential for a sub to become a dud can be affected by a range of factors, from the temperature of the air, to the chance that the sub could be caught in a tree.

Besides, cluster munitions are typically scattered in very large numbers—thousands of submunitions fall across an area at a time. A tiny failure rate will still leave a large threat to civilians. That cluster munitions continue to kill and injure civilians for many years is one of the many reasons why the international community saw fit to outlaw their future use or transfer. Sixty per cent of cluster bomb casualties occur while the victim is undertaking their normal activities.

One third of all recorded cluster munition casualties are children.

Saudi Arabia and the US are two of the ‘dirty dozen’ of cluster munitions. They are amongst the twelve countries that have used cluster munitions in the past (US in multiple locations; Saudi Arabia against Iraq in 1991), and have not yet signed up to the treaty that bans these unacceptable weapons.

MG Cluster Munitions v1.2

The size of Saudi Arabia’s stockpile of cluster munitions is unknown. But this is not the first time that these two have done business in this area.

America has transferred a total of 3,150 cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia over the years, containing tens of thousands of sub-munitions. Saudi Arabia also has British-made cluster bombs in its stockpile.

Saudi Arabia’s military brutally suppressed a peaceful uprising in Bahrain in 2011 and has been implicated in airstrikes which may have killed civilians in Northern Yemen over the last few years. AOAV recognises the role of arms sales as part of legitimate state self-defence, but we condemn the sale of these particular weapons, with their high probability of causing lasting and indiscriminate harm. As a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition, we do not believe that any such weapons have a legitimate place in the arsenals of any state.