The Complex

U.S. Shipping Thousands of Cluster Bombs to Saudis, Despite Global Ban

Cluster bombs are banned by 83 nations. The world recoiled in horror when it learned that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s forces have killed children with such weapons. But that isn’t stopping the U.S. military from selling $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite the near-universal revulsion at such weapons, and ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Cluster bombs are banned by 83 nations. The world recoiled in horror when it learned that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s forces have killed children with such weapons.

But that isn’t stopping the U.S. military from selling $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite the near-universal revulsion at such weapons, and despite the fact that relations between the two countries haven’t been entirely copacetic of late.

Cluster bombs spit out dozens, even hundreds, of micro-munitions in order cover a wide area with death and destruction. These weapons are used for killing large groups of people, destroying thinly-skinned vehicles and dispensing landmines or poison gas. Some of the Soviet-made incendiary cluster bombs used by Assad’s forces during Syria’s civil war are even designed to light buildings on fire and then explode after sitting on the ground for a while — thereby killing anyone who gets close enough to try to extinguish the flames.

The irony of the U.S. selling one authoritarian Middle East country 1,300 cluster bombs while criticising the use of indiscriminate weapons by another isn’t lost on the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international group dedicated to ending the use of such weapons.

"This transfer announcement comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have joined international condemnations of Syria’s cluster bomb use," said Sarah Blakemore, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, in a statement about the sale.

These weapons are loathed because in addition to killing enemy combatants, their fairly indiscriminate nature means they can kill plenty of civilians. And not just in the heat of battle. The little ball-shaped bomblets dispersed by cluster munitions don’t always detonate on first impact. Often, they will just sit there on the ground until someone, often a child, picks them up and causes them to explode.

So far, 112 countries have signed an international treaty banning cluster bombs, with 83 ratifying it. Guess who isn’t part of that club? China, Russia, most for the former USSR, Syria… and the United States, which is selling thousands Textron-made cluster bombs to the Saudis between now and 2015.

Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department says it "shares in the international concern about the humanitarian impact of all munitions, including cluster munitions" it’s in no hurry to sign the ban. Foggy Bottom insists that "their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk."

That’s because "cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as a larger bomb or larger artillery shell would cause," the State Department claims.

Still, the U.S. has actually put a moratorium on exporting cluster weapons that result in more than one percent of the bomblets falling unexploded to the ground, where they can wound and kill years after conflicts end. The CBU-105D/B weapons the U.S. is selling to Saudi Arabia don’t fall under that moratorium, however. Fewer than one-percent of their submunitions fail to detonate. "Clear victories, clear battlefields," promises a Textrtron brochure for the weapons.

"The U.S. should acknowledge the treaty’s ban on cluster munition exports and reevaluate the criteria for its export moratorium so that no cluster munitions are transferred," said Blakemore.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. The cluster bomb sale is just the latest in a string ongoing arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that include dozens of F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, H-60 Blackhawk helicopters and AH-6 Little Bird choppers as well as radars, anti-ship missiles, guided bombs, anti-radar missiles, surface to air missiles and even cyber defenses for those brand new Strike Eagles. It’s a relationship that’s worth tens of billions to American defense contractors. And even though the Saudi and the American governments have recently been at odds over a range of issues — Riyadh recently offered to replace any financial aid to Egypt’s military rulers that the U.S. withdrew —  those arms sales are all-but-certain to continue. If the Saudis want cluster bombs, the U.S. will provide — no matter what the world thinks.

Cluster bombs are banned by 83 nations. The world recoiled in horror when it learned that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s forces have killed children with such weapons.

But that isn’t stopping the U.S. military from selling $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite the near-universal revulsion at such weapons, and despite the fact that relations between the two countries haven’t been entirely copacetic of late.

Cluster bombs spit out dozens, even hundreds, of micro-munitions in order cover a wide area with death and destruction. These weapons are used for killing large groups of people, destroying thinly-skinned vehicles and dispensing landmines or poison gas. Some of the Soviet-made incendiary cluster bombs used by Assad’s forces during Syria’s civil war are even designed to light buildings on fire and then explode after sitting on the ground for a while — thereby killing anyone who gets close enough to try to extinguish the flames.

The irony of the U.S. selling one authoritarian Middle East country 1,300 cluster bombs while criticising the use of indiscriminate weapons by another isn’t lost on the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international group dedicated to ending the use of such weapons.

"This transfer announcement comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have joined international condemnations of Syria’s cluster bomb use," said Sarah Blakemore, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, in a statement about the sale.

These weapons are loathed because in addition to killing enemy combatants, their fairly indiscriminate nature means they can kill plenty of civilians. And not just in the heat of battle. The little ball-shaped bomblets dispersed by cluster munitions don’t always detonate on first impact. Often, they will just sit there on the ground until someone, often a child, picks them up and causes them to explode.

So far, 112 countries have signed an international treaty banning cluster bombs, with 83 ratifying it. Guess who isn’t part of that club? China, Russia, most for the former USSR, Syria… and the United States, which is selling thousands Textron-made cluster bombs to the Saudis between now and 2015.

Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department says it "shares in the international concern about the humanitarian impact of all munitions, including cluster munitions" it’s in no hurry to sign the ban. Foggy Bottom insists that "their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk."

That’s because "cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as a larger bomb or larger artillery shell would cause," the State Department claims.

Still, the U.S. has actually put a moratorium on exporting cluster weapons that result in more than one percent of the bomblets falling unexploded to the ground, where they can wound and kill years after conflicts end. The CBU-105D/B weapons the U.S. is selling to Saudi Arabia don’t fall under that moratorium, however. Fewer than one-percent of their submunitions fail to detonate. "Clear victories, clear battlefields," promises a Textrtron brochure for the weapons.

"The U.S. should acknowledge the treaty’s ban on cluster munition exports and reevaluate the criteria for its export moratorium so that no cluster munitions are transferred," said Blakemore.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. The cluster bomb sale is just the latest in a string ongoing arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that include dozens of F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, H-60 Blackhawk helicopters and AH-6 Little Bird choppers as well as radars, anti-ship missiles, guided bombs, anti-radar missiles, surface to air missiles and even cyber defenses for those brand new Strike Eagles. It’s a relationship that’s worth tens of billions to American defense contractors. And even though the Saudi and the American governments have recently been at odds over a range of issues — Riyadh recently offered to replace any financial aid to Egypt’s military rulers that the U.S. withdrew —  those arms sales are all-but-certain to continue. If the Saudis want cluster bombs, the U.S. will provide — no matter what the world thinks.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.

Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.

Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.

In 2003, Shachtman founded DefenseTech.org, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to Military.com. During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.

Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni. Twitter: @NoahShachtman

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