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The unpredictability factorCommentary, 21 May 2008
With money and new technology, cluster bombs could become more ethical than large single-explosive warheads.
By Michael Codner, 20 May 2008
The use of cluster munitions is legally and morally contentious specifically because of their risk to non-combatants. There are two aspects to this risk. The first is unpredictability in their destructive effect. Can the user define precisely the area of ground over which the bomblets can be dispersed and the length of time that they will remain a threat to human life in particular? The second is discrimination in the use of these weapons. Do the user nation and its armed forces have control procedures and doctrine which would prevent their use in situations in which innocent lives would be at risk?
In the case of the United Kingdom, the answer to the second question is simple. Britain is exemplary in the controls it places over the indiscriminate use of weapons. It has appropriate doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures which by international standards are well taught and rehearsed. Britain, even among western powers, also has one of the most intrusive rules of engagement regimes whereby government directly controls the use of violence by its military.
Regarding to the first question, the objective answer is that it depends very much on the specific weapon and the adequacy of the technology to make the destructive effects predictable to the user. If the radius from the point of dispersion to which the bomblets can be dispersed is predicable to a very high degree of probability, the system can be more precise than comparable systems such as guided weapons with single explosive warheads and dumb or guided bombs. The bomblets must also be predictable in when they explode. If they do not explode on delivery they must have the technology to be rendered inert or to self-explode within a time limit that is highly predictable so that dangerous munitions are not scattered in such a way as to pose an indefinite threat to non-combatants. They must not become landmines.
The United Kingdom cannot abandon its existing capability in the immediate future, notwithstanding these issues of predictability. It is at present heavily committed militarily and cannot surrender a capability that could be necessary to supporting British forces in operations unless there is some new capability to replace it that will achieve the required effect.
Looking to the longer term and and the question of whether the British government should agree to abolishing cluster munitions in the future, the moral and legal issue is the predictability of destructive. If technology can ensure high levels of predictability in dispersion of warheads and limit the time of their destructive effect, their use could be more ethical than that of other weapons involving larger total blast. The issue, then, becomes the availability of the technology and the cost of incorporating sufficiently high levels of precision and probability.
Despite this moral argument, however, newer and more discriminatory versions of these systems may be widely perceived as evil because of the history of unpredictable consequences and because many nations will continue to use imprecise weapons employing old technology. The UK may be under pressure to conform to a consensus among what are held to be "right-thinking" nations (Australia, Canada, Scandinavian countries, etc, but not typically the US) to conform to abandonment. But this is a matter of perceived rather than actual morality and the decision to conform would be essentially one of diplomacy and politics rather than ethics.
This article first appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.