It's time to review U.S. policy on cluster munitions and join the Convention on Cluster Munitions

The United States was among the first nations to take steps at the national level to lessen the dangers that cluster munitions pose to civilians, focusing on technical measures to improve the reliability and accuracy of the weapons—steps that also made cluster munitions more appealing from a military perspective. In 2001, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen issued a policy memorandum stating that all submunitions reaching a production decision in fiscal year 2005 and beyond must have an unexploded ordnance (UXO) rate of less than 1%.  

The Obama administration continued to implement the cluster munition policy created under President George W. Bush in June 2008, which required that the U.S. no longer use cluster munitions that result in more than 1% UXO. 

The Trump administration announced on November 30, 2017 that it would indefinitely delay implementation of the ban on cluster munitions that result in more than 1% UXO that was due to take effect on January 1, 2019.

The new policy allows US military commanders to approve use of existing cluster munitions "until sufficient quantities" of "enhanced and more reliable" versions are developed and fielded. The new policy also facilitates US acquisition of cluster munitions from foreign sources to replinish stocks. 

But, the new policy retains restrictions on US exports of cluster munitions under existing US law, allowing the US to export only cluster munitions that do not result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance, and requiring the recipient to make a commitment not to use the cluster munitions in civilian areas. 

The Cluster Munition Coalition U.S. believes that the Trump administration should reconsider its delay in implementing the 2008 Department of Defense directive by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which, if allowed to take effect, would ban cluster munitions that do not result in more than one percent unexploded ordnance. 

U.S. officials sometimes acknowledge the humanitarian rationale for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans the weapons and requires their clearance and victim assistance. It is clear that this instrument is helping to thoroughly stigmatize cluster munitions by creating a new international standard rejecting their use in any circumstances. Since 2008, the U.S. has often acknowledged the negative humanitarian impact of cluster munition use, most recently in UkraineLibyaSouth Sudan, and Syria. 

The US maintains that cluster munitions have military utility, but, with the exception of a single strike in Yemen in 2009, it has not used them since 2003 in Iraq.

In addition to undertaking a review of U.S. cluster munition policy, the Trump administration should consider other measures that could be taken immediately or in the near term, namely: 

  • Issue a declarative statement of intent to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in the future;
  • Participate in meetings of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including the upcoming Second Review Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland on 23-27 November 2020. 
  • Accelerate destruction of stockpiled cluster munitions, starting with concrete plans and a timeline; and
  • Commit not to use cluster munitions, especially during joint military operations with states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.