The Pentagon has indefinitely postposed a planned 2019 ban on using certain cluster bombs that are widely viewed as a hazard to civilians.
The weapons contain bomblets that scatter widely and can detonate months or years later.
“The Department of Defense has determined that cluster munitions remain a vital military capability in the tougher warfighting environment ahead of us, while still a relatively safe one,” Pentagon spokesman Tom Crossen said in a statement Thursday.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty began in 2008, prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of the weapon. More than 100 countries have signed on to the treaty, but the United States has not.
The George W. Bush administration considered cluster bombs useful weapons and lobbied against the treaty.
Instead, the administration set a now nine-year-old policy that the United States by Jan. 1, 2019, would end its use of cluster bombs that did not meet a standard of failing to detonate 1 percent of the time or less. The law also prohibits exporting cluster bombs that did not meet the 1 percent standard.
Crossen told The Hill that there is no cluster munition now on the market that meets that standard, despite the postponement on the ban.
The U.S. rarely uses cluster bombs, but it has sold them to other countries and says they could be useful in any future large-scale ground war.
Crossen said that the move to continue using the cluster bombs was “a hard choice ... not one the Department made lightly.”
Defense Department senior leadership viewed removing current cluster bomb stocks as potentially creating “a critical capability gap for our forces, risking much greater military and civilian casualties in a conflict, and weakening our ability to deter potential adversaries,” Crossen said in the statement.
A new Defense policy asserts that the weapons are legitimate, not necessarily a humanitarian hazard, and important for wartime attacks on “area targets,” according to The Associated Press.
Pentagon officials don’t know when a safer cluster bomb will become available, but after a months-long policy review, decided to shelve the 2019 deadline. Instead, commanders are allowed to authorize using “sufficient quantities” of the bombs if deemed necessary. The policy does not define what a sufficient quantity would be.
The U.S. remains committed to using effective weapons that “minimize unintended harm” to civilians and U.S. and partner forces, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a memorandum signed Thursday, obtained by The AP.
“Although the Department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we cannot risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities,” Shanahan writes.
Shanahan also wrote that cluster bombs are “legitimate weapons with clear military utility” that may result in less harmed civilians compared to other weapons used against large numbers of enemy troops.