September 8, 2016
Smart Weapons, Dumb Armies
By Kurt Volker
Fr. United States Permanent Representative to NATO and Executive Director of The McCain Institute of International Leadership.

While many people call for a ban on cluster munitions, we should be pressuring armies to properly use of these weapons of war.

Weapons of war are designed to kill people. That is the unpleasant truth. It is true of guns, bombs, artillery shells, grenades, IEDs … you name it.

No one wants to go to war. No one wants to kill or be killed. But there are times – whether it is in defending a nation, pursuing a terrorist organization, or stopping a humanitarian catastrophe – when the use of force is essential and justified. And fundamentally, the use of force means killing those who are the perpetrators, those who stand in the way of the goal – “the enemies” – until they yield. There may be differences of opinion over specific cases as to when the use of force is justified – but the concept that there are such times is beyond dispute.

Once that fateful decision is made to enter a conflict, the goal is to win. Armies seek to apply such force, with such strength, as to kill the enemy as quickly as possible, and to avoid loss of life on one’s own side. The sooner the conflict is over, the better for both sides.

That is why nations have always sought to have the best weapons, the best-trained personnel, and the greatest numbers of forces, when preparing for or entering a conflict. From bows and arrows to guns, guns to cannons, cannons to artillery, ground combat to air, air to space … nations press for advantage in order to win.

All of the above may sound quite obvious. But it is important to remember this context when considering the question of banning cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions are weapons of war. They are designed to kill people. And they are designed to kill a lot of people on a battlefield in a short space of time. They are designed to help an army win a ground battle, which, after all, is the objective.

To repeat – no one goes lightly into a war. But if one is in a war, the objective is to win as quickly and decisively as possible. If cluster munitions, or laser-guided artillery or cruise missiles are required for that outcome, armies will use them. And it makes no sense to hold back from using a weapon that will help win, and one which the other side might deploy anyway.

But surely, one will argue, when there are bans on other weapons, such as chemical weapons, why are there no bans on cluster munitions? The answer is that humanity decided a century ago that chemical weapons are different – so inhuman that they should be banned. And even so, there are CW stockpiles and, as we have seen in Syria and Iraq, such weapons are still sometimes used.

Cluster munitions are more like conventional bombs or grenades in their effect, rather than chemical weapons. Instead of asking why chemical weapons are banned and not cluster munitions, the question should be, if cluster bombs are banned, why not ban all conventional weapons? Why not hand grenades? Why not machine guns? Why not bombs altogether? The answer is obvious: weapons are needed to win conflicts.

The real issue with cluster munitions is not their use in conflicts but rather their potential impact on civilian populations once a conflict has ended. Unexploded munitions can pose a serious risk long after a conflict is over.

One solution lies not in banning cluster munitions, but in militaries adopting the best technologies and the best practices – everything from improving the technology of cluster munitions themselves, to exercising greater precision in their use, and developing a capacity to “clean-up” after a conflict is over.

Self-deactivating cluster munitions already form parts of national military arsenals. These “smart” cluster munitions are much more expensive than “dumb” ones – but they help to mitigate the problem of unexploded ordnance. Nations might choose to use traditional cluster munitions in a confined battle space, but self-deactivating ones in areas closer to population centers.

Existing international law already gives strong guidance to nations to act in this way. Armies are already obliged not to target civilians deliberately, and to avoid civilian casualties to the extent possible. And armies are urged to exercise “proportionality” in the use of force. These requirements would already dictate more precision in the use of cluster munitions, and the use of self-deactivating weapons when there is a greater risk to civilians.

The logic of the call to ban cluster munitions is emotional. We see pictures of children who have been killed or maimed by an unexploded bomb and believe we just have to stop that from happening. The goal should not be to ban these weapons, but instead to put pressure on militaries to use them responsibly.

Kurt VolkerKurt Volker is the Former United States Permanent Representative to NATO and leading expert in U.S. foreign and national security policy with some 30 years of experience in a variety of government, academic, and private sector capacities. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador Volker serves as Executive Director of The McCain Institute for International Leadership, a part of Arizona State University based in Washington, DC.