News media reports last week that 50 percent of the weapons fired at Iraqi military installations missed their so-called aimpoints obscures a more disturbing facet of the Feb. 16 attack: The U.S. jets used cluster bombs that have no real aimpoint and that kill and wound innocent civilians for years to come.
This is not merely some insider detail. The choice of cluster bombs, still unnoticed by the American media, is likely to prove controversial. The weapon that was used in Iraq is formally known as Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW,pronounced jay-sow). It was first used in combat in Iraq on January 25, 1999,
when Marine Corps F-18 Hornet's fired three weapons at an air defense site.
The missile is described by the Navy, its primary developer, and Raytheon Systems, its manufacturer, as a long-range glide bomb. Acting Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Admiral Crag Quigley primly calls it an "area munition," doggedly avoiding the scattershot reality conveyed by the term “cluster bomb.”
Twenty eight JSOWs were fired by Navy aircraft in the in the Feb. 16 attack, along with guided missiles and laser-guided bombs. Pentagon sources say that 26 of the 28 JSOWs missed their aimpoints.
The 1,000 pound, 14-foot-long weapon carries 145 anti-armor and anti-personnel incendiary bomblets which disperse over an area that is approximately 100 feet long and 200 feet wide. In short, this weapon, which Quigley describes as a "long-range, precision-guided, stand-off weapon," rains down deadly bomblets on an area the size of a football field with six bombs
falling in every 1,000 square feet. So much for precision.
The JSOW has quickly become a top weapon of choice for Navy and Marine Corps airplanes in the no fly zone mission for at least four reasons. It has as a range of more than 40 nautical miles when delivered from high altitude (20,000 feet about ground level). The dispersal of bomblets inflicts more lasting damage than a small warhead on an anti-radiation missile. Pilots can reprogram target coordinates right up to the moment of launch. And because the JSOW is guided by satellite, the delivering aircraft can "launch and leave.”
"With JSOW we can attack SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] from well outside the threat rings and destroy rather than suppress" the target, a Navy document notes. In other words, years of bombing in Iraq have had less than spectacular results of Iraq’s air defenses and the U.S. military is looking for some way of causing more permanent damage to the country's military capabilities.
Pilots may launch and leave, but the JSOW, like other cluster bombs, is unforgiving once aircraft deliver them. The JSOW releases its sub-munitions about 400 feet above its target. These bomblets are also used in the most
prevalent modern U.S. cluster bomb, the CBU-87. But unlike the CBU-87, the JSOW does not spin to disperse its bomblets. Rather the JSOW uses a gasbag to propel the sub-munitions outward from the sides. Once ejected, the bomblets, each the size of soda can, simply fall freely at the mercy of local winds. A few almost always land outside of the center point of the football
field size main concentration. On average 5 percent do not detonate. These unexploded bomblets then become highly volatile on the ground.
Recently, U.S. Air Force engineers in Kuwait found an entire unexploded CBU-87 at an airbase that had been attacked during the Gulf War. The
weapon had apparently malfunctioned and ripped open upon impact, burying bomblets up to six feet deep in the vicinity. To destroy them in place, a series of 10-foot high barriers had to be built inside a 700-foot wide safety cordon.
Already this month, there has been one Iraqi civilian death and nine injuries from unexploded cluster bomblets, presumably all left over from the 1991 Gulf War. On Feb. 20, Agence France Press (AFP) reported that a shepherd was wounded near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq when an unexploded bomblet detonated. On Feb. 15, Reuters said two Iraqi boys in western Iraq, also tending sheep, were injured by a cluster bomblet. On Feb. 9, AFP reported a child was killed and six others were wounded by sub-munitions near Basra.
February, it seems, is a fairly typical month for cluster bombs inflicting damage on innocent civilians.
"What we have to do is make sure we continue to tell the world that we are not after the Iraqi people," Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN on Feb. 12. That is a tough task given the use of a weapon which has unique civilian
Saddam Hussein relishes the cat and mouse game in and around the "no-fly" zones, almost welcoming bombing and civilian casualties if they will contribute to Baghdad's strategy of breaking the international consensus on
sanctions and inspections. The use of cluster bombs against minor out-of-the-way targets, far from doing anything to “degrade his capacity to
harm our pilots,” as President Bush said at his Feb. 22 press conference, actually helps Iraq to achieve its foreign policy goals.
"We think we've accomplished what we were looking for in the sense to degrade, disrupt the ability of the Iraqi air defenses to coordinate attacks against our aircraft," Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Pentagon on the day of the strikes.
The vague objective "to degrade" is straight out of the go-nowhere Clinton playbook. We bomb, and even if virtually of the JSOWs miss their aimpoints, the United States proclaims: "mission accomplished." After all, some level of degrading of Iraqi capabilities occurred.
I give the use of cluster bombs a D grade.
William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst and consultant, has written extensively about military affairs, including several books on the topic. His Dot.Mil column, launched in November 1998, appears every other Monday on washingtonpost.com