United States defense contractor Northrop Grumman announced this week it is ending participation in a US government contract to test the shelf life of stocks of cluster munitions. It inherited the stockpile management contract after acquiring US company Orbital ATK.
The move shows that the stigma of cluster munitions is gaining momentum even in countries such as the United States that have not signed the 2008 treaty banning the use of these weapons. Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman’s chief executive, reportedly said the company needed to be “thoughtful about potential human rights implications and how these technologies may be used in the future.” It seems the benefits of not being labeled a cluster munition producer now outweigh the gains from a business perspective.
Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery, rockets, and mortars, or dropped by aircraft. They typically open in the air, dispersing multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving dangerous duds that can maim and kill like landmines.
The last US manufacturer of cluster munitions, Textron Systems Corporation, ended its production of the weapons in 2016 after the US stopped sales to Saudi Arabia over concern of civilian harm in Yemen. The last US use of cluster munitions was in Iraq in 2003, with the exception of a single attack in Yemen in December 2009. According to a 2017 Department of Defense letter, the US has destroyed approximately 3.7 million cluster munitions, containing 406.7 million submunitions, from its stocks since 2008.
These are promising signs that an emerging consensus against cluster munitions is taking hold – but significant work is needed to cement it.
In 2017, the Trump administration abandoned a longstanding requirement that US forces not use cluster munitions that fail more than 1 percent of the time, leaving deadly unexploded munitions that can kill for years. The US still stockpiles millions of cluster munitions for possible use.
President Joe Biden should not just roll back the harmful policy directive of his predecessor but go further by prohibiting use, production and transfer of cluster munitions. He should begin the process for the US to join the 110 parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits these weapons and requires clearance of their explosive remnants as well as assistance to victims.