Students of recent military campaigns know that the international community has worked itself into a righteous lather over three categories of weapons: depleted uranium munitions, land mines and cluster bombs. Many of us wish that U.N. officials could muster similar concern for more pressing threats, namely North Korea's nuclear arsenal, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the growing prospects for proliferation of WMD in the third world.
But we digress. While Iran moves along with its nuclear bomb program, the U.N. is in high dungeon over Israel's "immoral" use of cluster bombs during the recent conflict with Hizballah in southern Lebanon. According to one U.N. official, Israeli military forces dropped or fired more than 350,000 cluster bomblets into Lebanon, most of them over the last 3-4 days of the war. A cluster bomb is essentially a container that is dropped by an aircraft, or fired from an artillery tube. In flight, the cannister breaks open, releasing hundreds of small bomblets that can remain active--and dangerous--for years after they land. Cluster bombs are area munitions, so the deadly bomblets are often spread across a broad area, creating a potential danger to civilian populations.
More on the cluster bomb threat in a moment. As a reminder, the U.N. has expressed similar concerns about land mines and depleted uranium munitions in the past. Since the mid-1990s, "Humanitarian De-Mining" has become a cause du jour for various U.N. luminaries, assorted Hollywood stars, and one former member of Britain's royal family. The U.S. Senate even tried to ban land mines, despite the fact that mines remain military useful, particularly in locations (say the Korean DMZ) where defenders all available measures to blunt a potential North Korean invasion.
Beyond that, the potential mine threat may be somewhat exaggerated, as we noted last week. Writing in Jane's Defense Weekly, editor Colin King, an authority on land mines and explosive ordnance disposal, observed that the mine threat can often be mitigated by simply leaving them alone. Annecdotal evidence suggests that even modern land mines are suspect to the ravages of time and the environment. In some cases, the easiest solution is to simply identify minefields, seal them off, and let nature take its course. Such revelations probably won't sit well with some in Hollywood, but King's proposal is a serious solution for a nagging problem, particularly in the third world.
As for depleted uranium, critics have claimed that the dense material (which is slightly radioactive) has been lined to a variety of illnesses among military personnel and civilians exposed to depleted uranium. The material is used in a variety of weaponry, including 30mm cannon rounds for the USAF A-10 fighter, and anti-tank shells for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. After the first Gulf War, there were accusations that prolonged exposure to the munitions and other forms of contact (such as inhaling smoke from exploded DU rounds) was causing various illnesses among current and former military members. However, a series of investigations found that only soldiers who had been hit with fragments from DU weapons--typically in "friendly fire" incidens--displayed any long-term effects, usually manifested by elevated levels of uranium in their urine. Similar claims surfaced after the Balkans conflict, but various European studies found no link between DU exposure and a supposedly higher risk of leukemia. In other words, DU was hardly the safety and health threat that was first advertised.
Not surprisingly, we're a little suspicious of the current claims about cluster bombs in southern Lebanon. First of all, the number of bomblets discovered (so far) is relatively small, less that 2% of the total that supposedly exist in that region. Admittedly, it is often difficult to detect cluster munitions, due to their size, but the number found seems a bit inconsistent with stated claims, given the fact that most of the weapons were allegedly dropped or fired into civilian areas. It wouldn't be the first time that U.N. officials were wildly off the mark; in the Balkans, they estimated (before the 1999 war) that Serbian genocide may have killed as many as 50,000 Kosovar civilians; post-war examinations listed the number of victims at barely 2500.
Likewise are other, potential problems with the U.N.'s cluster bomb assessment for south Lebanon. A survey of the cluster munitions allegedly used reveals that the weapons had an "average" of 240 sub-munitions each. If that estimate is accurate, then the Israelis dropped 1,400 cluster munitions in the area over the last 3-4 days of the war. For argument's sake, let's say that half of these weapons were delivered by Israeli Air Force fighters, a total of 700 cluster munitions. If each fighter aircraft dropped two weapons on each sortie, it would still require a total of 350 fighter sorties to drop those munitions. The Israeli Air Force reportedly averaged about 300 sorties a day--for all aircraft--during the conflict. Since fighter aircraft drop other types of munitions--and fly other types of missions--the number of sorties for cluster bomb employment represented only a portion of the daily total. In other words, the reported CBU effort over the final days of the war would have strained IAF capabilities, taking pilots and aircraft away from other, equally vital missions. Dropping that many weapons in that relatively short period would have required the IAF to devote at least one third to one half of its daily sorties to CBU employment--not an impossible task for the Israelis, but not very likely, either.
Finally, the U.N. officials ingore an important fact in condemning Israeli CBN employment in populated areas. CBUs are most effective against enemy combatants in the open, or in hastily-prepared positions, with minimal protection against area weapons. The IAF dropped these munitions in civilian areas because that's where Hizballah set up their operating positions. Terrorist command posts, rocket launchers and other equipment were routinely established in civilian neighborhoods, and sometimes in local apartment buildings, using the locals as human shields. On at least two occasions, the IDF was forced to mount high-risk commando operations against Hizballah targets because the possibility of collateral damage from an airstrike was deemed to high. Contrast that with Hizballah's deliberate targeting of Israeli population centers with rockets, designed to inflict the maximum number of casualties among non-combatants. Predictably, the U.N. has been largely silent on Hizballah's war against Israeli civilians, including the employment of anti-personnel warheads for their rockets, packed with nails and metal shards for maximum effect.
Keep an eye on the cluster bomb story...my guess is that the U.N. will forget about the issue, as the number of bomblets discovered/neutralized declines, and the number of "civilian" casualties" decreases as well. Readers will note that neither Reuters or the U.N. offers any independent verification of those claims. That begs another question--who's supplying the casualty totals? Mr. "Green Helmet," the infamous Hizballah official who seemed to appear after every Israeli air strike, anxious to display victims' bodies for the media, or various Lebanese officials who have consistently tried to paint the worst possible picture of damage inflicted by Israel during the conflict--with no repudiation of the terrorists who brought the war home to Lebanon.