The cluster bomb currently at the center of controversy over the use of U.S.-supplied weapons by Israel is one of a large variety of increasingly sophisticated high-technology munitions made by a growing American defense industry encompassing some of the country's leading electronics firms.
The military munitions business involves several billion dollars a year in government contracts and more than 100 companies making fuses, metal parts, chemicals, electronics and other technology for the new generation of bombs, mines and shells.
In the 1983 fiscal year, for example, the U.S. Army plans to spend $237 million acquiring 428,000 rounds of the M143 ICM (improved conventional munitions)--the same shell whose shipment to Israel is now under review by the Reagan administration.
Arms industry sources describe the M143 as the standard shell for the Army's 155mm howitzer against "soft" targets, such as supply dumps, troop concentrations and trucks not protected by armor. It is a single shell that delivers a cluster of grenade-type explosives.
Last Monday, the Army awarded an $8.9 million contract to Honeywell Inc., of Minneapolis, to provide fuses for a new artillery shell capable of delivering a cluster of mines that could also destroy either tanks or advancing enemy units.
Texas Instruments has taken the lead in developing instrumentation for laser-guided bombs that can perform with deadly accuracy against "hard" targets such as bridges and armored vehicles.
Honeywell and Avco Corp., of Greenwich, Conn., also are reported to be working on several types of antiarmor cluster munitions in which each "bomblet" would have its own sensor, or seeking device, enabling it to pick out different targets or to concentrate on a single target, avoiding "misses."
Also on the Pentagon drawing board are WAAM (Wide Area Antiarmor Munitions) and ERAM (Extended Range Antitank Mine).
WAAM would explode at some distance from the target with such heat that the fragments would melt. Traveling through the air at high speeds, the fragments would then reharden into streamlined shapes particularly suited to piercing armor.
ERAM, utilizing electronic data-processing capability, could detect an approaching armored vehicle with radar or infrared sensors and detonate even if the vehicle did not pass directly over it.
"As technology improves it means that bombs and shells can be used for purposes and in ways that are new," said one arms expert.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is continuing to build up its inventory of less advanced explosives that are still the bread and butter of the munitions business.
Honeywell, for example, sold 23,200 rounds of its Mark 20 (Rockeye) cluster bomb to the Air Force for some $60 milion this year, according to government reports. The Rockeye, which has been in production for more than 10 years, is equipped with a total of 247 antitank fragmentation grenades.
According to the Pentagon, the government has not sold Rockeye to the Israelis since 1975. Another system reportedly obtained by the Israelis, CBU58, which spews out 650 bomblets timed to go off at different intervals, is no longer produced in this country.
Production of some other lethal antipersonnel weapons, such as flechettes (from the French word for arrow), have also reportedly been curtailed since the end of the war in Vietnam. Such bombs contain hundreds of tiny nail-like objects with stabilizing fins.
In many cases, a number of companies provide parts of bomb or shell packages. These companies include well-known firms, such as Bulova, which makes fuses, and many less well-known local firms. These parts are then assembled at various military arsenals by private companies under contract to the Pentagon.
At least six companies, all of them small, have built the metal parts for the M483 cluster grenades.
W. R. Heckethorn, president of Heckethorn Manufacturing Co., in Dyersburg, Tenn., which produces metal parts for the cluster package, describes the firm's ammunition work as a "common, ordinary business that moves with the ups and downs of the defense budget." The ammunition work provides about one quarter of the business for the firm, whose chief work is making auto parts.
Right now, Heckethorn said, the ammunition business is on the upswing.