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Why the last U.S. company making cluster bombs won’t produce them anymore

Civilians stand at a site hit by what activists said were cluster bombs dropped by the Russian air force in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria, in October 2015. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Textron, the last U.S. company to build cluster bombs, announced in a securities filing Tuesday that one of its subsidiaries would no longer produce the controversial and internationally derided munition, citing dwindling demand.

The Rhode Island-based company’s decision comes after the Obama administration halted a shipment of approximately 400 of their cluster weapons — called CBU-105s — to Saudi Arabia in May, following reports that the Saudis were using the weapons indiscriminately during their air campaign over Yemen.

Cluster munitions is a blanket term for a variety of weapons that distribute submunitions or bomblets over an area, often to destroy concentrations of troops and equipment or damage infrastructure such as roads and airfields. The United States first started widely using them during the Korean War and has used them in every major conflict since. The reason that many countries have banned their use is that the bomblets used in these attacks often fail to explode and go on to become highly volatile pieces of unexploded ordnance that kill and maim the civilians who encounter them.

A total of 119 countries have signed or acceded to an internationally recognized ban on cluster munitions. The United States is not one of them, nor is Saudi Arabia.

Though the United States hasn’t allotted funds for cluster munition production since 2007, the CBU-105 has been readily exported to several countries since. Saudi Arabia purchased more than 1,500 of the weapons between 2010 and 2011, according to a report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

While there are several different types of cluster bombs in the U.S. inventory, U.S. policy stipulates that exported cluster munitions must have no more than a 1 percent unexploded ordnance rate. Textron’s CBU-105 was the last remaining U.S. cluster munition to meet that requirement — at least on paper, said Megan Burke, the director for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition. While U.S. forces haven’t used cluster munitions in large quantities since the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, current Pentagon directives also enforce the 1 percent rule, though commanders can request an exception. According to an U.S. Air Force spokesman, neither the United States nor the international coalition has used cluster munitions in the air war against the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and now Libya.

The CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon is composed of two main components: a bomb and a guidance kit that allows it to get to its target accurately in bad weather and high winds. The bomb part of the CBU-105 cocktail is actually called a CBU-97B Sensor-Fuzed Weapon, which contains 10 BLU-108B submunitions, which themselves contain four smaller explosives. According to U.S. military documents, the CBU-97 “provides multiple kills per pass” against a wide variety of vehicles including tanks and armored personnel carriers. What makes the CBU-97 unique is the fact that its bomblets are considered “smart.” When they detect heat from a vehicle, the hockey puck-shaped explosives arm themselves and explode.

A February report by Human Rights Watch investigated five separate Saudi-orchestrated attacks in Yemen involving the CBU-105 and came to the conclusion that the CBU-105, despite claims to the contrary, exceeded the 1-percent-unexploded-ordnance rule and that the Saudi air coalition had dropped the bombs near concentrations of civilians — a direct violation of the U.S. export policy for the weapons. One Dec. 2015 attack near Al-Hayma port in Yemen injured a woman and two children when a cluster of bomblets drifted downwind into a group of houses before exploding.

In May, Scott Donnelly, the president and chief executive of Textron, defended his weapons in an editorial published by Providence Journal, roughly a month after protesters began showing up at his headquarters calling for Textron to stop making the munitions.

“The protesters rely on reports that [CBU-105] remnants have been found in certain conflict areas. They conclude that these remnants can be linked to civilian deaths and injuries long after the battle,” Donnelly wrote. “It’s simply wrong. The presence of these remnants demonstrates that a munition did not locate a target vehicle while in the air, and then disarmed itself on the ground — exactly as designed and with no threat to civilians.”

Yet even if the bomblet disarms itself exactly as designed, as Donnelly states, it is still considered unexploded ordnance and needs to be disposed of accordingly, according to a 2008 Pentagon policy directive on cluster munitions that was signed under the Bush administration and upheld under the Obama administration.

According to Textron’s Security and Exchange Commission filing, the company’s reorganization will be complete by March 2017. Dave Sylvestre, a spokesman for Textron, said the company is still fulfilling orders for the CBU-105 but could not say whom the orders were for.

Since 2008 the U.S. has exported the CBU-105 to six countries besides Saudi Arabia, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Those countries are India, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Oman, South Korea and Singapore.

“Historically, [CBU-105] sales have relied on foreign military and direct commercial international customers for which both executive branch and congressional approval is required,” the filing says. “The current political environment has made it difficult to obtain these approvals.”

The decision to discontinue the CBU-105 line will probably open Textron up to more investments from European countries that have banned cluster munitions, Burke said, as most countries that ban the weapons are not allowed to invest in overseas companies that build them.

Though Textron has publicly said it will no longer make the CBU-105, it is unclear whether other U.S. munition companies will follow suit by renouncing product lines of certain submunitions that can be put into cluster bombs. Both Orbital ATK and General Dynamics, companies that have made submunitions in the past for cluster weapons, were not available for comment. On Orbital ATK’s site, there is a 2015 fact sheet for what the company calls the Lethality Enhanced Ordnance, a cluster munition that is billed as meeting the 1-percent-unexploded ordnance rule by supposedly eliminating it.

The exact number of cluster munitions in current U.S. stockpiles in unclear, but according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor’s 2016 report, the United States had 6 million cluster munitions in its inventory in 2011 and in 2015 had roughly 136,000 tons of the munitions in a stockpile set to be destroyed.