Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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How the U.S. Government Condemns or Ignores Indiscriminate Bombing

by Micah Zenko
October 29, 2015

People walk at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa on October 28, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters)


If you watch U.S. government press conferences, you will occasionally come across a moment of incidental but illuminating honesty. Yesterday, one such moment occurred during a routine press briefing with Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the command element for the war against the self-declared Islamic State. Col Warren was asked about the growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia’s indiscriminate use of airpower in Syria. Just the day before, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “it appears the vast majority of [Russian] strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs.” Warren echoed Carter’s assessment, claiming that, “Russians have chosen to use a majority of really, just dumb bombs, just gravity bombs, push them out the back of an airplane, and let them fall where they will.”

Col. Warren went further to castigate Russia for its use of one particular type of ordinance: “You know, there’s been reporting that the Russians are using cluster munitions in Syria, which we also find to be irresponsible. These munitions have a high dud rate, they can cause damage and they can hurt civilians, and they’re just, you know, not good.”

That cluster munitions are “not good,” except as a reliable method for killing noncombatants outside of an intended target field, is a well-known and established fact. According to one UN estimate, the failure rates for cluster munitions vary from between 2 and 5 percent (according to manufacturers) to between 10 and 30 percent (according to mine clearance personnel). They were subsequently banned by the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force in August 2010 and has been endorsed by ninety-eight states parties. Notable states that have refused to sign and ratify the convention include those that consistently uses airpower to achieve their military objectives, such as Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

The latter has led a relatively indiscriminate bombing campaign of its own in Yemen against Houthi rebels and innocent noncombatants. For over seven months, the United States has strongly endorsed and supported this air campaign by providing in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, analytical support for target selection, and a redoubling of arms sales and contractor support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—over $8 billion authorized by President Obama in the last seven months alone.

One of the munitions that GCC air forces have used to kill civilians is U.S.-supplied cluster munitions—the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, which are manufactured by the Textron Systems Corporation. According to Human Rights Watch, in one attack alone in either late June or early July, ten civilians were killed and thirty wounded, and many of the submunitions were unexploded, lying on the ground in villages and hanging from trees. Of course, the GCC countries have also used a number of other bombs, whether smart or dumb, in a manner that is both indiscriminate and militarily ineffective. Just this past Monday, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was bombed, injuring one staff member, threatening the lives of civilians, and leaving 200,000 people without access to medical care.

So what have U.S. government spokespersons had to say about Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster munitions and indiscriminate airpower in Yemen?

On August 20, State Department spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the administration had “discussed reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions with the Saudis” and considered them “permissible” if they are “used appropriately and according with those end-use rules.” The White House and Department of Defense have barely mentioned it or even been asked. When questioned about civilian casualties by Saudi air operations in Yemen on October 7, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded, “We have routinely urged the coalition to appreciate the need to prevent civilian casualties.” Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes claimed similarly on September 3, “We have to hold all of ourselves to the highest possible standard when it relates to preventing civilian deaths, and that will continue to be a part of our dialogue as it relates to Yemen.”

If cluster munitions are “not good” for Russia to use in Syria, why are they acceptable for Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen, especially since there are many examples of civilian deaths caused by them? Now, that’s a good question for reporters to ask at the next press briefing.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by JiminNH

    Does Col. Warren not know, or perhaps he consciously chooses to ignore, that in distinct contrast with the abject lack of information regarding the US’ futile year-long campaign of airstrikes that putatively attack ISIS targets in Syria, the world is able to see just about every Russian bombing mission courtesy of the RuAF. Just look at the Russian MOD website and see for yourself – in English no less.

    Therefore, his his statement that Russia just “pushes (dumb bombs) out of the back of an airplane” is patently absurd, and moreso patently offensive to the intellect of anyone paying attention to both the hot war and propaganda war raging in reference to the Syrian imbroglio.

    Simply look at the video of Russia’s precision strike destroying the principal bridge over the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor (Hwy 7) that severed the ISIS’ line of communications to the Iraqi border and northeast Syria. Hardly a dumb bomb to be seen.

    It would have been nice of the author of this article to ask that question, or point out the sheer imbecility of the Colonel’s statement.

    Then again it’s probably a good thing we don’t show such BDA – then the people of the US would see how the USAF destroys things like the two power generating facilities in the Aleppo region in the past two weeks that ended up assisting ISIS’s advance in eastern Aleppo while simultaneously ensuring that the long suffering civilian population of Syria’s 2nd largest city will have shortages of power, and heat, this winter.

  • Posted by zzzzz

    well said, thanks JiminNH

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