Made in Mass., bomb stirs global debate
Textron seeks to quash cluster munitions pact
WASHINGTON - The Sensor Fuzed Weapon is a marvel of military technology, says its maker,
But the bomb - which is made at a Textron facility in the Boston suburb of Wilmington - violates terms of a landmark international treaty limiting cluster bombs to 10 bomblets or less. The pending treaty, signed by 98 nations last year in Oslo, has been sought for decades by human rights groups, which say that cluster bombs kill indiscriminately and leave behind duds that kill or maim unsuspecting civilians.
Now Textron, with the support of the Pentagon and the State Department, is mounting a campaign to derail the cluster-bomb treaty and write a new set of rules under the United Nations that would make it easier to sell its weapon around the world.
Textron’s primary argument for scrapping the treaty is that 99 percent of the bomblets released by the Sensor Fuzed Weapon will explode in combat, leaving only a tiny amount of unexploded ordinance that could be picked up by a child or hit by a farmer’s plow. Textron calls this capability “clean battlefield operation.’’
“It really is an extremely sophisticated weapon,’’ said Mark D. Rafferty, vice president of business development for Textron Defense Systems, which employs about 1,000 people at its Wilmington plant. Rafferty stood in front of a full-scale mock-up of the bomb, a 6-foot-long cylinder with tail fins, at an arms show in Washington, D.C., last week.
“Knowing that we are in no way, shape or form contributing to [civilian suffering] is really a very satisfying place to be,’’ he said.
The United States is among several major powers including Russia, China, and Israel that have refused to sign the Oslo treaty.
The US Air Force has purchased 4,600 of the new weapons, at a cost of several billion dollars. Textron has also sold them to Turkey, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. And it is in the final stages of reaching a deal with India for 510 of the weapons at an estimated cost of $375 million.
Textron wants the international community to rewrite the treaty to allow weapons with large numbers of bomblets, if they can be shown to avoid the potential for civilian casualties from unexploded components.
The initiative has outraged many arms control advocates, however, who secured signatures from Britain, France, and 96 other countries at last year’s Oslo negotiations. The treaty needs to be ratified by 30 countries to take effect; so far, 17 of them have done so.
“It’s a disgraceful attempt to throw mud at the most important achievement in humanitarian affairs and disarmament in the last decade,’’ said Thomas Nash, coordinator of the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition, a network of 400 nongovernmental organizations from about 90 countries.
Textron Defense Systems is a division of the Providence-based conglomerate Textron Inc., which makes products as diverse as helicopters and passenger planes and defense and intelligence systems. It had annual revenue of more than $14 billion in 2008. The Wilmington facility makes a variety of air-launched munitions, as well as both air and ground surveillance systems.
As part of its public relations push, Textron has established a new website, dontbanthesolution.com, replete with expert testimony and computer-generated battle scenes to demonstrate its weapon’s pinpoint accuracy and fail-safe design. Textron Systems chief executive Frank Tempesta, has penned an oped in a leading international trade magazine contending that the proposed treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, will do more harm than good by leading militaries to use more powerful, and less accurate, weapons to achieve the same effect. And the company has dispatched officials to foreign capitals and the conference rooms of skeptical human rights groups to make their case.
Dropped from a high-flying aircraft, the Textron weapon releases 10 canisters that parachute downward, scanning for the enemy with a built-in sensor. When they reach an optimum altitude, the canisters, spinning at high speed, release four separate bomblets, or “skeets,’’ each with its own rocket motor and targeting system.
Each skeet has a 2.2-kilogram warhead, sufficient to pierce and disable a 70-ton tank, and weighs a little less than 4 kilograms including its motor and electronics.
Just two of the weapons, released from a B-52 bomber, destroyed 24 Iraqi tanks in 2003.
If they don’t find a target, the company says, the 40 bomblets are designed to self-destruct. For example, if the skeet reaches a height of 50 feet without homing in on the heat from a tank or armored vehicle, it will explode in midair. And once armed, the projectile is only capable of exploding for eight seconds before it disarms. As a third safety mechanism, any unexploded skeets lying on the ground will disarm after two minutes.
The Pentagon has certified in testing that the Sensor Fuzed Weapon leaves unexploded bomblets only 1 percent of the time or less. That is a standard that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has stipulated all cluster munitions must meet by 2018.
Arms control advocates remain unconvinced, however.
“They think technology is the answer,’’ said Nash, the Cluster Munition Coalition coordinator. His group contends that Textron’s claims of accuracy and reliability have historically been overstated.
“It is not reasonable to base your policy on the continued failure of weapons manufacturers to make reliable weapons,’’ he said. “They make money from selling weapons, and I think that compromises to a certain extent the credibility of their humanitarian analysis.’’
Other experts, including supporters of the Oslo treaty, acknowledge that Textron has made significant breakthroughs to minimize harm to civilians. Ove Dullum, chief scientist at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said in an interview that based on tests he considers the Sensor Fuzed Weapon a minimal risk to civilians.
Still, he says that may not hold true under battle conditions.
“My experience . . . is that even if carefully conducted tests of ammunition show a very low dud rate, that will not represent the dud rate in war,’’ he said, citing the aging of munitions, environmental impact, and the handling of the weapons in a real war environment.
Moreover, even if the weapon can achieve the level of reliability advertised, it is still highly dangerous for civilians on the battlefield, said Jeff Abramson, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. He said that, depending on how many are used in a future conflict, a 1 percent dud rate could still affect many innocent bystanders.
“If you have 1 percent of 10,000 submunitions, that is 100 left that could possibly explode in the future,’’ he said.
Textron and the US military say that, without the ability to use cluster bombs with 40 bomblets, military forces will inevitably use greater numbers of traditional bombs. That, Gates concluded in a policy memorandum last year, “could result, in some cases, in unacceptable collateral damage and explosive remnants of war.’’
Nations that do not sign the treaty could have trouble selling their weapons. Cluster bombs made by Diehl and Rheinmetall in Germany and by Bofors Defence and GIAT Industries in France meet the requirements of the treaty, with two bomblets contained in each. They would be expected to pick up market share at Textron’s expense if the treaty is ratified as written.
Also, nations that ratify the treaty may place restrictions on cooperating with any military that doesn’t abide by it.
UN negotiations to craft a new agreement are at a standstill. “There is still a wide divergence,’’ said a US defense official involved in the talks who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to do so. Another meeting is scheduled in Geneva in November.
But a State Department spokesman, Jason Greer, argued that a new treaty that takes into account the potential to reduce civilian casualties would be an improvement over the Oslo pact, which merely sets standards for bomblets and their size.
The US government also argues that the current treaty will have little effect if the holdouts - which have the largest militaries and explosive stockpiles - refuse to participate. A new treaty, said Greer, would probably include “more of the countries that actually produce cluster munitions.’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com