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A cluster bomb is an air-dropped bomb that ejects multiple small submunitions (bomblets). Their primary purpose is to kill enemy soldiers, although specialized weapons designed for anti-runway, anti-armor and mine-scattering purposes have also been developed.
Cluster bombs were developed in order to improve the efficiency of aerial attacks, particularly against "soft" targets like personnel. Single bombs are less useful for this purpose because they cover a smaller area (known as a "footprint" in military parlance), and their effectiveness is dependent on the accuracy of the bomb's drop. A cluster bomb functions like a shotgun, covering a wider area with a spread of miniature bombs.
Cluster bomb technology was first used by Germany against the United Kingdom in the Second World War, and developed independently by America and Russia. Cluster bombs are now standard air-dropped munitions for most nations, in a wide variety of types.
Artillery shells that employ similar principles have existed for decades. They are typically referred to as ICM (Improved Conventional Munitions) shells. The US military slang terms for them are "firecracker" or "popcorn" shells, for the many small explosions they cause in the target area.
Types of Cluster Bombs
A basic cluster bomb is a hollow shell (generally streamlined if intended for carriage by fast aircraft) containing anywhere from three to more than 2,000 submunitions. Some types are dispensers that are designed to be retained by the aircraft after releasing their munitions. The submunitions themselves may be fitted with small parachute retarders or streamers to slow their descent (allowing the aircraft to escape the blast area in low-altitude attacks).
Anti-personnel cluster bombs produce shrapnel to kill troops and destroy soft (unarmored) targets. Anti-armor munitions contain hardened spikes with shaped charge warheads to pierce the armor of tanks and armored fighting vehicles. Anti-runway submunitions are often designed to penetrate concrete before detonating, allowing them to shatter and crater runway surfaces. Mine-laying weapons do not detonate on contact, but scatter their cargo of land mines for later detonation.
During the 1950s and 1960s the United States and Soviet Union developed cluster weapons designed to deliver chemical weapons, ranging from lethal nerve gas like Sarin to defoliants and tear gas. International pressure has made the use of chemical weapons politically volatile, although both the U.S. and Russia retain such weapons in their arsenals.
Modern cluster bombs and submunition dispensers are often multiple-purpose weapons, containing mixtures of anti-armor, anti-personnel, and anti-materiel munitions.
A growing trend in cluster bomb design is the "smart" submunition, which uses guidance circuitry to locate and attack particular targets, usually armored vehicles. Some recent weapons of this type include the U.S. CBU-97, employed in Serbia in 1999 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Munitions specifically intended for anti-tank use may be set to self-destruct if they reach the ground without locating a target, theoretically reducing the risk of collateral damage to civilians and non-military targets. The limitation of the smart submunition is cost: such weapons are many times more expensive than standard cluster bombs, which are cheap and simple to manufacture.
The use of these weapons is hotly opposed by many individuals and groups, such as the Red Cross and the United Nations, because about 10% of the bomblets do not explode on impact. These unexploded ordnance act like anti-personnel land mines (which have been banned in many countries under the Ottawa Treaty) for many years. The small size and bright colours of some bomblets make them attractive to passers-by, especially small children. CBUs are still a danger in Indochina, especially in Laos and southern Vietnam. More recently, in Afghanistan, several civilians have been killed by unexploded bomblets.
In the United States military action against Afghanistan in 2002, military forces faced an embarrassing problem in that humanitarian rations dropped from airplanes initially had the same yellow colored packaging as unexploded cluster bombs. The rations packaging was later changed first to blue and then to clear packaging in the hopes of avoiding such hazardous confusion.
- http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/cbu-97.htm : Federation of American Scientists article on the CBU97 and CBU105 cluster bombs with smart munitions
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