First Lt. Des Walton salutes during a memorial service for seven members of his company who were killed in an explosion at As Salman Airfield in Iraq. Walton was injured in that same explosion, and was recovering from his wounds at the time.Credit...Kirby Lee Vaughn
Staff Sgt. Michael S. Crick huddled in the howling wind and wrote in his diary. It was just past noon on Feb. 26, 1991, the third day of the American-led invasion of Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. The day before, a French and American force had seized As Salman airfield, an Iraqi military installation about 70 miles from the Saudi Arabian border.
In a sandstorm driven by cool desert winds, Crick and three fellow explosive-ordnance disposal technicians discovered the presence of small yellow cylinders on the ground where coalition warplanes had struck. “Found about 10 to 15 BLU-97/B bomblets,” he wrote. Since mid-January, the allies had repeatedly blanketed As Salman in cluster munitions, as they had done with other military targets across Iraq and Kuwait.
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Crick’s team was working for the 27th Engineer Battalion, which was supporting the French Sixth Light Armored Division. Later in the same day on which the invading column had captured the airfield, the engineers told Crick and the senior-ranking bomb technician, Staff Sgt. Scott Bartow, that the E.O.D. soldiers were to dispose of any large bombs on the runway and that the engineers would handle the rest, including cluster-munition bomblets and mines. Bartow and Crick were concerned, but they were not in charge; though they were the experts in the defusing and disposing of munitions, the engineer officers outranked them and disregarded their advice. “Want to leave these people ASAP,” Crick wrote. “Got a bad feeling.”
Cluster munitions are a variety of weapons, including rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery projectiles, that break apart midair and dispense smaller lightweight weapons called submunitions or bomblets across a large area. They are meant to explode or light things on fire when they hit the ground. The United States military designed many of its modern models in the 1970s and 1980s with a principal mission in mind: stopping an invasion of Western Europe by dropping tens of millions of submunitions on Soviet Army divisions staging for an attack. Once the cluster munitions were in the inventory, the military found other uses for them to fight conventional foes and militants alike.
In early 1991, BLU-97s were a type of explosive submunition making their combat debut. But Crick and other munitions experts knew they were exceptionally hazardous. Cluster munitions are bedeviled by a widespread failing: a high dud rate, meaning that a large percentage fail to detonate when they are supposed to. BLU-97s in particular were sensitive to disturbance and possessed no timed self-destruct feature. Further, whether because of an oversight or by design, they had a particularly nasty feature — once a bomblet was armed, there was no way to disarm it. The weapon’s fuzes could not be safely broken apart or removed, and an armed bomblet was too sensitive to handle. The sole official protocol in 1991 for making a BLU-97 dud safe was to use another explosive to destroy it.
By scattering this new weapon in Iraq and Kuwait, American pilots had essentially placed unmarked, indiscriminate and long-lasting minefields in their own ground forces’ path — in this case on a runway other American soldiers planned to reopen quickly.
What happened on Feb. 26, just a day after Crick confided in his journal the sense of dread that filled him, would become one of the single deadliest incidents of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Seven combat engineers from 27th Engineer Battalion were killed when a pile of the BLU-97 duds they were tasked with clearing from the airfield detonated at once. The fatal accident did not happen in isolation. In total, at least 18 incidents involving unexploded cluster munitions occurred during Desert Storm. Exact figures are extremely difficult to establish, but a methodical review of the casualty records from that conflict indicate that at least 12 American service members were killed and dozens of troops were wounded by dud bomblets during the four days of the ground invasion. Approximately 12 more American service members were killed in Iraq and Kuwait by dud bomblets after the cease-fire.
The devastating effects that dud bomblets from cluster munitions have inflicted on civilians is well documented. They have killed or injured an estimated 56,000 to 86,000 civilians since World War II. The United States alone has spent more than $3.4 billion on demining operations since 1993, including in countries where it released hundreds of millions of bomblets in past wars that continue to kill and maim civilians. But the incident at As Salman airfield and the broader pattern of fratricidal cluster-munition deaths among American troops have never been documented in full, until now. Five years of reporting and hundreds of interviews reveal that As Salman was just one incident in a dark history of bomblets repeatedly cutting short American and allied lives. Among these submunitions, the BLU-97 in particular exemplifies the perils of this class of weapon — and the extent to which the deaths of service members have been played down by military planners.
The United States is one of a dozen or fewer countries that has used cluster munitions, still stockpiles them and reserves the right to use them again in the future. An international outcry against them led to the ratification, in 2008, of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty that prohibits the production, use, transfer and stockpiling of these weapons. Cluster weapons, advocates of a ban said, pose unacceptable risks to civilians, as unexploded bomblets endanger anyone who happens upon them. To date, the ban has been signed by 108 nations. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have chosen to stay out of the agreement. So has the United States.
The same year the treaty was adopted, the Department of Defense appeared to be finally reversing its position when it committed to retiring old stockpiles by a 2018 deadline and replacing them with a new generation of cluster weapons, as yet undeveloped, with a failure rate of no more than 1 percent. The change in policy was “intended to minimize the potential unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure of U.S. cluster munitions employment to the extent possible,” according to the policy order signed by Robert Gates, the defense secretary at the time.
That trajectory changed abruptly in late 2017. Under the direction of James Mattis, then the secretary of defense, the Pentagon abandoned the 2008 policy less than a year before it would become irrevocable. A year later, Patrick Shanahan, who was Mattis’s deputy, attributed the policy change to “the North Korean situation” and contingency planning for a future war with Kim Jong-un.
Former defense officials have since told The Times that the 2017 reversal was also tied to fears of war with Russia and China. Amid growing tensions with multiple adversaries, military leaders were determined to retain their existing stockpiles, of which BLU-97s make up the majority of airdropped cluster munitions.
The message delivered by the Defense Department and by officials familiar with the 2017 policy change was clear: The Pentagon has steadfastly returned to its argument that cluster munitions have valid roles in modern warfare and has retained the right to attack with them when the military sees fit, no matter their long record of killing Americans.
The BLU-97 bomblets at As Salman were the latest offering in roughly 60 years of cluster-munition evolution, a process started by German arms designers before World War II. In 1932, Luftwaffe munitions handlers repackaged incendiary bomblets conceived in World War I in aerodynamic containers that opened in the air, near the ground. This allowed bomblets to land closer to one another than if they had been dropped individually. A tight pattern meant a density of flame. The goal was to spark “fire storms” and consume cities.
Kaiser Wilhelm II forbade incendiary bomblet attacks on Paris in 1918. But Hitler had no reservations and used the Spanish Civil War to test his generals’ secret new weapons. In late 1936, German pilots began dropping incendiary cluster munitions on Madrid while propaganda officers, the public-affairs wing of the growing Nazi war machine, lied to the press and denied German involvement, even as the cluster-bombing campaign expanded. In this way, the use of cluster munitions from the very beginning was coupled to official lies. The weapons’ most memorialized victim was Guernica, the Basque village burned to ashes in 1937. George L. Steer, a reporter for The New York Times, visited Guernica’s charred ruins after the attack and found dud bomblets bearing German markings. The era of cluster munitions had begun.
Soviet, Japanese, Italian, British and American engineers soon rolled out their own versions, and these new models were dropped across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa during World War II. In America’s first airstrike on Japan, in 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led a mission that dropped incendiary bomblets on Tokyo alongside high-explosive munitions. With thermite and white phosphorous, British and American incendiary cluster bombs torched German cities, including Dresden, where tens of thousands of people were killed. In one day alone in March 1945, American napalm-filled cluster bombs started fires that killed an estimated 100,000 Japanese citizens. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, of the Army Air Corps, used the same weapons to destroy 65 of Japan’s 68 largest cities. Nuclear weapons leveled two more.
In the early years of the nuclear arms race, American engineers experimented with cluster bombs that dispensed radioactive submunitions, dropping them on a Utah proving ground. Air Force bombers in Korea flew the United States’ first large-scale missions with antipersonnel cluster bombs, scattering them freely over suspected North Korean supply routes. Other bomblets in the development pipeline around that time dispersed chemical or biological weapons, including insects that could be infected with communicable diseases, like the bubonic plague. Later, the Pentagon fielded a submunition that dispensed spools of carbon fibers designed to shut down electrical power by shorting out part of a grid.
For all the indiscriminate killing and apocalyptic arms-testing, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that these weapons entered public consciousness when some antiwar protesters mobilized specifically against their use. One such movement was started by Marv Davidov, an Army veteran, in 1968 when he launched an initiative called the Honeywell Project, which staged large protests against the Honeywell Corporation’s production of cluster bombs in Minnesota.
In an eight-year period during the war, according to declassified records, the Air Force dropped nearly 350 million bomblets in Southeast Asia. But the weapons enabled the killing of American troops, as bomblet duds gave the Viet Cong small explosive charges they adapted into improvised explosive devices. (Marine Corps guidance to its forces in 1969 stated that early in the war as many as 75 percent of its casualties came from such booby traps, and 90 percent of them incorporated American supplies — often bomblet duds.) From 1964 to 1973, American pilots dropped more than two dozen distinct cluster-munition models on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, raining bomblets into the jungle to try to disrupt supply lines from Laos and deter surface-to-air missile crews who had been knocking American warplanes from the sky.
Both of these uses were indiscriminate — purposeful but sometimes blind attacks upon areas of suspected enemy activity rather than upon clear and visible targets, the sort of mission for which frustrated or ambitious generals have found cluster munitions well-suited. For weaponeers, the experience was also illuminating. The American inventory of the era, still stocked with cluster munitions from World War II, provided many options. Newly developed dart-shaped Mk-118s were effective at destroying tanks. Spherical submunitions like the BLU-26 were effective at killing people. By 1971, arms designers had added incendiary elements for lighting fuel tanks afire and other forms of property destruction. But each of these weapons had limitations, and once aircraft were loaded with one type of submunition they were not well-equipped to attack unexpected targets.
In 1974, the Pentagon sought a submunition that would perform all three functions and entered a contract with Aerojet Ordnance of Downey, Calif., for its development. The BLU-97 was the answer. The new bomblets began entering Air Force arsenals in 1986 with features that made them anti-personnel, anti-armor and incendiary — Aerojet’s universal solution for most any target. In the bland euphemisms of the corporate killing trade, the company’s engineers had birthed a new class of American weapon, the “combined effects munition.” An Aerojet brochure for the weapon hailed the “First All Purpose, Affordable Cluster Weapon System” and promised “Multitarget Defeat — Armor, Matériel, Personnel — in One Payload.” But neither Aerojet nor the Air Force had solved the longstanding problem of cluster munitions writ large: the high failure rate.
With the notable exception of the December 1989 invasion of Panama, the Pentagon reached for cluster weapons again and again in the years between Vietnam and Desert Storm, as did the allies it supplied them to. On the second day of the Marines’ landing in Beirut in the autumn of 1982, an American bomblet provided to the Israeli army killed one Marine and wounded three others at the Beirut airport. Still, Navy attack jets dropped cluster bombs in Grenada in 1983, on Libyan ships in 1986 and on Iranian ships in 1988. But as the American military prepared to oust Manuel Noriega in late 1989, one Army artillery commander explicitly decided against bringing howitzer-fired cluster munitions because of his concern that duds would kill American troops and Panamanian civilians alike.
By 1991 the Pentagon had queued up its stockpile for another cluster-munitions campaign. American brass in Saudi Arabia knew that thousands of Iraqi tanks were arrayed across the border. Invasion plans relied on carpeting Iraqi military units with cluster bombs, many of which were aging surplus from Vietnam. In the ensuing attack, Operation Desert Storm, American forces dropped 24.5 million bomblets in 37 days. Within this storm came the BLU-97’s debut.
The relationship between Crick’s team and the unit to which they were attached had been sour from the start. The engineers’ commander was irritated that the bomb techs arrived without encrypted radios (they had not been issued any) and with only a few cases of explosives (as much as they could fit in their trucks). Tension permeated the unit from the top down. As the soldiers started working together, an enlisted engineer sneered at the ordnance disposal team. The bomb techs, in turn, thought the engineers were dangerously uninformed and dismissive of the specialists’ efforts to help.
“These guys are totally screwed up,” Crick wrote in his logbook. “We tried several times to put our two cents worth about the mines but they don’t want to hear it.”
After Crick saw BLU-97 duds at As Salman airfield, his fears deepened. He knew these bomblets could appear to be unimposing. At about nine inches long and two and a half inches wide, each resembled an oversized beer can with the bottom open and a crude nylon parachute at the top. An aviation or ordnance-disposal expert might recognize this profile as lethal. Most anyone else would not, in part because the bomblets lacked the classic features of common explosive weapons. They also bore no universal warning symbols and were painted a bright banana shade of yellow — a cheerfully cartoonish color scheme for an environment in which lethal matériel tends to be gray, olive drab or tan.
Beneath the cheery yellow exteriors are multiple features designed to cut, burn and kill. The bomblet contains about 10 ounces of high explosives encased in a steel sleeve that has been pre-grooved to shatter into diamond-shaped bits of shrapnel. The shaped charge at the bottom, oriented toward the ground by the parachute at the top, is designed to penetrate five inches of steel. The warhead further contains a 1.5-ounce ring of zirconium, an incendiary metal that burns furiously when ignited. Above the ring is a fuze intended to detonate the bomblet no matter its angle of impact with the ground.
On the afternoon of Feb. 26, Capt. Mario Fajardo, commander of the engineers’ Alpha Company, again insisted that the engineers would take care of the unexploded submunitions. The BLU-97s looked hollow anyway, he told one of the bomb techs, who replied that the harmless-looking opening was really the mouth of the warhead’s shaped charge. Bartow and Crick implored the captain to reconsider, warning him again that the duds were too dangerous to handle or move, but Fajardo brushed aside their concerns. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll be careful.”
Fajardo took his men down to the end of the runway where the BLU-97s were scattered around. Crick and the E.O.D. team were told to wait in their trucks until they were needed. Fajardo’s soldiers at first followed the bomb techs’ advice. Out on the runway, the engineers announced over the radio that they were placing individual charges. After each call, the unit’s officers heard a single small explosion, the reassuring sound of the job being done right.
Then a powerful blast shook the air. There had been no advance radio call. Crick and his team instantly knew something was wrong. Before they could investigate, an airman ran up and said: “You need to get down there. It’s terrible.”
The spot was a smoking crater now. What was left of the soldiers who were standing there a moment ago was scattered around it. The blast had heaved human remains nearly 50 yards and bits of equipment four times as far.
First Lt. Desmond D. Walton was Alpha Company’s executive officer, Fajardo’s second in command. Stunned from the blast, he called out to the company’s senior enlisted soldier, First Sgt. Johnny E. Joyner, who had been walking toward him, away from the others. Joyner seemed unhurt. He was staring about 150 feet behind them, back to where they had just been, where seven soldiers had been standing a moment before. Walton was buzzing with adrenaline, unsure of the severity of his own wound. He and Joyner picked themselves up, radioed for help and moved to the center of the grisly mess.
They reached Pfc. Jerry L. King first. Both of his legs had been blown off, along with one arm. Barely alive, King was trying to pull himself over the sand with his remaining arm. A medic ran up and injected King with morphine as he bled to death.
The six other soldiers had died instantly, ripped apart by the explosive wave and shrapnel. Their remains were scattered and intermingled. Among the dead was Fajardo and one of his platoon commanders, First Lt. Terry L. Plunk; a platoon sergeant, Sgt. First Class Russell G. Smith Jr.; and several other soldiers under Fajardo’s command: Staff Sgt. Michael A. Harris Jr., Sgt. Brian P. Scott and Cpl. Luis R. Delgado.
More soldiers unrolled nine body bags, one for each dead man and two more for what couldn’t readily be identified. The battalion chaplain arrived and prayed. As soldiers scoured the site, they found Fajardo’s class ring from the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina from which he had graduated in 1984. It was attached to a traumatically amputated hand, according to Walton.
Crick and the other bomb techs looked around the blast site and talked with surviving engineers. It took a while to form a picture of what happened. Fajardo, Joyner and Walton had parked their trucks at the edge of the runway and walked to where Plunk’s platoon was examining BLU-97s.
Fajardo had instructed Plunk to have the soldiers “blow everything in place.” Smith suggested they save explosives by arranging bomblets into a pile and disposing of them in one shot.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” he said, and asked Fajardo if he could pick one up.
“Sure,” Fajardo said. “Go ahead.”
Fajardo and Smith peered into the open end of a BLU-97 in Smith’s hand. They decided it seemed stable.
Joyner took the bomblet from Smith, set it down and chastised Smith for disregarding safety precautions. It was no use. Smith had persuaded Fajardo that dud BLU-97s were safe. The captain overruled Joyner and gave permission to proceed.
On Smith’s orders, soldiers rounded up bomblets by hand and put them in a stack. Joyner and Walton walked away. They passed Harris and King, who were on their way to the pile and carrying TNT and other explosives they could use to detonate the dud bomblets.
What happened next is unclear, but the evidence points to roughly a dozen BLU-97s detonating at once while seven soldiers stood nearby, the blast setting off a chain reaction that caused the TNT blocks the engineers had brought to explode too, along with nearly two dozen 40-millimeter grenades one soldier wore on his vest.
The deaths of the engineers were not the only casualties caused to their column by American bomblets that day. Although the 27th Engineer Battalion did not yet know it, at another former Iraqi position nearby, two French Marines — Sgt. Yves Schmitt and Master Cpl. Eric Cordier — had been killed and 23 other French service members wounded by at least two dud BLU-97s that detonated in their midst.
Hours later, the American troops started to leave As Salman. “The French have kicked us out,” Crick wrote in his log book. The E.O.D. team and the engineers made separate camps for the night, just outside the airfield. “The smell of flesh is not something any of us will ever forget,” Crick wrote in his last entry for the day. “I think I left something back there.”
The next morning, Crick and his teammates drove back the way they had come. The road that had been clogged with troops pouring into Iraq was eerily deserted. By 10:30 a.m., they were back in Saudi Arabia. The day after that, the cease-fire was announced. Operation Desert Storm was over. Of the seven soldiers killed at As Salman airfield, Crick saw their loss for what it was. “Airstrip won’t be used,” he wrote. “Total waste of men and time.”
Relatively few Americans loitered in Iraq and Kuwait after the cease-fire. But their military’s cluster bombs kept stalking them. Between the start of the invasion in late February, and early April, some two dozen soldiers and Marines were killed by American submunition duds of all kinds. (An additional 18 were killed by explosions that most likely came from submunitions, though records are unclear.)
Many of those deaths were caused by BLU-97 duds. In April 1991, Specialist Charles Bowman Jr. was killed in southern Iraq by the accidental explosion of some BLU-97s that he had been ordered to clean up. Two other soldiers were wounded. The same day Bowman died, Staff Sgt. Roy J. Summerall was killed when a submunition, most likely a BLU-97, exploded just outside an Army-run refugee camp in Safwan, Iraq.
The deaths continued back in the United States. On Sept. 28, 1998, 12 years after the last advertised test drop of BLU-97s at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Marcus Zaharko, a 19-year-old airman on his first field exercise, found a BLU-97 near where he had set up air-sampling equipment. When he tossed it to the ground in front of him, it exploded, blasting fragmentation back. He died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.
Three and a half years later, in early 2002, a scrap collector named Charles Michael Tuttle drove his pickup truck onto the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range in Southern California. He never made it off the range. One of his scavenged BLU-97s detonated and riddled him with shrapnel.
The dud that killed Tuttle was a feature of ranges struck by combined effects munitions in the early years of the fight against terrorism. At Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, impact areas became so saturated with duds that destroying them became an expensive part of air base routine. Pilots released CBU-87 cluster bombs above three ranges well into the mid-2000s, and range control officers kept count, closing ranges to further bombings after 200 CBU-87s, containing 40,400 BLU-97 bomblets, had been dropped. Then around a dozen Air Force explosive-ordnance disposal technicians would venture into the impact areas to destroy the bomblets one by one — a process that happened two or three times a year and could last weeks. According to an explosive-ordnance disposal officer who was in charge of about a dozen of these painstaking missions, specialists cleaning the ranges could expect to destroy more than 7,000 duds in each cycle, indicating a bomblet failure rate of more than 17 percent.
The last known American BLU-97 casualty was in 2007. Pfc. Dwane A. Covert Jr. died while picking up trash up at a military position in Al-Sahra, Iraq. As he cleaned the base, Covert mistook an old and dirty BLU-97 for a caulking gun. When he died, the United States had not dropped BLU-97s on Iraq for more than four years.
Lessons on these kinds of incidents are not part of the curriculum at either the Army’s or the Marine Corps’ engineer schools today, according to instructors and recent graduates of both programs. After Desert Storm, several field manuals addressed the hazard posed by unexploded submunitions. The Army uses these texts to teach soldiers how to do specific jobs and to warn them about the threats involved with those tasks. But as of 2017, nearly every official manual that mentioned cluster munitions’ high dud rates and the deaths they caused during Desert Storm has been rescinded, made classified or edited to remove earlier passages.
With regard to the Army engineers’ manual on dealing with explosive hazards, a spokeswoman for the Army engineer school told The Times that information on high failure rates of submunitions “was not retained nor transferred into a newer publication.” While older field manuals were unclassified and easy to distribute, the Army has made newer publications more restricted, and the engineer school declined a request for their release. The spokeswoman did not offer a reason.
For service members outside the bomb-disposal community, finding information on how to identify unexploded submunitions and details about the particular risks they pose has become a tedious scavenger hunt, if they even know to look for that information in the first place.
The beginning of the end for the BLU-97 appeared to have been written in mid-2008, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the announcement that after 2018 American forces would “only employ cluster munitions containing submunitions that, after arming, do not result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance.” The requirement, Gates said, was not waiverable.
Until then, the Pentagon had often defended its use of cluster munitions and sometimes pushed back on those opposed to their use — claiming in 2005, for instance, that criticisms of cluster munitions were based on “questionable methodologies.” But evidence kept accumulating against the weapons. A 2007 study established that when used in Lebanon by Israeli forces, an Israeli-made submunition that the manufacturer claimed had less than a 1 percent “hazardous dud rate” actually failed about 10 percent of the time. The study read like a warning to the Pentagon that the American ambition of a bomblet with a reliability rate of 99 percent would be hard to realize.
No matter the BLU-97’s blemished record, until the Gates memo the bomblet’s place had been secure and its flaws evidently overlooked or forgiven by American military leadership. The Pentagon had explored the possibility of retrofitting the existing bomblet stockpile with more reliable fuzes but decided it would be too expensive. Instead, over the years it opted for enhancements that would allow its forces to use an unreliable weapon more widely. It loaded the bomblets into a new generation of guided “stand-off” glide bombs for the Navy and made the old airdropped dispensers like the ones used at As Salman more accurate by fitting them with GPS-guided tail kits. It even tried extending the weapons’ range by developing a kit for CBU-87 canisters with pop-out wings that would allow cluster bombs to glide for 40 or more miles before scattering their bomblets. (The wing-kit program never made it out of development.) The Air Force dropped cluster bombs enthusiastically at the start of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, including 818 CBU-87s with the upgraded tail kits, and 118 more unchanged from the early models used in Desert Storm.
Then came Gates’s memo. Even then, the United States did not quite retire its yellow bomblets. In December 2009, when President Barack Obama ordered attacks on two suspected terrorist camps in Yemen, at least one Tomahawk missile fired from a warship accompanying the U.S.S. Nimitz dumped BLU-97 bomblets onto the village of al-Ma’jalah. The Navy made an almost comical play for plausible deniability of America’s role. The ships steamed near shore so their cruise missiles would have sufficient fuel to fly beyond the target, turn back in the direction of the sea, release their payload onto al-Ma’jalah and then continue over the beach and fall into blue water, hiding evidence on the ocean floor.
The attack reportedly killed 55 people, including 14 people suspected of being Qaeda members, 14 women and 21 children. The empty cruise missiles fell into the sea. But at least one dud was left behind at the strike scene. Before long, photos of Tomahawk missile parts appeared in news reports from Yemen, along with one clearly showing an unexploded BLU-97 — distinctive bright yellow and made in the United States. In keeping with United States policy of concealing American involvement in the Yemen conflict, the government of Yemen lied about the strike, claiming the village was attacked by Yemeni forces. Along with the accidental civilian casualties, the bungled attack had another unintended effect: Diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks show that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Gen. David Petraeus decided to forgo future cruise missile attacks in favor of airstrikes — evidently a concession to BLU-97 unreliability and public mood.
The attack on al-Ma’jalah was the last known battlefield use by the Pentagon of any of its cluster munitions.
While Gates’s memo was welcomed by the international community, American military leaders strongly opposed it. Between 2015 and 2017, at least four generals testified before Congress that they wanted to retain the old stockpiles — and that the services were unlikely to develop a safer alternative. The cluster munition “capability is very important to our force, and to replace that capability is going to take a lot more time and a lot more money,” Lt. Gen. Gary L. Thomas of the Marines said during a congressional hearing in May 2017.
Their concerns did little to provoke any change in policy, until Donald Trump was elected president and James Mattis was sworn in as the new defense secretary. The retired Marine general came to the job devoted to “lethality,” ordering the Pentagon to focus solely on those things that helped American troops kill enemy fighters. Under Mattis, the Pentagon saw Gates’s restriction on cluster munitions as an obstacle to stopping human-wave attacks in any future war with North Korea.
By that point, it was clear that the Defense Department had failed to develop new cluster munitions with bomblets that had a dud rate of less than 1 percent — meaning the Pentagon would be obliged to destroy its cluster munitions stockpile without a sufficient replacement.
“It’s an unacceptable risk to take them off the table without a replacement on hand on similar numbers,” a former defense official said, describing the mentality of Pentagon leaders in 2017. Mattis saw this as an easy problem to fix, and he ordered his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, to reverse Gates’s directive.
Under the new policy, military commanders can now use existing cluster munitions until “sufficient quantities” of “enhanced and more reliable” replacements are developed and fielded. Though the Army has recently purchased cluster munitions that claim a dud rate of less than 1 percent, the service is buying them in such small quantities that they will come nowhere close to replacing existing stockpiles on a one-for-one basis.
Despite cluster munitions’ long history of fratricide, Pentagon leaders continue to assert that using these weapons can reduce casualties among Americans, partner nations and even civilians. When pressed repeatedly by The Times to explain such a scenario, and why other, newer, smaller and much more reliable munitions that have been added to its arsenal in recent years would be unable to carry out the same missions with less risk, Pentagon officials declined to elaborate.
The vast majority of cluster weapons the United States currently holds are the same as those that killed and injured dozens of troops in Desert Storm. As of 2000, more than 100,000 CBU-87 bombs containing some 23 million BLU-97 bomblets made up the bulk of the Defense Department’s airdropped cluster inventory, which has seen little action in the last 19 years.
America’s war plans for North Korea rely on even older weapons with still higher dud rates. A 2008 Defense Department memorandum showed that the Pentagon’s munitions stockpile in South Korea contained nearly 1.7 million cluster weapons, of which almost 1.2 million were Vietnam-era cluster artillery projectiles — the same weapons that killed many American service members in that war.
It’s possible that cluster weapons’ grim legacy, particularly that of the BLU-97, has been forgotten by the people now deciding how they will be deployed in the future. Those who remember are the explosive-ordnance disposal techs, who for more than 25 years have circulated Staff Sergeant Crick’s battlefield logbook as a testament of American military recklessness. It had almost no public exposure in all these years until a senior tech, who called the BLU-97 “the most dangerous weapon in our arsenal, and not just to the enemy,” shared a copy with The Times.
As for Crick, he returned to the United States after the war. The BLU-97s’ detonation in a ring of soldiers was among the most lethal battlefield incidents for Americans in the Persian Gulf war, and he dwelled on it upon arriving home. Former members of his unit recall that Crick had a history of heavy drinking, and by 1992 his marriage had unraveled, he was facing reprimand from his command for threatening his wife and he was probably going to be denied re-enlistment. In March 1992, dressed in a pressed uniform and polished boots, he shot himself in the basement of his Michigan home. He was 29, silenced by his own hand. His log book from As Salman, the first wartime record of the BLU-97’s lethal flaws, lives on.