Made-in-Minnesota menace

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Part Two: ATK’s Cluster Bombs Kill Civilians, Rights Groups Charge

The SDF-equipped M85.The widening controversy over an Edina-based munitions firm extends from the suburbs of Minneapolis to the capital of Canada to battlefields of Lebanon and Iraq.

ATK, formerly known as Alliant Technology Systems, won unwelcome headlines following its January acquisition of two divisions of the Canadian defense firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. As Minnesota Monitor reported Monday, ATK’s purchase prompted the resignation of two MDA engineers, one of whom charged that ATK munitions “kill civilians and soldiers indiscriminately.” ATK subsequently responded that it only supplies treaty-compliant weapon systems to NATO and allied countries, subject to U.S. government approval.

At the heart of the controversy is an ATK-manufactured bomblet known as the M85. Packed in missiles and dropped on military targets, the M85 bomblets wreak destruction over a much wider territory than conventional munitions. And because some portion of the missiles’ multi-cluster bomb payload fails to detonate on impact, they can go on causing civilian casualties after combat is over.

“Indiscriminate weapons,” like conventional “dumb” land mines and cluster munitions, have been banned by 156 countries, including Canada — though not the United States — under the terms of the 1999 anti-land-mine treaty known as the Ottawa Convention. In response, manufacturers have sought to preserve the market for such devices by equipping them with de-activation capabilities. The latest version of the M85, which was developed by an Israeli firm and licensed to ATK, is equipped with a Self-Destruct Fuse (SDF) that combines a highly sensitive trigger with a safety mechanism preventing it from being manually armed. The SDF-equipped M85 was used by British forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and by the Israeli military during the 2006 war against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Hezbollah itself has been accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch for firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel during the Lebanon War. But while the Katyusha was developed in post-World War II Soviet Russia, the SDF-equipped M85 was designed to be a more humanitarian munition.
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ATK states the SDF-equipped M85 has a proven failure rate of less than 1 percent, which would preclude it from being considered an “indiscriminate weapon.” But opponents argue that those figures come from controlled testing and that the intricacies of actual ground warfare dramatically increase the failure rate.


Chris Clark, UN program manager for the Mine Action Program in southern Lebanon, reported to the International Committee of the Red Cross that in a survey of the 144,049 individual submunitions identified as of April 2007 in Lebanon, 6 percent were M85s — both with the self-destruct mechanism and without.

“Whilst several military users maintain that the M85 with self-destruct mechanism has a failure rate of less than 1 percent, the evidence on the ground in South Lebanon clearly shows that this weapon has a reality failure rate of between 5 and 10 percent,” Clark reported. “It is common to find at least 3 unexploded submunition grenades from individual carrier shells equating to a 6 percent failure rate, whilst the M85 without self-destruct mechanism is common to be found with a 15 percent failure rate on the ground. Regardless of the actual failure rate figure for this weapon it is most definitely higher than the less than 1 percent figure doggedly quoted by military users and manufacturer/designers.”

A second study conducted in 2007 by a British bomb disposal expert and Norwegian defense analysts found that while the M-85 was “designed with care,” the report concluded, “it still has a substantial failure rate in actual combat.”

In a report released just this past Sunday, Human Rights Watch charged that a wide variety of submunitions left by Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon, the majority of them not equipped with SDF mechanisms, “have killed and maimed almost 200 people since the war ended.”

Despite the evidence that SDF-equipped M85 munitions have a failure rate much higher than the purported fraction of a percent, they are currently used by coalition forces in Iraq.

ATK has not responded to Minnesota Monitor inquiries at the time of publication.

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