A Yemeni man described the chaos that accompanied an air strike near his village on a Monday morning in April, the day of the weekly market.
"Hundreds of people from the surrounding villages were in al-Amar when the bombs were dropped," he told Human Rights Watch. "When people saw the parachutes they fled, leaving all their produce, cars and livestock. I went to find out what the parachutes had dropped. I do not know what it is, but I thought it was important to keep away from children who might play with it."
He told Human Rights Watch he'd heard that the attack had wounded two people. HRW confirmed that several people injured in the incident were treated at a local hospital. The objects the Yemeni man discovered on the ground were later identified by HRW as parts of a US-made weapon, the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon from Textron Systems of Wilmington, Massachusetts.
When the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions came into effect in 2010, this particular weapon looked to have skirted the ban. Textron included safeguards never before seen in a cluster bomb, which it said would prevent civilian harm by eliminating the hazard of unexploded ordnance. Even so, weapons experts and anti-cluster bomb activists agree that the CBU-105 SFW is indeeed a cluster bomb. In fact, the US Department of Defense has called it that.
But Textron describes it differently. Company literature presents the CBU-105 SFW as a “smart air-to-ground area weapon designed to defeat moving and fixed targets on land and at sea. With several proven features to prevent hazardous unexploded ordnance, the SFW is the only weapon of its kind in the US Air Force inventory.” The weapon, delivered by a warplane such as an F-15 fighter jet, can destroy enemy concentrations of military vehicles and equipment in a single pass.
It’s in the inventory of two countries whose planes have been bombing Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on SFWs from Textron with US government approval. When these two nations started to stockpile SFWs several years ago, each weapon cost about $360,000. This year the Saudi-led air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels began to use the weapon in the Houthis' home province of Saada, near the Saudi border. This has been raising concerns among human rights workers and causing panic — and perhaps some injuries — among Yemeni civilians.
After the CBU-105 SFW is dropped from a plane, it releases 10 cylindrical shells with their own parachutes and rocket engines. Inside each of the 10 parachuting canisters are four hockey puck-shaped explosives called "skeets," rigged with smart electronics to guide them to targets, seeking battlefield equipment such as tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers, and missile launchers. The skeets are programmed to recognize and lock onto military hardware, then go destroy it.
If any of the 40 explosive skeets do not find a target, Textron has programmed them to either deactivite within eight seconds of launch, detonate harmlessly 50 feet above the ground, or switch themselves off after they land. These safety features are included to overcome the key objection to cluster bombs: that unexploded ordnance on the ground can kill and injure civilians after the fighting is over. The CBU-105 SFW is designed to leave nothing behind that can explode.
A photo taken in the northern Yemeni province of Saada in late April, and posted on Twitter, shows one of the 10 cylindrical shells (called a BLU-108) from a CBU-105 SFW with its four explosive skeets still attached.
The weapon, in this case, did not work as designed. Jeremy Binnie, Middle East Editor for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, says the field photos show that the weapon malfunctioned, but he adds, "the triggering mechanism will no longer work after a certain amount of time. So, in theory, the explosive charges that you see in those pictures [are] no longer effective. Obviously from an unexploded ordnance disposal point of view, then, that is still something you have to deal with, and you have to be cautious around that."
Anti-landmine activist Rae McGrath has written "the metal content would make this weapon a target for scavenging." In his 2008 paper critical of the weapon's performance in Operation Iraqi Freedom, McGrath highlighted a variety of ways in which the CBU-105 SFW had failed to detonate on the battlefield. He cast doubt on the claim that all undetonated skeets will self-neutralize, noting that while the manufacturer says they are automatically rendered inert after landing on the ground, "given that many of the submunitions appear to have failed to operate as designed, this is not a safe assumption."
When asked to comment on the apparent failures of the CBU-105 SFW, Thomas Williams, a senior public relations specialist for Textron, wrote that his company “does not comment on customer applications of our products in their military and security operations.”
In 2011, when the US managed Saudi Arabia's purchase of 1,300 CBU-105s from Textron, the transaction included a written agreement that "cluster munitions will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians." Yet reports from northern Yemen show that the CBU-105 SFW — and other less discriminate cluster munitions — have repeatedly been used in the Yemen war in areas that are inhabited by civilians.