The United Nations said this month that NATO, in an exchange not publicly disclosed, had shared details of 313 possible sites of unexploded ordnance from the alliance’s action against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government last year. The alliance provided the latitude and longitude for each site, the weight of the ordnance and a description of the means of delivery (fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter gunship or naval vessel).
With the widespread use of sophisticated targeting sensors, with which aircrews record infrared video of the impact of a missile or bomb, air forces have a greater capacity than ever to know exactly where weapons struck and when they have failed to function properly. Such data is routinely gathered as part of what militaries call battle damage assessment. It is used to determine whether a target has been destroyed or should be hit again, and to assess the reliability and effectiveness of various missiles and bombs.
The data also presents options for humanitarian and cleanup efforts. When shared, it can allow for governments and mine-clearing organizations to alert residents of specific risks at specific places, and to focus efforts on removing high-explosive remnants of war. Its existence also suggests an opening for Western militaries to adopt a new standard for responsibility in air campaigns.
For these reasons, the United Nations, which had asked NATO for the data last year, welcomed the list, even though it contained limited information.
“It is helpful, because at least we know where these are,” said Max Dyck, program manager for the United Nations Mine Action Service in Libya. “We’re not waiting for someone to call up and say, ‘Hey, I have this great big dirty something in my garden.’ ”
Without such data, weapons containing volatile explosives and, in some cases, toxic propellants stand to be found randomly or in drawn-out surveys, raising the risk of accidental discovery — and detonation — by rubble-clearance crews, farmers’ plows, children or anyone else.
But the data has also been a source of disappointment and irritation, because NATO provided no information about the types of unexploded weapons, or the fuzes used to arm each missile or bomb.
This information, along with what are known as “render-safe procedures” for each type of weapon, is considered essential by ordnance-clearance teams. It is routinely recorded by modern military forces, via so-called bomb-build sheets, in which each component of a weapon is documented as a weapon is armed and prepared for an aircraft.
Colin King, a former British Army bomb disposal officer and an analyst for IHS Jane’s, said he could see no reason for NATO to withhold ordnance-specific details. “If the damn thing didn’t go off, why wouldn’t you share what it was?” he asked. “People are going to find it anyway. It’s going to be lying on the ground, and it might cost someone their life.”
“It is irresponsible,” Mr. King added. “You are not going to give away much in the way of vital intelligence by saying what it was.”
NATO, which said that it “has contributed to the timely removal of these munitions and therefore to the improvement of security for the Libyan people,” declined to answer why the types of weapons and render-safe procedures were not provided. “We do not comment on technical operational details,” Oana Lungescu, the alliance’s spokeswoman, said by e-mail.
NATO has said that its air campaign over Libya resulted in the release of 7,700 missiles or bombs. Almost all of the suspected duds — 303 — that NATO acknowledged were released from warplanes. Six were from helicopters, and four from warships.
The NATO campaign appears not to have involved potentially harmful radioactivity or cluster munitions, which scatter small bombs or mines that typically have high dud rates and are prone to exploding when disturbed.
In an e-mail late last year, Col. Gregory Julian, a United States Army officer serving as an alliance spokesman, said NATO and its partners had not used cluster or depleted uranium rounds in Libya. He also said NATO had not used free-falling “dumb bombs.” All of its airstrikes in Libya, he said, were made with guided missiles and bombs.
The NATO release was the latest development in what mine-clearance teams describe as a slowly evolving process of Western combatants’ sharing airstrike information with nonmilitary ordnance-disposal technicians.
In the 1990s, the United States released extensive data on its bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War, after years of resisting requests from Mines Advisory Group, a nonprofit ordnance-clearance organization in Britain.
The information, made public decades after American pilots carried out the secret bombing campaign, has since been used in a detailed mapping project, as an advocacy tool, and to help with the cleanup of the remnants of a little-covered military action carried out on a vast scale.
After the Kosovo war ended in 1999, NATO released geographic information on its airstrikes there, though mine-clearers said the value of that release was undermined by the inaccuracy of much of the data. (In that case, Mr. King and Sean Sutton, a spokesman for Mines Advisory Group, said ordnance teams went to many sites NATO had said it struck and found nothing, and found areas that had been hit with cluster munitions that NATO had not disclosed.)
The United States military has also provided nonmilitary ordnance-clearance teams limited information about airstrikes in Iraq.
The data release on Libya contained one new element: This was the first time a military force shared dud-specific locations for a campaign, according to Mr. King. In the past, he said, militaries described locations of airstrikes generally, and they did not differentiate between ordnance known to have exploded and ordnance suspected of having failed.
Mr. Sutton said he hoped that combatants in other conflicts would release similar data, but that more information would be included. “Amongst the mine-action actors, obviously we have no political interest in this,” Mr. Sutton said. “It is simply a matter of how quickly and safely we can do our jobs.”
[Source: New York Times]