What is the M26 rocket and how does it function?
The M26 is a 227mm unguided artillery rocket delivered by the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) to a range of thirty-two to thirty-eight kilometers. Once it is over the target area, the rocket scatters 644 M77 submunitions into a 200 by 100 meter area. The submunitions are also called dual purpose grenades or Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMs). Each MLRS launcher carries twelve M26 rockets. A typical volley of six rockets would release 3,864 submunitions over an area with a 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) radius.
The M77 submunition has both antitank and antipersonnel effects. A molten slug of metal projects downward, and is intended to penetrate up to seventy-seven millimeters of armor plate. In addition, the metal body of the submunition disintegrates into fragments that can kill or wound within a four meter radius.
Why does the military value the M26 rocket?
Armed forces value cluster munitions like the M26 rocket because of their ability to create an effect over a wide area, usually larger than the one covered by equivalent unguided unitary munitions. Cluster munitions are valued as an “economy of force” because one munition can suppress, kill, or destroy multiple targets within its impact area. It requires fewer platforms (aircraft, artillery tubes, etc.) to deliver fewer munitions to attack multiple targets, thus reducing the logistic burden and the exposure of forces to hostile fire. Cluster munitions also allow a numerically outnumbered force to engage and degrade a larger adversary.
What are the humanitarian concerns about the use of M26 rockets?
M26 rockets have two significant negative humanitarian effects. First, they spread their submunitions over a broad area; when used in places where civilians and combatants commingle, civilian casualties are virtually guaranteed. Second, due to the high failure rate of the submunitions (up to 23 percent in test conditions), they leave large numbers of unexploded submunitions that function as de facto landmines. These explosive “duds” can and often do kill or injure civilians months, or even years, after the conflict has passed.
Where have M26 rockets been used in combat?
The use of M26 rockets by the U.S. during major hostilities in Iraq in 2003 exemplifies the negative humanitarian impact of the weapon. The United States launched them widely in populated areas causing hundreds of civilian casualties both during strikes and afterwards. At least two separate U.S. artillery units reported firing a combined total of 1,014 M26 rockets, which contain 653,016 M77 submunitions.
An M77 submunition, delivered by an M26 rocket found in Agargouf, Iraq, north of Baghdad, in May 2003. © 2003 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
Both U.S. and U.K. forces used MLRS launchers and M26 rockets in the 1991 Gulf War. The number of cluster munitions delivered by surface-launched artillery and rocket systems during the conflict is not known, but one source estimates that over thirty million surface-launched submunitions were used.
Are M26 rockets compliant with international humanitarian law (IHL)?
Human Rights Watch is unaware of any conflict where cluster munitions like the M26 rocket have been used uniformly in a manner fully consistent with IHL. The broad area effect of these weapons makes their use incompatible with the laws of war in areas where civilians or civilian objects (such as schools or hospitals) are located since they cannot be targeted effectively and accurately against military targets. Under international humanitarian law, any attack which employs a weapon which cannot be directed at a specific military objective is an indiscriminate attack, and therefore prohibited.
Two M77 submunitions, delivered by an M26 rocket, found in Agargouf, Iraq, north of Baghdad, in May 2003. © 2003 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
In Iraq in 2003, U.S. and U.K. ground forces made widespread use of cluster munitions in populated areas causing civilian casualties during and after attacks. Given the foreseeability of civilian casualties from strikes and duds during and after attacks, this conduct raises the concern that in many cases the attacks were likely indiscriminate.
Human Rights Watch has concluded that existing IHL is not sufficient to address the humanitarian problems associated with use of cluster munitions like the M26 rocket. This has been shown by the inconsistent interpretation of existing law by states and even more so by the lack of compliance with IHL demonstrated by users of cluster munitions to date. States continue to disagree about how to take “all feasible measures” to protect civilians with regard to cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch believes that the evidence from past use of cluster munitions shows that clearer and stronger rules are needed to provide necessary protection to civilians.
Falah Hassan, 13, injured by an M77 submunition on March 26, 2003, in the al-Hilla General Teaching Hospital awaiting skin grafts on May 19, 2003. The explosion ripped off his right hand and spread shrapnel through his body. © 2003 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
Has the U.S. banned or placed restrictions on the use of cluster munitions it has transferred to Israel?
In July 1982, the Reagan Administration announced that it would prohibit new exports of cluster munitions to Israel. The U.S. found that by using U.S.-supplied cluster munitions against civilian targets during its military operations in Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, Israel may have violated its 1952 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the U.S. The U.S. quietly lifted the ban in November 1988.
What is the failure rate of the M77 submunitions contained in the M26 rocket?
A Pentagon report from 2005 cites a failure rate of 5 percent for these submunitions, while an earlier Pentagon report to the U.S. Congress cited a 16 percent failure rate. Some M26 rockets have a submunition failure rate as high as 23 percent, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Testing by the British military indicates a failure rate between 5 percent and 10 percent and is largely dependant on ground conditions and range.
An M77 submunition, also called a Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM), found on the roof of a home in al-Hilla, Iraq, in May 2003. © 2003 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
Several operational factors influence the reliability of submunitions. These include delivery technique, age of the submunition, ambient air temperature, and type of impact medium. Landing in muddy or soft ground can significantly increase the failure rate. The ribbons used as deceleration devices can cause the submunitions to hit and get hung-up on trees and vegetation or on structures. Trees and overgrowth can also slow the munitions to the point that they have insufficient energy to explode on impact. Submunitions can also hit each other and be damaged as they are dispersed from the spinning artillery round, or hit the ground in a position that fails to initiate their impact fuze. The M77 submunition must strike a surface at an angle of approximately 65 degrees to 90 degrees to detonate.
Which countries have the M26 rocket and how many?
A solid-fuel motor from an M26 rocket lying in a field near homes just outside of al-Hilla, Iraq in May 2003.
The U.S. stockpiles 369,576 M26 rockets in its active inventory. M26 rockets are also stockpiled by Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the U.K. The Netherlands announced in 2005 plans to destroy 16,000 M26 rockets citing concerns about the potential to create disproportionate collateral damage. France is considering replacing its M26 rockets, which it characterizes as having “rather unreliable submunitions,” with a rocket with a unitary warhead. Germany does not envisage using M26 rockets until they have been equipped with a mechanism to limit their operational life. Denmark and Norway decided not to purchase M26 rockets for their MLRS launchers.