One of the favorite new American weapons in their fight against the Taliban is the .50 caliber sniper rifle. The .50 caliber round is a huge bullet. It has five times the weight of an ordinary NATO 7.62 mm round, with six times the energy and with very similar velocity of 900 meters per second. It is being used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was reported that a NATO sniper armed with the .50 caliber rifle killed a Taliban soldier from a distance of 2,430 meters (almost two and a half kilometers away). The incredible power, relatively flat trajectory and accuracy of this weapon are its best features, and are also its downside.
The weapon is so powerful, with such an expansive range, that if it misses its target, the bullet could wind up anywhere. In addition, while it has the ability to kill an individual, the bullet is so heavy and has such kinetic energy that it could continue on its course, potentially putting downrange civilians in jeopardy. The question is whether this makes the weapon sufficiently “indiscriminate” that it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
In case IT-95-11-R61 before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Milan Martic, former President of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, was found guilty of reprisals against the Croatian civilian population. Specifically, he was found to have authorized the firing of Orkan rockets into Zagrab on May 2 and 3, 1995, thereby intentionally causing civilian casualties. The Court manufactured a novel new argument for liability. It accepted dubious prosecution testimony that the Orkan was “relatively inaccurate” due to it having a CEP (circular error probable) of 600 meters when fired from 50 kilometers. What the CEP means is that some Orkans might precisely hit their target and others might miss by anywhere up to 600 meters. As a result of this prosecution testimony, the Court set forth a fairly vague standard. It essentially ruled that weapons that are inaccurate, which term is not defined, are weapons of terror and serve no military purpose.
It is this author’s opinion that NATO and the Clinton Administration should have intervened in this case and objected to the ruling. Pursuant to international law (in this case it is what is called the “Martens Clause”) a war crime is dependent on there being near universal agreement that certain conduct is a violation of the rules of war. In the case of the Orkan that was not true. But, as the West did not object, the Martic decision is now binding on NATO.
The question is whether the .50 caliber weapon can meet the Martic standard. The argument is that a soldier, if he fires at a target and misses, simply does not know where this unusual bullet will come to rest. It also may not matter whether the sniper hits his target, as this bullet has such kinetic energy that it has the potential to continue downrange for another kilometer or two. In that sense, it may be inaccurate under the Martic holding. Remember that in Martic, a weapon was found to be inaccurate (and its use a war crime) if the shell could land anywhere within 600 meters of its intended target. The .50 caliber round can wind up anywhere within at least 2400 meters.
Another problem for the .50 caliber round is that it has numerous variations. It comes in a standard (ball) version, there is an armored-piercing version and there is as armored-piercing, explosive, incendiary version. The latter may violate the October 1980, Geneva Convention, Protocol III which prohibits incendiary weapons which can have “indiscriminate effects.”
One idea to partially fix the problem is to devise a .50 caliber bullet with either a hollow point or a slight weight instability such that it will begin to spin after it encounters its first target or impacts its first barrier. This will limit its ability to wander after striking its target.
The thought of an American soldier shooting a Taliban soldier and then an Afghan child being killed on the other side of town, a kilometer away, by the same bullet, should cause the Pentagon to investigate a solution which still permits the American military to use this amazing weapon, while limiting its unintended effects.