The United States has decided to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to help its military push back Russian forces entrenched on the front lines.
The Biden administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will send thousands of them as part of a new $800 million military aid package, according to people familiar with the decision and not authorized prior to the official announcement were to discuss them publicly, and have spoken further on condition of anonymity.
The move is likely to provoke outrage from some allies and humanitarian groups, which have long opposed the use of cluster bombs.
Proponents argue that Russia has already used the controversial weapon in Ukraine and that the ammunition the US will supply has a lower dud rate, meaning there will be far fewer duds that can cause accidental civilian deaths.
Here’s what cluster munitions are, where they’ve been used, and why the US is now planning to supply them to Ukraine.
What is a cluster munition?
A cluster munition is a bomb that opens in mid-air and fires smaller “bomblets” over a large area. The bomblets are designed to take out tanks and equipment, as well as troops, hitting multiple targets at once.
The munitions will be fired from the same artillery that the US and its allies have already provided to Ukraine for the war – such as howitzers – so the type of cluster munitions the US intends to send is based on a standard 155mm Grenade already widespread on the battlefield.
In previous conflicts, cluster munitions had a high dud rate, leaving thousands of the smaller duds behind, killing and maiming decades later. The US last used its cluster munitions in combat in Iraq in 2003 and decided not to continue using them as the conflict shifted to more urban areas with denser civilian populations.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Department of Defense has “several variants” of the munitions and “those we intend to provide would not include older variants with a (non-exploding) rate greater than 2.35%.” .”
WHY DEPLOY NOW?
For more than a year, the US has used up its own stocks of traditional 155 howitzer ammunition and sent more than 2 million rounds to Ukraine. Allies around the world have provided hundreds of thousands more.
A 155mm round can hit targets at a range of 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 kilometers), making it a preferred ammunition for Ukrainian ground forces trying to hit enemy targets from afar. The Ukrainian armed forces burn thousands of cartridges every day fighting the Russians.
Yehor Cherniev, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told reporters at a German Marshall Fund event in the US this spring that Kiev will likely have to fire 7,000 to 9,000 shots a day as the counter-offensive escalates. When so many assume so, it puts significant pressure on stocks in the US and its allies.
The cluster bomb is an attractive option because it would help Ukraine destroy more targets with fewer shots, and since the US hasn’t used it in conflicts since Iraq, it has large stockpiles of them that it can access quickly could, said Ryan Brobst. a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A March 2023 letter to the Biden administration from top Republicans in the House and Senate said the US could have up to three million cluster munitions ready for deployment and called on the White House to send the munitions to ease the pressure on US war supplies.
“Cluster munitions are more effective than unitary artillery shells because they do damage over a larger area,” Brobst said. “This is important for Ukraine as it seeks to clear heavily fortified Russian positions.”
Tapping into US stockpiles of cluster munitions could solve Ukraine’s shell shortages and ease pressure on 155mm stockpiles in the US and elsewhere, Brobst said.
Is their use a war crime?
The use of cluster bombs does not in itself violate international law, but using them against civilians may constitute a violation. As with any attack, determining a war crime involves examining whether the target was legitimate and whether precautions were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
“But the part of international law where this plays a role is indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” Mark Hiznay, deputy arms director at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. “So that’s not necessarily related to the guns, it’s related to the way the guns are used.”
A convention banning the use of cluster bombs has been signed by more than 120 countries, which have agreed not to use, manufacture, transport or store the weapons and to dispose of them after use. The US, Russia and Ukraine have not signed up.
WHERE WERE THEY USED?
The bombs have been used in many recent conflicts, including by US forces.
According to HRW, the US initially viewed cluster bombs as an integral part of its arsenal during the invasion of Afghanistan, which began in 2001. The group estimated that the US-led coalition had dropped more than 1,500 cluster bombs in Afghanistan in the first three years of the conflict.
By 2019, the Department of Defense had been required to phase out the use of any cluster munitions containing more than 1% unexploded ordnance. But the Trump administration has reversed that policy and allowed commanders to authorize the use of such munitions.
Syrian government forces frequently used Russian-supplied cluster munitions against opposition strongholds during the country’s civil war, frequently hitting civilian targets and infrastructure. And Israel used them in civilian areas of southern Lebanon, including during the 1982 invasion.
During the months-long war with Hezbollah in 2006, HRW and the United Nations accused Israel of firing up to 4 million cluster munitions into Lebanon. What remained was unexploded ordnance, which still threatens the Lebanese civilian population today.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been criticized for using cluster bombs in the war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels that has devastated the southern Arabian country.
In 2017, according to the United Nations, Yemen was the country with the second-highest rate of cluster munitions, after Syria. Children were killed or maimed long after the munitions originally struck, making it difficult to determine the true number.
In the 1980s, the Russians used cluster bombs massively during their decade-long invasion of Afghanistan. As a result of decades of war, the Afghan country remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
WHAT HAPPENS IN UKRAINE?
According to Ukrainian leaders, observers and humanitarian groups, Russian forces have repeatedly used cluster bombs in Ukraine. And human rights groups said Ukraine used them too.
In the early days of the war, there were repeated incidents of Russian cluster bombs cited by groups including Human Rights Watch, including when they fell near a kindergarten in the northeastern town of Okhtyrka. Open-source intelligence group Bellingcat said its researchers found cluster munitions in that attack, as well as multiple cluster attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, also in the northeast.
Most recently, in March, Russian rocket and drone fire hit several urban areas, including sustained bombardment in Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region. Just to the west, shelling and rocket attacks hit the Ukrainian-held town of Kostyantynivka, and AP journalists in the town saw at least four injured people rushed to a local hospital. According to police, Russian forces attacked the city with S-300 missiles and cluster munitions.
Just a month later, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko accused Russian forces of attacking a city with cluster munitions, injuring one person. An AP and frontline database called War Crimes Watch Ukraine has cataloged how Russia has used cluster bombs.