WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has decided to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to help its military repel entrenched Russian forces along the front lines.
The Biden administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will send thousands under a new military aid package worth $800 million, according to people familiar with the decision who were not authorized to report. discuss it publicly before the official announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The move will likely spark outrage from some allies and humanitarian groups who have long opposed the use of cluster bombs.
Proponents say Russia has already used the controversial weapon in Ukraine and that the ammunition the US will provide will have a reduced misfire rate, meaning there will be far fewer unexploded rounds that could lead to death involuntary civilians.
Here’s a look at what cluster munitions are, where they’ve been used, and why the United States is considering supplying them to Ukraine now.
WHAT IS CLUSTER MUNITION?
A cluster munition is a bomb that opens in the air and releases smaller “bombettes” over a wide area. Bombs are designed to eliminate tanks and equipment, as well as troops, hitting multiple targets at the same time.
Ordnance is launched from the same artillery weapons that the United States and its allies have already supplied Ukraine for the war – such as howitzers – and the type of cluster munitions that the United States is considering to send is based on a common 155 mm shell which is already widely used on the battlefield.
In previous conflicts, cluster munitions have had a high misfire rate, meaning that thousands of small, unexploded bomblets have remained behind and killed and maimed people decades later. The United States 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 environments with denser civilian populations.
Thursday, Brig. General Pat Ryder said the MoD has “several variants” of the ammunition and that “the ones we plan to supply would not include older variants with (non-explosive) rates above 2.35% “.
WHY PROVIDE THEM NOW?
For more than a year, the United States drew from its own stockpiles 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 15–20 miles (24–32 kilometers), making it the ammunition of choice for Ukrainian ground troops trying to hit enemy targets from a distance. Ukrainian forces are burning thousands of shots a day fighting the Russians.
Yehor Cherniev, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told reporters at a German Marshall Fund event in the United States this spring that Kiev would likely need to fire 7,000 to 9,000 shells a day in intensified counteroffensive combat. Providing so much puts considerable pressure on US and allied actions.
The cluster bomb is an attractive option because it would help Ukraine destroy more targets with fewer rounds, and since the United States has not used them in the conflict since Iraq, they have large quantities in storage that they can access quickly, said Ryan Brobst, research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A March 2023 letter from leading House and Senate Republicans to the Biden administration said the United States may have up to 3 million cluster munitions available and urged the White House to send the ammunition to ease the strain on American war supplies.
“Cluster munitions are more effective than unitary artillery shells because they inflict damage over a wider area,” Brobst said. “It’s important for Ukraine as it tries to clear heavily fortified Russian positions.”
Tapping into US stockpiles of cluster munitions could alleviate the shortage of shells in Ukraine and ease pressure on 155mm stockpiles in the United States and elsewhere, Brobst said.
IS USING THEM A WAR CRIME?
The use of cluster bombs in itself does not violate international law, but their use against civilians may constitute a violation. As with any strike, determining a war crime requires verifying whether the target was legitimate and whether precautions were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
“However, the part of international law where it starts to play (a role) is indiscriminate attacks targeting civilians,” Mark Hiznay, deputy arms director at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. “So it’s not necessarily related to weapons, but how weapons are used.”
A convention banning the use of cluster bombs has been joined by more than 120 countries, which have agreed not to use, produce, transfer or stockpile the weapons and to dispose of them after they have been used. The United States, Russia and Ukraine have not signed.
WHERE HAVE THEY BEEN USED?
The bombs have been deployed in many recent conflicts, including by US forces.
The United States initially considered cluster bombs an integral part of its arsenal during the invasion of Afghanistan that began in 2001, according to HRW. The group estimated that the US-led coalition dropped more than 1,500 cluster bombs in Afghanistan in the first three years of the conflict.
The Ministry of Defense was to cease by 2019 the use of all cluster munitions with an unexploded ordnance rate greater than 1%. But the Trump administration overturned that policy, allowing commanders to approve the use of such ammunition.
Syrian government troops have often used cluster munitions – supplied by Russia – against opposition strongholds during that 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 2006 month-long war with Hezbollah, HRW and the United Nations accused Israel of firing up to 4 million cluster munitions into Lebanon. This left unexploded ordnance that threatens Lebanese civilians to this day.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been criticized for its use of cluster bombs in the war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels that has ravaged the southern Arabian country.
In 2017, Yemen was the second deadliest country for cluster munitions after Syria, according to the UN. Children were killed or maimed long after the initial ammunition dropped, making it difficult to know the true toll.
In the 1980s, the Russians made extensive use of cluster bombs during their 10-year invasion of Afghanistan. Following decades of war, the Afghan countryside remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN UKRAINE?
Russian forces have used cluster bombs in Ukraine on several occasions, according to Ukrainian government leaders, observers and aid groups. And human rights groups said Ukraine had also used them.
Early in the war, repeated instances of Russian cluster bombs were cited by groups such as Human Rights Watch, including when they hit near a kindergarten in the northeastern town of Okhtyrka from the country. Open-source intelligence group Bellingcat said its researchers found cluster munitions in that strike as well as multiple cluster attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, also in the northeast.
More recently, in March, a barrage of Russian missiles and drones struck a number of urban areas, including a sustained bombardment in Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region. Just west of there, shelling and missile strikes hit the Ukrainian town of Kostiantynivka and AP reporters in the town saw at least four wounded taken to a local hospital. Police said 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 town with cluster munitions, injuring one person. An AP and Frontline database called War Crimes Watch Ukraine has listed how Russia has used cluster bombs.