More than 120 countries have banned their use – Congress and human rights groups lambasted Russia for firing them last year, and the White House resisted pressure to send them for months. But now the United States is seriously considering the idea of supplying the Ukrainian army with cluster bombs.
Two senior US officials told NBC News on Thursday that an announcement could come as soon as next month, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on Friday. , said the United States was considering providing the capability to Ukraine, which he said other allies had already done.
“The Ukrainians asked for it, other European countries provided some of it, the Russians are using it – there’s a decision-making process going on,” Milley said.
Although such a decision was applauded by a bipartisan group in Congress, it also raised the ire of some Democrats and human rights groups.
Cluster bombs, known as Enhanced Dual-Purpose Conventional Munitions, or DPICMs, are projectiles that are fired from an artillery unit or aircraft. Inside are small bombs that scatter over a large area on a battlefield, causing widespread destruction. They can be charges aimed at penetrating armored vehicles, or they can break or fragment to be more dangerous for people.
They are so effective that they can turn the trenches of frozen conflict into “kill zones”, according to a 2019 report by the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a British military think tank. The problem is that they can sometimes create a minefield of unexploded and untracked bombs. These “duds” can be difficult to clean up and can explode years later, injuring or killing civilians or other unintended targets long after a war is over.
Worldwide, civilians accounted for 97% of all cluster munition casualties, according to a report released in August by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a campaign group working to eradicate their use. Children made up 66% of all victims when the age group was known, according to the report.
Their use by both sides was documented during the war in Ukraine, according to Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization. It’s unclear how many people the ordnance killed or what area could be affected, but Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in April that more than 67,000 square miles of the country had been destroyed by unexploded ordnance. In Ukraine, they killed 226 people in March alone, according to Shmyhal.
Long in need of more artillery shells, Ukraine demanded the destructive shells for over a year, but President Joe Biden and his administration balked and stayed close to destroying thousands of shells. of cluster munitions that have a “misfire” rate of more than 1% and are about to expire in US stockpiles – a move reportedly applauded by humanitarian groups.
But a congressional aide who has been working to advance the discussion on sending cluster munitions to Ukraine confirmed that the United States now appears ready to ship the munitions. They have long been at the top of kyiv’s wish list, and US military policy still hinges on them, the aide said.
“If we feel this is the kind of thing that we could equip, train, equip our own forces, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t go to Ukraine,” the aide said, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the ongoing deliberations. .
A debate in Congress
Last year, 27 House Democrats sent a letter to Biden begging him to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty that bans the transfer and use of cluster munitions. . This view has not gone away, though it has grown to acknowledge discussions in Washington about what to do with the US stockpile of cluster bombs.
Fourteen senators last week sent a letter to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, saying that while they recognize the munitions could give Ukraine an advantage on the battlefield, “we are confident that the humanitarian costs and damage to the coalition unit associated with supplying a US cluster with munitions would outweigh the tactical benefits.
Many American allies have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Of the 31 NATO countries, only Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Turkey and the United States are not signatories. Unofficial US policy, however, has long limited capability sharing with other nations and sought to reduce the use of cluster munitions.
When Russia was accused of using cluster shells last year in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the act was “inhumane” and “in violation” of international law, though that neither Ukraine nor Russia are signatories to the convention.
But over the past year, members of Congress have had access to private briefings from US military officials, and that appears to have encouraged their support.
The Pentagon sent its top Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia-focused official to testify before Congress last month about cluster bombs. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, one of several Pentagon officials to have spoken to Congress, told members that “our military analysts have confirmed that DPICMs would be useful, particularly against positions buried on the battlefield”.
For members of Congress without military expertise, “hearing this validation really helped move the needle,” the congressional aide said.
A bipartisan group in Congress sent a letter to Biden last month encouraging him to hand over the guns. The group noted that the United States developed cluster munitions during the Cold War “to counter Russia’s numerical and material superiority.”
“Now they may be used for their intended use in the defense of Ukraine – and Ukraine’s defense of Europe, and ultimately, the national security of the United States,” the letter states.
While support for the supply of these weapons has grown on both sides of the aisle in recent months, rights groups and some Democrats say the human cost will outweigh the benefits.
“That’s what the military says,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Any weapon would be useful. Chemical weapons would be useful. For us, cluster munitions are in the same category as chemical weapons and are banned for a very specific reason, because of the civilian harm and human suffering they cause.
She added that the White House had not responded to letters sent by Human Rights Watch and a coalition of nongovernmental organizations opposed to the shipment of cluster munitions.
It also appears that there were other private briefings for members of Congress that may have helped move the needle.
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin demanding that the Pentagon make cluster munitions information “publicly available.” He also raised the issue of “miss” rates, when bombs fail to explode.
US policy does not allow the transfer of cluster munitions with a misfire rate greater than 1%, according to the Foreign Assistance Act. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl admitted in a podcast in February that some of the rounds in the US arsenal had a rate just north of that number, although in 2008 the military had stopped buying cluster munitions because the misfire rate was so high. raised to 5%.
Congressional concerns about the misfire rate appear to have been allayed in private briefings one way or another, Wareham said, mystifying her and members of other human rights groups.
“Without having the information that the Pentagon is giving them, it’s hard for us to understand some of the claims that are being made, but they’re pretty outlandish,” she said. “A lot of groups and members of Congress who say they send cluster munitions to Ukraine have never demanded this for previous wars and conflicts. It’s just Ukraine right now. It’s a bit wild to have.
It remains to be seen when or if the ammunition will finally be sent.
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on the White House’s plans for the cluster rounds on Friday, but said they continue to “work closely with the Ukrainians here every day.” .
“We will continue to have these conversations with Ukrainians in the future and as we have done for the past 16 months,” he said. “We will continue to review these requests and adapt as appropriate, but I just don’t have a decision or announcement on anything new today.”
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com