The U.S. will supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced Friday, despite concerns over the controversial weapon and its potential to injure or kill civilians.
Cluster munitions—or “cluster bombs”—are a type of rocket, bomb or missile that releases tens or hundreds of smaller, explosive submunitions when fired, though the submunitions often malfunction and fail to explode, causing them to remain on the ground for years, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.
Between 10% and 40% of cluster munitions fail to explode on impact, according to a 2010 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which warned the munitions could explode later if disturbed or mishandled.
Unexploded submunitions “disproportionally” harm civilians, according to the Cluster Munition Monitor, as civilians represented 97% of all cluster munition casualties in 2021.
The weapon was first used by the Soviet Union and the U.K. during World War II and has been used by the U.S. in several conflicts, including in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A 2008 treaty—the Convention on Cluster Munitions—banned the production, use and stockpiling of cluster munitions in 108 countries, which noted that munitions often “kill or maim citizens,” though the U.S., Ukraine and Russia have not signed the treaty.
The Defense Department has supported the use of cluster munitions, suggesting they are “legitimate weapons with clear military utility.”
Since the treaty was signed, 99% of global cluster munition stockpiles have been destroyed, according to the Cluster Munition Monitor.
Sullivan defended the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine, suggesting Ukraine “would not be using these munitions in some foreign land,” while adding, “These are their citizens they’re protecting and they’re motivated to use any weapon system they have in a way that minimizes risks to those citizens.”
A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Friday that Guterres was against the use of cluster munitions, indicating he supported the 2008 treaty, according to CNN.
Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, argued last month that Ukraine’s military could benefit from using cluster munitions, “especially against dug-in Russian positions on the battlefield.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) supported supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions and other weapons “so they can win against Russia,” suggesting not doing so would “only continue to prolong the war and the suffering.”
226. That’s how many Ukrainian civilians were killed by cluster munitions in March, according to Human Rights Watch. It’s estimated between 56,500 and 86,500 civilians have been killed since 1943.
A senior Biden Administration official told the New York Times earlier this week that the U.S. has shifted its opinion of supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, confirming an earlier report by NPR. Ukrainian officials have requested cluster munitions from the U.S. since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started last February, though the Biden Administration and Defense Department officials initially cautioned against their use, according to the Washington Post. Some U.S. officials have supported supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, according to the Post, arguing that these American-made munitions fail to explode between 1.3% and 2.5% of the time.
Russia and Ukraine have used cluster munitions against each other since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, according to Human Rights Watch. Both sides have continued to use cluster munitions since Russia first invaded Ukraine last year. Cluster munitions have caused hundreds of civilian deaths, including an April 2022 strike on a Ukrainian train station that killed at least 50 people and injured about 300 others. There are concerns that the use of cluster munitions during the conflict would add to the estimated 174,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian land covered by landmines, which some officials say could take at least ten years to remove, according to Reuters.
U.S. Poised To Give Ukraine Controversial Cluster Bombs (Washington Post)
The U.S. Is Expected To Give Ukraine Cluster Munitions (New York Times)