Despite having concerns about their kill rate, Washington is expected to arm Kyiv with thousands of these deadly munitions.
7 July 2023 •
They are banned in 120 countries, deplored by human rights groups, and have been blamed for the deaths of countless civilians since they were introduced in the Second World War.
But the grim truth, said one former Ukrainian official, is that Ukraine needs American cluster bombs to kill more Russian soldiers.
The blunt description of the controversial weapon’s purpose came as the White House announced on Friday that it will send thousands of the weapons to support Kyiv’s war effort.
Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, said President Joe Biden had approved the difficult decision following a “unanimous recommendation” from officials.
“We recognise the cluster munitions create a risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance. This is why we’ve deferred the decision for as long as we could,” he told a White House briefing.
“But there is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions and take more Ukrainian territory and subjugate more Ukrainian civilians because Ukraine does not have enough artillery. That is intolerable to us.”
Mr Sullivan said the decision had been “embraced with open arms” by some allies.
He added the US had received written assurances from Kyiv on how it would minimise risks to civilians using the weapons, which form part of a new $800 million package for Ukraine.
It has been a gradual process for the US president to reverse course on his initial position not to send cluster bombs.
Days after the invasion of Ukraine, Jen Psaki, his press secretary at the time, said that reported Russian use of cluster bombs was “potentially a war crime”.
Mr Biden and his officials had concerns about losing the moral high ground, as well as being criticised by members of his own party and allies.
Over the past six months, he has been swayed on the issue as a number of his officials, and Ukraine, said they were necessary.
The US State Department had been more reluctant than the Pentagon to approve the shipments.
But last week, at a meeting of Mr Biden’s national security team, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, concurred and recommended they be sent, The Washington Post reported.
According to a letter sent by Republicans in Congress to the Biden administration in March, the vast US stockpile may include up to three million cluster munitions.
“It is not about the counter-offensive. It is about the nature of the war,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister.
“Let’s put it this way. The human element of the war is essential for the Russian operational concept right now. So it is like the wars of the 19th century or early 20th centuries. When they don’t have a solution, they just send people in.
“So in Russia, the centre of gravity is people. Not tanks or ammunition. It’s people. Unfortunately, we need to deal with this in a way that will kill more people.”
Himars rockets Ukraine already operates. They also have a lower failure rate than the Soviet-pattern equivalents that Ukraine currently fields.
According to Mr Zagorodnyuk: “Essentially, the situation is this – you have a standard munition that suddenly works in a several times larger circle. So if the areas of the explosion is x, it is x multiplied by something. It varies depending on location, but generally it is several times more.”
It is also incredibly destructive to civilians. By their nature, the weapons endanger anyone remotely in the vicinity of a target, and unexploded bomblets can remain lethal for decades.
The history of cluster bombs
By Verity Bowman
Cluster bombs were first used in the Second World War and at least 15 countries have used them since then, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Israel, Morocco, the Netherlands, Britain, Russia and the US.
Although the use of cluster bombs is not in itself a war crime, they are seen as controversial because of their high failure rate.
Unexploded bomblets can lie buried in the ground long after the conflict has passed and lead to accidental detonation and the deaths of civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that up to 40 per cent of cluster bombs have failed to explode in recent conflicts, with one-third of all casualties caused by cluster munitions thought to be of children.
Among the countries worst affected by mines and unexploded ordnance are Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.
In the Eighties, Russia made heavy use of cluster bombs during its 10-year invasion of Afghanistan. Years later, the US dropped more than 248,000 submunitions over the country during its invasion between October 2001 and March 2002.
Syria has the highest number of deaths from the devices, with a total of 1,453 Syrian citizens, including 518 children, killed by cluster munitions and their lethal submunitions between 2012 and January this year, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
In 2017, Yemen was the second deadliest country for cluster munitions after Syria. Children have been killed and maimed in Yemen long after the munitions fell, according to the UN, with an accurate toll difficult to establish.
The US last used its cluster munitions in battle in Iraq in 2003, before the conflict shifted to more urban environments with more dense civilian populations.
A convention banning the use of cluster bombs has been joined by more than 120 countries, including the UK, which agreed not to use, produce, transfer or stockpile the weapons and to clear them after they have been used.
The US, Russia and Ukraine did not sign the agreement.
Since the convention was signed in 2008, around 99 per cent of all global stockpiles have been destroyed, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.
Some human rights groups argued that cluster bomb submunitions have the highest failure rate of any conventional bomb or shell.
The United Nations recorded 380 casualties from cluster munitions worldwide in 2020, more than half of them caused by remnants of historic attacks rather than during battle.
Many of the bomblets responsible were dropped in relatively recent battlegrounds such as Syria. But some, like in Cambodia and Laos, must have been lying around for decades.
They also threaten friendly troops, especially those on the advance. Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out that at least 80 US casualties in the 1991 Gulf War were attributed to submunition duds.
Members of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions – which forbids the production, use or transfer of the weapons – include Britain and 24 other Nato allies.
The US never joined the convention, but it has not used the weapons since the early years of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and began to phase them out in 2016 because of humanitarian concerns.
That is one reason it has a large stockpile of DPICMs it wants to get rid of – and which Ukraine is keen to get its hand on.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the 2008 convention, and both have used Soviet-pattern cluster munitions (Ukraine is also now fielding Turkish-made variants) since the full-scale invasion began.
A Tochka-U missile carrying cluster munitions killed 63 civilians at Kramatorsk railway station in April 2022.
Ukraine’s use has been less extensive but has still killed civilians. In a report published this week, HRW said that Ukrainian cluster attacks on Izium, while it was under Russian occupation, killed at least eight civilians and wounded 15 more. Uragan rockets appear to have been used there too.
HRW called on both sides to stop using the weapons and for the US to refrain from supplying them.
Ukrainians said they are best placed to judge the trade-off between military utility and civilian suffering.
After all, it is a utilitarian calculation they have been forced into many times since the full-scale invasion began.
“Everyone is saying ‘What about the ethical element?’” said Mr Zagorodnyuk.
“The key thing is obviously we are not going to use it where civilians are. And obviously areas with trenches are mined tremendously. More mines than anywhere else in the world. We are talking about two million mines, most likely.”
When the war is over, he suggested, someone will have to find a way to deal with that legacy. It may require some kind of as-yet undeveloped technology.
In the meantime, he said, “whatever can detonate the mines and clear the area for us is beneficial”.