The Biden administration made an announcement on Friday, July 7, 2023 regarding the provision of cluster munitions to Ukraine, as the country faces an ongoing invasion by Russia. Several US outlets have reported this development, citing American officials. According to these reports, the decision to send cluster munitions has been under serious consideration for at least a week. The provision of these munitions is seen as fulfilling a longstanding request from Ukraine, which believes they can assist in its campaign to launch a counteroffensive against Russia.
However, the reports have raised concerns due to the history of civilian casualties associated with the use of cluster munitions in previous conflicts around the world. More than 100 countries, including France and the United Kingdom, have banned the use of these munitions.
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The decision by the Biden administration to transfer cluster munitions has drawn criticism, with Paul Hannon, vice chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition, stating that it will contribute to the already devastating casualties suffered by Ukrainian civilians, both in the immediate term and for years to come. Hannon further emphasised that the use of cluster munitions by both Russia and Ukraine is exacerbating Ukraine’s existing contamination from explosive remnants and landmines.
Breaking down cluster munitions
Cluster bombs are a type of weapon that operates by opening in the air and releasing smaller ammunition known as “bomblets.” These bomblets are designed to disperse over a wide area and are intended to destroy or neutralise multiple targets simultaneously. They can be deployed from the ground or dropped from aircraft onto targets. However, one of the significant concerns associated with cluster bombs is that some of the bomblets may fail to detonate upon impact, effectively turning them into dangerous landmines. These landmines can pose a threat long after the conflict has ended.
The development of cluster bomb technology dates back to World War II, and various versions of these weapons have been used throughout the past century. Some variations incorporate chemical weapons, incendiary bombs, or anti-tank munitions. The Cluster Munition Coalition, an advocacy group that campaigns against the use of cluster munitions, highlights that these weapons have the capacity to disperse tens or even hundreds of submunitions, scattering them across an area comparable to several football fields in size.
One crucial aspect to consider is that cluster munitions lack the ability to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Consequently, their utilisation poses a significant risk of causing harm to innocent civilians. This indiscriminate nature has prompted concerns and led to the banning of cluster munitions by numerous countries worldwide, including those involved in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
The United States currently maintains a stockpile of cluster munitions referred to as DPICMs (dual-purpose improved conventional munitions). However, these munitions have been phased out and are no longer in active use since 2016. It has been announced that Washington will supply these DPICMs to Kyiv as part of the defence package.
According to an article on the US Army’s eArmor website, the DPICMs fired from 155mm howitzers consist of canisters containing 88 bomblets each. Each bomblet has a lethal range of approximately 10 square meters, meaning that a single canister can cover an area of up to 30,000 square meters (around 7.5 acres), depending on the altitude at which the bomblets are released.
The bomblets within the DPICM are equipped with shaped charges, which, upon striking a tank or armoured vehicle, generate a metallic jet capable of penetrating the vehicle’s metallic armour. The article notes that it may take 10 or more bomblets to destroy an armored vehicle, but even a single bomblet can disable the vehicle’s weaponry or render it immobile.
Reason behind cluster munitions’ ban in countries
The use of cluster munitions has been strongly opposed by human rights organisations and anti-war groups due to the significant danger they pose to civilians. The civilian cost of these weapons was highlighted during the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan more than two decades ago.
In Afghanistan, the US dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets in 232 strikes between October 2001 and early 2002. During the three weeks of major combat in Iraq, the US and UK utilized nearly 13,000 cluster munitions, which contained an estimated 1.8 to two million submunitions, according to the Cluster Munitions Coalition.
The Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, which tracked cluster bomb use between 2009 and 2018, reported 4,128 new cluster munition casualties during that period. In 2018, 99 percent of these casualties were civilians, as reported by the monitor.
In 2008, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 107 countries, establishing an international treaty that banned the production, transfer, stockpiling, and use of these weapons. However, several countries, including the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, and India, have not signed on to the convention. In the Middle East, the majority of countries are not party to the convention, with the exception of Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia.
Usage of cluster munitions so far
The Pentagon has acknowledged that the last major use of cluster bombs by the United States occurred during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Additionally, Washington employed this technology in a strike in Yemen in 2009, which resulted in civilian casualties.
Throughout the civil war in Syria, numerous human rights organizations have extensively documented the utilisation of cluster munitions by government forces. These attacks have often been directed towards opposition strongholds and have resulted in the targeting of civilian areas and critical infrastructure. As a consequence, significant harm has been inflicted upon non-combatants, exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in the country.
Israel has also used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas in south Lebanon, including during the 1982 invasion that led Israeli troops to reach Beirut, as well as in 2006. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have accused Israel of firing as many as four million cluster munitions into Lebanon, leaving unexploded bombs that continue to pose a threat to the lives of Lebanese civilians.
The Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen has faced criticism for its use of cluster bombs in the on-going conflict. In 2017, the United Nations designated Yemen as the second deadliest country for cluster munitions after Syria. The lingering threat of unexploded bomblets has resulted in the deaths or maiming of children and continues to pose challenges in assessing the true extent of the damage caused.
These instances highlight the grave humanitarian consequences associated with the use of cluster munitions, including civilian casualties and the long-lasting impact on affected communities.
Leaders’ opinion on the sending of cluster munitions
According to President Biden, the decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine was a difficult one, but it was made based on the understanding that Ukraine needed additional ammunition in its conflict with Russia.
In an interview with CNN, Biden acknowledged the challenging nature of the decision and stated that he had discussed it with US allies. The rationale behind providing cluster munitions was rooted in the recognition that Ukraine was facing a shortage of ammunition in its on-going war with Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude to US President Joe Biden for the defence package, including cluster munitions, stating that it was much-needed. Zelenskyy took to Twitter to thank the American people and President Biden for their decisive steps, describing the aid package as timely, broad, and essential for expanding Ukraine’s defence capabilities. He expressed the belief that these new tools would contribute to the de-occupation of Ukrainian land and bring peace closer.
Reactions from allies regarding the US decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine have also been circulating gradually. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasised that the military alliance does not take a stance on cluster munitions, as it is a decision that individual member states will make.
The UK, Canada, and Spain have expressed their opposition to the use of cluster munitions and have taken a stance against their provision to Ukraine. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emphasised that the UK is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the production and use of these weapons, and discourages their transfer.
Spain’s Defence Minister Margarita Robles went further, stating that her country has a firm commitment against sending certain weapons and bombs to Ukraine. She specifically mentioned the rejection of cluster bombs, emphasising the need for legitimate defence without resorting to their use.
The Canadian government expressed concerns about the potential long-term impact of cluster bombs, particularly on children, and reaffirmed its opposition to their use. Canada remains fully compliant with the Convention on Cluster Munitions and stated its commitment to encouraging its universal adoption.
It is worth noting that the US, Ukraine, and Russia have not signed the convention, and both Russia and Ukraine have used cluster bombs during the on-going conflict.
On the other hand, Germany, which is a signatory to the treaty, stated that it would not provide cluster munitions to Ukraine but understood the decision made by the United States. The German government spokesperson, Steffen Hebestreit, expressed confidence that the US made its decision after careful consideration.
It has been reported that both Ukrainian and Russian forces have used cluster bombs since the invasion by Moscow’s forces in February 2022. Additionally, it is noted that Ukrainian forces have recently started using cluster munitions supplied by Turkey in the on-going conflict.
Ukrainian officials have been advocating for the provision of cluster munitions from the US since last year. Their argument is centred around the belief that these munitions would augment the ammunition supplies for Western-provided artillery and rocket systems, thereby assisting in reducing Russia’s numerical advantage in terms of artillery capabilities.