Jul 7, 2023, 7:22am EDT

Cluster bombs are a threat to civilians. Why is the U.S. sending them to Ukraine?

REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynsky

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The News

The Ukrainians look like they will squeeze another weapons concession out of the White House, with President Biden poised to announce he will supply Kyiv with controversial cluster munitions as soon as today.

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Morgan’s view

The U.S., under increasing pressure from the Ukrainians, has been weighing a decision on cluster munitions for weeks.

Military analysts say the munitions, formally known as dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs), would help the Ukrainians attack Russian trench lines and vehicles at a time when their counteroffensive has not made the kind of progress Kyiv and its allies had hoped.

“It’s a very effective munition,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of United States Army Europe, told Semafor.

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The View From Human Rights Activists

The forthcoming decision drew immediate protests from human rights advocates given the risk cluster munitions pose to non-combatants, including after the war ends. Russia and Ukraine have already been using cluster munitions on the battlefield. In a report released early Thursday morning, Human Rights Watch wrote that Ukrainian cluster munition attacks on Russian targets in eastern Ukraine last year caused “mass casualties.”


Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., who has introduced an amendment to annual defense policy legislation to ban the transfer of cluster munitions, was among the lawmakers who vocally opposed the news. Jacobs told Semafor that she worries the decision will threaten civilians, risk U.S. unity with its allies, and make it more difficult to rebuild Ukraine by potentially littering the country with unexploded bomblets.

“I’m sure they’re effective,” Jacobs said. “Nuclear weapons are also effective. It doesn’t mean we should use them.”

Many U.S. allies (but not the U.S.) are parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which banned the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions beginning in 2010.

“We do not use them and do not encourage anybody to use them,” Belgium’s ambassador to the U.S. Jean-Arthur Régibeau, whose country is a party to the convention, told Semafor. “Long-term damage to civilians is a serious concern.”

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The View From The U.S. Military

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters Thursday that, if a decision is made to send them, the military would not give Ukraine cluster munitions with a “dud rate” — or the percent that fail to explode, creating long-term hazards — of more than 2.35%. Biden is barred by Congress from exporting cluster munitions with dud rates of over 1%. The Washington Post reported that the administration plans to bypass the restriction using the Foreign Assistance Act, which lets the president provide aid regardless of limits if he notifies the Congress that it is in the vital U.S. interest.


Ryder said Thursday that unity among allies on Ukraine remains “very strong” without getting into particular conversations. The latest announcement is likely to come within days of NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Russia’s war in Ukraine will dominate the discussion.

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The View From Ukraine

“We’ve been lobbying for this for quite a long time and finally received a confirmation,” Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told Semafor. “We need them to break through the Russian defense lines during a counteroffensive.”

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Know More

It’s still not clear exactly how many cluster weapons the U.S. will be able to send to Ukraine, but some estimates suggest it could be substantial. In a March letter urging Biden to give Ukraine the munitions, the top Republicans on the House and Senate committees overseeing the Defense and State Departments wrote that the U.S. has nearly three million rounds in its inventory, “much of it located on U.S. and allied bases in Europe.” The GOP lawmakers argued sending the DPICMs would decrease the pressure on other munitions supplies, where production is still ramping up.

But Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimated the stockpile could be much smaller, given that the U.S. stopped making cluster munitions years ago.

“They would not be a game changer. No single weapon is going to change the course of the war,” said Cancian, who was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps. “But they would be quite useful.”