Banned bombs: what are cluster munitions and should Ukraine get them?

A Colombian military bomb disposal specialist works to defuse a Chilean-made CB-250K cluster bomb in 2009.  - AFP/File
A Colombian military bomb disposal specialist works to defuse a Chilean-made CB-250K cluster bomb in 2009. – AFP/File

The United States has announced compliance with Ukraine’s request for the supply of controversial cluster weapons, a decision criticized by human rights groups as these weapons are banned by more than 100 countries.

What are cluster bombs?

A cluster munition is a type of weapon that disperses many small warheads over a wide area during flight, intended to detonate on impact with a target. However, a significant number of these bombs are “clumsy” and may not initially detonate, posing a danger to unsuspecting persons exposed to them later.

From a military perspective, cluster munitions can be highly effective against frozen ground troops, leaving large areas unprotected until completely cleared.

Nevertheless, due to their indiscriminate nature and potential harm to civilian populations, more than 100 countries including the UK, France and Germany have signed an international treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans their use and storage.

Human rights organizations have strongly condemned the use of cluster munitions as “disgusting” and even a war crime.

While both Russia and Ukraine have used cluster weapons since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, neither country has signed a treaty banning these weapons.

The United States, although not a signatory to the treaty, has previously criticized Russia’s widespread use of cluster weapons. Russian cluster munitions reportedly have a high “dud rate” of 40%, leaving a large number of unexploded warheads on the ground, while the average dud rate is thought to be around 20%. The Pentagon estimates that its own cluster bombs have a hit rate of less than 3%.

Ukraine’s request for cluster munitions stems from a severe shortage of artillery shells, as they are rapidly being depleted due to the ongoing conflict with Russia. Artillery has become a key weapon in the stagnant battlefields of southern and eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are attempting to dislodge well-entrenched Russian troops along a 1,000 km (621 mi) front.

Why does Ukraine need cluster bombs?

With limited availability of artillery shells, Ukraine has turned to the US to replenish its supply of cluster munitions, specifically aimed at targeting Russian infantry occupying defensive trenches.

However, this decision has not been without controversy. Many Democrats and human rights advocates in the US oppose providing cluster munitions to Ukraine.

The debate on this issue has been going on for many months.

erosion of the moral high ground

The immediate consequence of the US decision is the erosion of the moral high ground for Washington in this conflict.

While Russia’s alleged war crimes have been extensively documented, the US’ compliance with Ukraine’s request could invite accusations of hypocrisy. Cluster munitions are widely considered to be a terrifying and indiscriminate weapon, which has been banned in many parts of the world for valid reasons.

The US move could potentially strain its relations with Western allies, and any perceived split within the alliance would play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who would seek to exploit such discord.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top