What is a cluster bomb, the controversial weapon the US is sending to Ukraine?

By Chicago 8 Min Read

The Biden administration announced on Friday that a new weapons package for Ukraine will include cluster bombs, a controversial type of weapon the United States has never supplied to the country before. Specifically, the package will include 155mm DPICM, which stands for Enhanced Dual-Purpose Conventional Ammunition.

What is a cluster bomb?

A cluster bomb is a type of weapon designed to disperse smaller bombs over a large area. They are also known as cluster munitions, with the smaller bombs referred to as submunitions or bombs.

A cluster bomb capsule is seen on the ground in Ukraine

A cluster bomb capsule is seen on the ground during the Russia-Ukraine war in Avdiivka, Ukraine March 23, 2023. Getty Images

Cluster bombs can be dropped from the air or fired from land or sea, and the dozens or hundreds of bombs they release can disperse over a large area. They were first used in WWII for the purpose of destroying multiple military targets or missing fighters.

Any person in that area at the time of a cluster bomb explosion could be killed or seriously injured. Beyond that, many of the bombs don’t go off immediately, meaning they can injure or kill people years later.

Why are cluster bombs controversial?

A significant number of bombs do not explode on first impact as expected. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the submunition failure rate – referred to as the “dud rate” – has ranged from 10% to 40% in recent conflicts.

“Large-scale use of these weapons has led to countries and regions being infested with tens of thousands, and sometimes millions, of unexploded and highly unstable munitions,” the organization said.

In addition to posing an immediate threat to civilians living in areas where cluster munitions are used, unexploded bombs are small, can have interesting shapes and can be colored, meaning that those that do not immediately detonate can appear as toys to children, who might try to pick them up and be maimed or killed.

Civilians are the main victims of cluster bombs, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, a group that carries out research on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munitions Coalition. In 2021, the latest year for which data was released, the group said that of 141 victims of cluster bomb residues, 97 percent were civilians and two-thirds of those were children.

“It is a dire reminder of the desperate need for rapid clearance of contaminated areas, age-appropriate education on the risks of unexploded bombs, and more dedicated support for victims and their families,” Loren Persi, director of the Munition Cluster Monitor 2022 report, reads a note.

Are cluster bombs banned?

One hundred twenty-three countries have acceded to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty that entered into force in 2010. The convention prohibits the production, transfer, storage and use of cluster munitions under any circumstances and requires the states concerned to implement assistance measures.

Neither Russia, nor Ukraine, nor the United States are signatories or state parties to the convention. Cluster bombs were used extensively in the Gulf War, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cluster bombs in Ukraine

A variety of cluster bombs have been used by Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine, both against Ukrainian troops and in urban areas, Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher at the RUSI defense and security think tank, told CBS News. He said that Ukraine also has a limited number of cluster munitions from Turkey.

“Cluster munitions are especially useful for taking out large numbers of infantry,” Kaushal said. “Given Russia’s move towards combining a small number of skilled shock troops with a larger number of expendable ‘Storm Z’ units, the ability to effectively engage and destroy large concentrations is important to the Ukrainians. They can also be used against armor and to attack fixed positions more effectively”.

Kaushal said the cluster bombs would help Ukrainian troops in many ways as they fight against Russia’s invasion.

“They are a force multiplier for Ukrainian artillery in both offensive roles and defenses against local Russian counterattacks,” Kaushal said.

Despite their potential battlefield effectiveness, the United States has been reluctant to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine.

“Our military analysts have confirmed that the DPICM [cluster bombs] it would be useful, especially against entrenched Russian battlefield positions,” Laura Cooper, the US deputy secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said in congressional testimony earlier this summer.

“The reason you haven’t seen a step forward in providing this capability is both existing congressional restrictions on providing DPICM and concerns about Allied unity,” Cooper said.

Many of the States Parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions are NATO allies.

“NATO as an Alliance has no position on the Cluster Munitions Convention, because a number of Allies have signed the convention but a number of Allies have not signed the convention,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday. “It is up to individual allies to make decisions on the delivery of weapons and military supplies to Ukraine.”

Lower the “reject rate”?

The “dud rate” of weapons the United States is preparing to send to Ukraine is less than 2.35%, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters Thursday.

US law currently restricts the transfer of cluster munitions if the “dud rate” is greater than 1%, meaning President Biden can waive the requirement.

“We carefully select shells with lower destruction rates for which we have recent test data,” Ryder said, adding that Russia had previously used cluster munitions in Ukraine which reportedly have significantly higher destruction rates. .

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report

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