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Biden's Cluster Munitions Blunder
Ukrainian civilians and soldiers will be among those getting maimed and killed by these weapons.
The Biden administration is making a huge mistake:
President Biden has approved the provision of U.S. cluster munitions for Ukraine, with drawdown of the weapons from Defense Department stocks due to be announced Friday.
The move, which will bypass U.S. law prohibiting the production, use or transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 percent, comes amid concerns about Kyiv’s lagging counteroffensive against entrenched Russian troops and dwindling Western stocks of conventional artillery.
Cluster munitions are an inherently indiscriminate weapon, and they pose an ongoing threat to the civilian population of a country long after the war is over. There is no good reason to provide or use these weapons. This decision will likely come back to bite the administration in more ways than one.
Even if the munitions that the U.S. provides have a dud rate of 2% or less, that still guarantees that there will be more unexploded ordnance lying around after these weapons are used than there would have been without them. Ukrainian civilians and soldiers will be among those getting maimed and killed by these weapons. Ukraine will already have a huge job of removing mines ahead of it once the war is over, and this will make that effort even more difficult and dangerous. Foreign Policy quotes Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, as saying, “There’s a civilian impact that we know about. Right now, Ukraine is full of bomblets coming from Russian cluster [bombs] but also minefields. The unexploded ordnance is terrible there. So using U.S. cluster [bombs] is just going to add to the problem.”
The supposed benefits of providing these weapons are not as great as advertised, either. As Daryl Kimball has explained many times in recent days, the utility of these weapons has been exaggerated. He wrote this for Just Security earlier this week:
The effectiveness of cluster munitions is significantly oversold. Kyiv has already allegedly used cluster munitions in Eastern Ukraine in 2022, and the use of the weapon did not deliver results that could not have been produced by alternative munitions, and their use of these weapons put civilians in Ukraine at much greater risk. When Russia was reported to have used cluster munitions in Ukraine in 2022, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, condemned the move saying that cluster munitions are “banned under the Geneva Convention” and have “no place on the battlefield.”
Cluster munitions cannot differentiate between a Russian soldier and a Ukrainian soldier. They would put advancing forces (and civilians) at risk of encountering unexploded ordnance from earlier bombardments. U.S. forces experienced serious fratricide dangers when it employed cluster munitions in Iraq the 1990s.
The U.S. should not be exporting cluster munitions anywhere for any reason. Ideally, the U.S. would join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and eliminate its own stockpiles of these weapons, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. Failing that, the U.S. should not provide inherently indiscriminate weapons to a belligerent, no matter how justified its cause may be.
The decision also opens the U.S. up to obvious charges of hypocrisy. U.S. officials have condemned the Russian use of these weapons and said that they have no place on the battlefield, but now the administration is saying that they do have a place. Providing cluster munitions to Ukraine makes a mockery of the administration’s earlier statements and creates more political problems for its effort to rally support for Ukraine. Many states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are parties to the treaty banning the use, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and now they will have one more reason to dismiss U.S. appeals to defending the “rules-based order” as so much hot air. The decision will probably embarrass and antagonize some of our allies in Europe, as most members of NATO are also parties to the treaty.
Instead of sending weapons that will inevitably hurt and kill civilians now and in the future, the U.S. should be working with its allies and prominent neutral countries to establish a ceasefire. If a ceasefire can be negotiated and effectively enforced under U.N. auspices (and I acknowledge that’s a big if), that could then become the basis for a longer-term armistice that would silence the guns for the foreseeable future.