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What are cluster bombs? Why the weapons are banned and the controversy over Joe Biden and Ukraine explained

Western countries including the UK have refused to voice support for the US decision to provide the controversial weapons to Ukraine

A US decision to provide Ukraine with cluster bombs has prompted widespread concern and controversy among Western allies.

Both sides have used cluster munitions during the war, but providing Ukraine with US supplies would give it a decisive advantage against the Russians. President Joe Biden called the move a “difficult decision” but said he had to act because the Ukrainian army was running out of ammunition.

The UK is among many countries refusing to support the move, with the Prime Minister pointing out that the UK is a “signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use”.

Dozens of 155mm Base Burn Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) rounds wait to be loaded into M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and M992 Field Artillery Support Vehicles at a U.S. Army motor pool at Camp Hovey, South Korea September 20, 2016. U.S. Army/2nd Lt. Gabriel Jenko/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Dozens of 155mm base burn dual purpose improved conventional munitions rounds, a type of cluster bomb (Photo: US Army/Reuters)

What are cluster bombs?

A cluster bomb or munition is a type of weapon that can be fired or dropped from an aircraft, opening up mid-air to release a huge number of deadly smaller “bomblets” or submunitions, which can be scattered over huge distances of the battlefield.

While they are meant to explode upon impact, many of them are “duds”, meaning they do not explode straight away. Instead, they remain potentially lethal for a long time afterwards, meaning anyone who accidentally comes into contact with them in the months or years afterwards risks being killed or maimed.

Why does Ukraine want them?

In terms of military action, cluster munitions are effective against dug-in ground troops in trenches, which have been dug extensively by the Russians, particularly in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is struggling with severely depleted artillery supplies, and its Western allies are unable to replace artillery shells at the rate they are required.

AVDIIVKA, UKRAINE - MARCH 23: Cluster bomb capluse is seen on the ground amid Russia-Ukraine war at the frontline city of Avdiivka, Ukraine on March 23, 2023. Around 2000 people are left in the town and volunteers enter the town daily although the war continues. (Photo by Andre Luis Alves/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Cluster bomb capluse on the ground amid Russia-Ukraine war in the frontline city of Avdiivka, Ukraine in March (Photo: Andre Luis Alves/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the absence of sufficient weapons, Ukraine asked the US to restock its cluster munition supplies to clear out Russian trenches and minefields.

Mr Biden told CNN: “This is a war relating to munitions. And they’re running out of that ammunition, and we’re low on it. And so, what I finally did, I took the recommendation of the Defence Department to – not permanently – but to allow for this transition period, while we get more 155 weapons, these shells, for the Ukrainians. They’re trying to get through those trenches, and stop those tanks from rolling. It was not an easy decision.”

However, the decision to supply cluster munitions also suggests that the US is unable to provide enough of Ukraine’s preferred option of more artillery shells. Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, has said that the cluster bombs are a “bridge of supplies”, while US defence manufacturers race to produce more of the artillery needed by Ukraine which are “at the core of this conflict”.

“We will not leave Ukraine defenceless at any point in this conflict,” said Mr Sullivan.

Ukraine has given several guarantees in exchange for the weapons’ supply, including not using them in civilian or urban areas. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said his troops would not use them in urban areas to avoid risking civilian lives, adding “these are our people, they are Ukrainians we have a duty to protect”.

Why are they banned?

Production and deployment of cluster bombs have been banned by 123 countries, including the UK, France and Germany, which have signed up to the Convention of Cluster Munitions. Neither Ukraine, Russia nor the US has signed up to the convention.

While Rishi Sunak did not criticise the US decision to provide cluster bombs to Ukraine, he said at the weekend that the UK “discouraged” their use. He added: “We will continue to do our part to support Ukraine against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion, but we’ve done that by providing heavy battle tanks and most recently long-range weapons, and hopefully all countries can continue to support Ukraine.”

Other countries including Spain and Canada, two of the 123 countries, criticised the decision.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 7: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House July 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. Sullivan discussed the U.S. decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, has said the US cluster bombs have a dud rate of less than 2.5%(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty)

They are so controversial became of the indiscriminate threat they pose to civilians, however. According to Human Rights Watch: “Cluster munitions pose an immediate threat to civilians during conflict by randomly scattering submunitions or bomblets over a wide area. They continue to pose a threat post-conflict by leaving remnants, including submunitions that fail to explode upon impact becoming de facto landmines.”

“Cluster munitions used by Russia and Ukraine are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years,” Mary Wareham, the group’s acting arms director, said. “Both sides should immediately stop using them and not try to get more of these indiscriminate weapons.

“Transferring cluster munitions disregards the substantial danger they pose to civilians and undermines the global effort to ban them.”

According to a report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 97 per cent of cluster munition casualties are civilians, the majority of which are children.

Mr Sullivan has said the US cluster bombs have a dud rate of less than 2.5 per cent, while Russia’s have a dud rate of between 30-40 per cent.

The US decision means that Mr Biden is bypassing US law prohibiting the production, use or transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 per cent.

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