President Joe Biden has decided to send U.S. stocks of cluster munitions to Ukraine amid its fight against Russia, defending the controversial move as urgently needed.
The weapons are part of a new military aid package worth up to $800 million.
The additional assistance comes as Ukraine pushes to recapture territory seized by Russia. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy the counteroffensive was “going to plan” but he’d like to see progress happen even faster.
The weapons can be fired from aircraft or from the ground. Depending on the type used, anywhere from dozens to 600 bomblets may be released at a time, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“These types of weapons are extremely dangerous,” said Richard Weir, a senior researcher in the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch. Weir noted there are various kinds of submunitions, some are designed to penetrate armor or concrete while others are made to unleash as many fragments as possible against troops.
A U.S. defense official told lawmakers last month they believed such weapons “would be useful” for Ukraine, “especially against dug-in Russian positions on the battlefield.”
The Pentagon said Friday they will send their most modern dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs) that have a failure rate or “dud rate” of 2.35% or less. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said they have hundreds of thousands of those rounds available.
Kahl contrasted that figure with the failure rate of the cluster munitions being used by Russia against Ukraine, which he said is somewhere between 30 to 40%.
But Kimball said those working in the arms control field believe the failure rate of those munitions “in the U.S. stockpile are probably higher when it comes to actual wartime conditions.”
When asked if the dud rate studies conducted by the Department of Defense on the munitions being sent to Ukraine will be made public, Kahl said those reports are classified but they have “high confidence” in the numbers.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House that Ukraine needs cluster munitions as a “bridge of supplies” as the U.S. works to ramp up production of other types of artillery to supply to Ukraine.
“We will not leave Ukraine defenseless at any point in this conflict, period,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said the United States held off on supplying the munitions as it weighed the risk to civilians, and consulted with allies about the decision.
He said Russia has been using cluster munitions to attack Ukraine, meaning that the United States will need to help Ukraine with post-conflict demining in any scenario. Sullivan said Ukraine is motivated to use the weapons in a way that minimizes risk to its citizens, and has also formally agreed to use them carefully.
As many as 40% of bomblets fail to detonate on impact, per one estimate. The cluster munitions the U.S. are providing to Ukraine will have less than a 3% failure rate, according to White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
“Once they’re scattered, they’re scattered through a vast amount of areas, and they have very, very high failure rates,” Koulabdara told Morning Edition. “Once they’re dropped, they’ll continue to impact civilian lives for decades to come, as well as, killing civilians today.”
Koulabdara urged Ukrainian and U.S. leaders “to look at history and for the United States of America, our own history in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan [and] Iraq.”
“You learn from the impacts and the legacies of wars that this will have on human lives,” Koulabdara said, “lives of civilians who have a name, who have mothers, who have fathers who cares about them.”
Officials are planning to send artillery shells to Ukraine, with each containing 88 separate bomblets, according to US media reports. They would be fired from Howitzer artillery weapons already deployed by the Ukrainian army.
The Biden administration’s latest weapons package for Ukraine is worth $800m (£626m). It includes Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles, air defence missiles and anti-mine equipment.
Human rights groups have urged Russia and Ukraine not to use cluster munitions and have asked the US not to supply them.
In a statement on Friday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights once again called on the countries not to use cluster bombs, arguing they were dangerous.
“Cluster munitions scatter small bomblets over a wide area, many of which fail to explode immediately,” said office spokesperson Marta Hurtado. “They can kill and maim years later. That’s why use should stop immediately.”
Some US lawmakers have also asked the Biden administration not to send the weapons, arguing their humanitarian costs outweigh their benefits in the battlefield.
Defence Department official Laura Cooper told Congress last month that military analysts had found that cluster bombs would be “useful, especially against dug-in Russian positions”.
More than 120 countries have committed to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, agreeing not to use, produce, transfer or store such devices.
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