The U.S. on Friday announced an $800 million security assistance package to Ukraine, which according to Colin Kahl, U.S. Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, was the 42nd Presidential drawdown package announced by the Biden Administration in support of Ukraine committing over $41.3 billion in military assistance since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The package includes additional ammunition for the U.S.-provided howitzers, Patriot air defence systems and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and for the first time includes Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), or commonly referred to as cluster munitions — banned by a global convention of 111 state parties.
A cluster munition is a weapon that disperses or releases explosive submunitions: small, unguided explosives or bomblets (each weighing less than 20 kg) that are designed to explode prior to, on or after impact, according to the global ‘Convention on Cluster Munitions’ (CCM). Depending on the model, the number of submunitions dispersed or released by a cluster munition can vary from several dozens to over 600. Due to this, the submunitions get dispersed over a large area, remain unexploded for several years and have caused significant civilian casualties as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The CCM was adopted in Dublin by 107 States on May 30, 2008 and came into force as a binding international law on August 1, 2010. The Convention prohibits “all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Separate articles in the Convention concern destruction of stockpiles, clearance of contaminated areas, assistance to victims, submission of transparency reports, and adoption of domestic legislation.”
To date, a total of 123 states have joined the Convention — 111 states Parties and 12 Signatories, while 74 countries are not party to it, including the major countries that manufacture and use cluster munitions. This includes the U.S., Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and Ukraine and most NATO countries. In 2011, India concluded a $257.7 million deal for 512 CBU-105 sensor fuzed weapons with Textron Defense Systems for the Indian Air Force through the Foreign Military Sales route of the U.S.
Both Russia and Ukraine have used cluster munitions in the ongoing war causing numerous deaths and serious injuries to civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. “Cluster munitions used by Russia and Ukraine are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years,” said Mary Wareham, acting arms director at HRW , in a report released last week.
The U.S. DPICM is a broad category which includes several artillery shells and rocket ammunition ranging from 105mm, 155mm and 203mm artillery shells as well as rocket artillery for Multiple Launch Rocket System and HIMARS.
Defending the U.S. move, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser, said Russia has been using cluster munitions with a high dud or failure rate of 30-40% and so Ukraine has been “requesting cluster munitions to defend its own sovereign territory.” “The cluster munitions that we will be providing will have a dud rates far below that Russia is using, not higher than 2.5%,” he said shortly before the formal Pentagon announcement.
“We recognise that cluster munitions create a risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance. This is why we’ve deferred the decision for as long as we could,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But there is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions and take more Ukrainian territory and subjugate more Ukrainian civilians because Ukraine does not have enough artillery.” He added that Ukraine has “provided written assurances that it is going to use these in a very careful way” to minimise risks to civilians.
According to a fact sheet by the Arms Control Assosiation, at least 23 governments have used cluster munitions during armed conflict in 41 countries and five territories since the end of the Second World War.
The cluster munitions that the U.S. is considering sending to Ukraine are more than 20 years old, scatter over a wide area, and have a notoriously high failure rate, meaning they could remain deadly for years, according to HRW.
Responding to questions in 2022 on the use of cluster munitions by Russia, then White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had had said if true “it would potentially be a war crime”. Incidentally, a 2009 U.S. law bans exports of cluster munitions with bomblet failure rates higher than 1%.
Responding to this, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “NATO does not have a position on them” and “this will be for governments to decide, not for NATO to decide.” In response to questions he said: “We are facing a brutal war, and we have to remember this brutality is reflected, that every day we see casualties, and that cluster munitions are used by both sides... And Russia used cluster munitions to invade another country. Ukraine is using cluster munitions to defend itself.” NATO has in the past condemned the use of cluster munitions by Russia.