Biden Must Resist Calls to Send Cluster Munitions to Ukraine
Transferring the weapons may bring tactical benefits but would be a strategic disaster.
War is never short of horrifying, but cluster munitions stand out even amid the terrible weaponry of modern war. Designed to blanket an area with “bomblets” that disperse in midair, these unguided munitions pose a unique threat to civilians. The bomblets frequently fail to detonate immediately, leaving them to wound and kill children who happen upon them as they play in fields, run errands, or travel to school.
They are, by design, indiscriminate and inhumane weapons—which is precisely why President Biden must deny recent pleas from Republican lawmakers and Ukrainian officials calling on the United States to provide these weapons to the Ukrainian military.
Though some claim that there are immediate tactical benefits to these weapons, their transfer and subsequent use would hurt the U.S.’ ability to forge coalitions and promote other arms control agreements. This argument also dismisses both the substantial danger that cluster munitions pose to civilians, and the widespread international consensus that they should be banned entirely.
The United States one of the only NATO members that still keeps these weapons, making us an outlier among our allies. The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, has given us ample evidence of cluster munitions’ horrific consequences. Various sources have confirmed Russian and Ukrainian use of cluster munitions in attacks that killed civilians. It was cluster munitions that struck the Sonechko Nursery and Kindergarten in the town of Okhtyrka, and cluster munitions that rained on multiple residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv, leaving children and other civilians dead and the ground strewn with explosives.
Even before the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine was no stranger to these grim weapons. The widespread use of cluster munitions and other types of anti-personnel mines by both Russian- and Ukrainian-backed forces during the conflict in 2014 left eastern Ukraine polluted with explosives. From April 2014 to August 2020, over 1,000 civilians, including 137 children, were killed or injured by unexploded remnants of war in Ukraine.
After the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, cluster munitions directly claimed at least 689 civilian lives from February to August 2022. In just the first six months of 2022, more than 4.5 times as many civilians were killed by cluster munitions in Ukraine than were killed by these weapons worldwide in 2021.
The history of these weapons, and decades-old clearance efforts in Laos, Vietnam, and Iraq, suggest that the undetonated explosives from these most recent attacks will continue to kill Ukrainian civilians for decades to come.
U.S. policy on cluster munitions—as issued by former President Donald Trump in 2017—currently allows for the use of cluster munitions in current U.S. stockpiles.
However, a congressional mandate prohibits the transfer of cluster munitions with over a 1 percent failure rate to any foreign nation. Since most stockpiled U.S. cluster munitions have a failure rate of 2 percent to 6 percent (independent studies and humanitarian organizations cite much higher estimates that range from 10 percent to 40 percent), this effectively functions as a ban on U.S. transfers. But recent requests from members of Congress and from officials in Ukraine are calling on President Biden to waive this transfer prohibition.
The United States must reject these calls, and more broadly, forge a new path in terms of its cluster munitions policy. Fortunately, there’s renewed momentum to do exactly that. For years, a diverse set of organizations—known as the U.S. Coalition on Cluster Munitions—have pushed for more restrictions on these weapons, not less. Their calls are increasingly being echoed in Congress: twice last year, lawmakers sent letters urging the Biden administration to review the current U.S. policy on cluster munitions with the aim of “putting the United States on a path to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions by a date certain.”
Rather than aid in the spread of these widely prohibited weapons, the United States should become a leader in the international effort to condemn and ban cluster munitions.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece called the United States the only NATO member that holds cluster munitions. It is not.
Nuria Raul is the program assistant for peacebuilding at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, one of the largest lobbying groups in D.C. focused solely on peace and justice. Her primary responsibilities include monitoring current legislation relating to the war in Ukraine; conducting research on the relationship between climate, migration, and gender; and advocating for increased funding to foreign assistance the abolition of U.S. policy that authorizes landmine and cluster munition use in any circumstances.
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