Cluster bomb capluse is seen on the ground amid Russia-Ukraine war at the frontline city of Avdiivka, Ukraine on March 23, 2023.

Cluster bomb capluse is seen on the ground amid Russia-Ukraine war at the frontline city of Avdiivka, Ukraine on March 23, 2023. Andre Luis Alves/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

US to send cluster munitions to Ukraine following congressional pressure

Deliveries of the widely banned munitions will take pressure off Ukraine’s strained weapon stockpiles, but have raised concerns among human rights groups.

The United States will send cluster munitions to Ukraine, a decision that favors Ukraine’s hunger for ammunition over concerns by allies and human rights groups about the use of the widely banned weapon.  

The latest U.S. military aid package for Ukraine, announced Friday, includes 155-millimeter artillery shells containing dual purpose improved conventional munitions, or cluster munitions. 

Cluster munitions are made up of smaller bombs that scatter over a wide area in order to maximize casualties among enemy troops. Both Ukraine and Russia already use cluster munitions. 

Human rights groups have opposed the U.S. sending cluster munitions because they can accidentally kill civilians, either in the initial blast or due to unexploded submunitions falling to the ground and detonating weeks, months, or years later.

For months the White House declined to send the ordinance despite Ukrainian requests. On Friday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the weapons would have a dud rate of 2.5 percent or less. It is unclear how the White House arrived at this test result amid concerns that the real dud rate may be higher. 

Last week, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., asked the Pentagon for information about dud rates, munitions types, and fuses, which can affect the dud rates. 

The decision to send munitions “draws a stark contrast between two competing interests: the humanitarian dangers posed by these munitions but also the need to support Ukraine in its existential fight for survival,” Crow said Friday. 

Ukraine had long requested the munitions as a way to take pressure off their use of more conventional shells, which are expended at a rate of thousands per day. 

The Pentagon also saw the utility of using the weapons, according to testimony by Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. One Defense Department assessment released as part of the Discord Leaks said cluster munitions would be effective against the type of human wave attacks Russia has employed. 

The U.S. hesitated for months, though, in answering Ukraine’s requests. Cluster munitions are banned by most countries, including many of Washington's allies in Europe.

Lawmakers also said allies’ pressure was preventing the delivery of cluster munitions, with one senior congressional aide specifically pointing to French and German objections. 

At the same time, the White House faced mounting pressure from Congress to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. 

In March, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed the Biden administration to send cluster munitions in an open letter. 

A number of Democrats have also been supportive of the decision, with Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill issuing a joint statement in favor of the decision. 

Ukrainians involved in the effort to acquire cluster munitions specifically thanked Congress for their assistance. 

“Thank you to every congress person who did everything to give us this, and to every person from our side who lobbied for it,” Oleksandra Ustinova, head of the Holos party faction in the Ukrainian parliament, wrote Friday on her Facebook page.