In the brutal logic of warfare, cluster munitions may appear to make solid sense for Ukraine’s slow-moving counteroffensive against well-dug-in Russian troops. Delivered by artillery, a 155-millimeter shell packed with 72 armor-piercing, soldier-killing bomblets can strike from 20 miles away and scatter them over a vast area.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced it would start delivering these weapons to Ukraine, over objections from, among others, human rights organizations and key allies. President Biden said the United States would supply cluster munitions from its large stockpile until suppliers could catch up with Ukraine’s shortage of conventional artillery shells, a key weapon in the static warfare in eastern and southern Ukraine.
With Ukraine using up ordinary artillery shells at a huge rate (the United States alone has sent more than two million rounds to Ukraine), the cluster munitions, of which the United States has a bountiful supply, could give Ukrainian forces an advantage in prying the Russians from their trenches and fortifications along the 620-mile-long front. Besides, Russia has been using its own cluster munitions, as has Ukraine, from the outset of the war, and Ukraine’s leaders have been urgently asking for more.
This is a flawed and troubling logic. In the face of the widespread global condemnation of cluster munitions and the danger they pose to civilians long after the fighting is over, this is not a weapon that a nation with the power and influence of the United States should be spreading.
However compelling it may be to use any available weapon to protect one’s homeland, nations in the rules-based international order have increasingly sought to draw a red line against use of weapons of mass destruction or weapons that pose a severe and lingering risk to noncombatants. Cluster munitions clearly fall into the second category.
The reason is that not all bomblets explode as they’re meant to, and thousands of small, unexploded grenades can lie around for years, even decades, before somebody — often, a child spotting a brightly colored, battery-size doodad on the ground — accidentally sets it off. The weapons used today by Russia and Ukraine are said to leave as many as 40 percent unexploded duds lying around, and they will remain a threat to the people of Ukraine no matter what the outcome of this conflict.
This danger prompted the adoption of a Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. The United Nations secretary general at the time, Ban Ki-moon, spoke of “not only the world’s collective revulsion at these abhorrent weapons but also the power of collaboration among governments, civil society and the United Nations to change attitudes and policies on a threat faced by all humankind.” As of today, 123 nations — including many of America’s allies — have agreed never to use, transfer, produce or stockpile cluster munitions.
But not Russia or Ukraine, nor the United States, which used cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the United States actively opposed the treaty. This editorial board argued at the time that, “As the main holdout, the United States gives cover to countries like Russia and China, which also rejected the ban. The treaty is weaker for it: together, these three nations have more than a billion cluster munitions stockpiled, far more than the number of weapons expected to be destroyed.”
Defending the decision to supply the weapons to Ukraine, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, argued that Ukraine would not be using the munitions in a foreign land, but on its own territory. “These are their citizens they’re protecting, and they are motivated to use any weapon system they have in a way that minimizes the risk to these citizens,” he said.
In fact, there is considerable risk. Cluster munitions used by both Ukrainian and Russian forces have led to, reportedly, at least dozens of civilian deaths and serious injuries, according to a Human Rights Watch report published Thursday. Specifically, the report said Ukrainian cluster-munition rocket attacks on Russian-controlled areas around the city of Izium in 2022 “caused many casualties among Ukrainian civilians.” (Ukraine denied that cluster munitions were used there.)
While it is Ukraine’s decision to choose what weapons it uses in its defense, it is for America to decide which weapons to supply. At the outset of the conflict, the United States resisted sending advanced weapons for fear of encouraging a wider war and Russian retaliation. But as the fighting dragged on and Ukraine proved increasingly capable of standing up to Russia, line after line has been crossed, with Washington and its allies agreeing to provide sophisticated weapons like the Patriot air-defense system, the HIMARS long-range rocket launcher, the Abrams tank and soon the F-16 jet fighter.
There is a legitimate debate about whether this amounts to the sort of mission creep that marked conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Sending cluster munitions to Ukraine amounts to a clear escalation of a conflict that has already become far too brutal and destructive. But the greater issue here is sharing a weapon that has been condemned by a majority of the world’s nations, including most of America’s close allies, as morally repugnant for the indiscriminate carnage it can cause long after the combatants have gone.
The Pentagon’s central defense against such proscriptions is that the dud rate of the American weapons — the number of bomblets that do not explode and are left on the battlefield — is down to 2.35 percent, compared with an estimated 40 percent for Russia’s. In 2008 the Pentagon set a limit of 1 percent on cluster munitions, and Congress has since banned the use, production or transfer of weapons over that rate. Even the 2.35 percent rate, an average, may be misleading. As John Ismay reported in The Times on Saturday, the cluster munitions in question may include an older type known to have a failure rate of 14 percent or more. That could leave the land littered with unexploded duds.
The White House bypassed Congress by invoking a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act that allows the president to disregard arms export restrictions if he deems the aid to be a vital national security interest. Several members of Congress have denounced the export of these weapons and will add an amendment to the annual defense bill that would prohibit export of almost all cluster munitions.
This board has consistently supported the supply of arms to Ukraine by the United States and its allies. Ukraine is battling an invader prepared to use all sorts of weapons, including indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets. It needs and deserves help.
But providing weapons that much of the world justifiably condemns is wrong. The United States had wisely started to move away from the use of cluster munitions. To now disregard the long-term consequences of these weapons would undermine one of the fundamental reasons to support Ukraine — to defend the norms that secure peace and stability in Europe, norms that Russia violated so blatantly. Encouraging the use and proliferation of these weapons could weaken the support of allies who until this point have rallied behind American leadership.
The rain of bomblets may give Ukraine a military advantage in the short term, but it would not be decisive, and it would not outweigh the damage in suffering to civilians in Ukraine, now and likely for generations to come.
The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.