President Biden on Friday defended his decision to arm Ukraine with cluster bombs, which are banned by over 100 nations because they are exceptionally harmful to civilians.
The Pentagon announced Friday that the US was sending cluster munitions to Ukraine as part of an $800 million weapons package. Kyiv will receive dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM), small bomblets packed into 155mm artillery shells designed to spread the munitions.
On February 28, 2022, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who now has her own TV show on MSNBC, told reporters that Russia’s use of cluster munitions in Ukraine would “potentially be a war crime.” But now, the Biden administration has changed its tune on the widely-banned munitions.
Speaking to CNN‘s Fareed Zakaria on Friday, President Biden said he needed to send cluster bombs because Ukraine and the US are running out of ammunition. “This is a war relating to munitions. And they’re running out of that ammunition, and we’re low on it,” he said. “And so, what I finally did, I took the recommendation of the Defense Department to — not permanently — but to allow for this transition period, while we get more 155 weapons, these shells, for the Ukrainians.”
While Biden frames the provision of cluster bombs as temporary, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the US will arm Ukraine with “hundreds of thousands” of the munitions.
Cluster bombs are especially hazardous to civilians because many of the bomblets don’t explode on impact, meaning people could find them years later. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped millions of cluster bomblets on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and each country is still dealing with them to this day.
Kahl insisted that the cluster munitions the US will send to Ukraine were tested and will have a dud rate of 2.35%. But The New York Times reported that the rate will likely be closer to 14% due to factors on the battlefield not taken into account during the Pentagon’s tests.
The Times report said each 155mm artillery shell will be packed with 72 bomblets. At a dud rate of 14%, each shell could leave behind about 10 unexploded bombs, a major hazard for civilians if they’re not cleaned up.
Kahl said the US has received assurances that Ukraine won’t use cluster munitions in “civilian-populated urban environments.” But cluster munitions are incredibly hazardous to people living in rural areas, as they are often found by farmers or children playing in forests.
Ukraine has a history of using cluster bombs against civilian populated areas. In 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Kyiv government was using cluster munitions in populated areas of Donetsk city.
Ukraine has also used cluster bombs in populated areas during the current conflict with Russia. A day before the Pentagon announced it was arming Ukraine with cluster bombs, HRW issued a report that said Ukrainian forces killed at least eight civilians with cluster bombs in the eastern city of Izium in 2022.
HRW said Russian forces have also killed many civilians with cluster bombs, and Biden administration officials have defended their decision by pointing to Russia’s use of the controversial munitions. The US, Russia, and Ukraine are not signatories to the treaty that bans the munitions, known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions.