The US is considering supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine. This type of weapon is considered effective in war, but is politically outlawed due to its potential impact on civilians. What exactly is cluster munitions and why is it so controversial?
What is cluster munition?
Cluster munitions are fired by artillery, rockets, missiles or aircraft. What is special about it is that it shatters in mid-air over the target and spreads submunitions, also known as bomblets, over a large area. This makes cluster munitions an effective but undirected weapon.
Depending on the model, a single cluster bomb can contain between a few dozen and several hundred submunitions. The radius of dispersion can vary greatly depending on the height of the detonation and the type of cluster munition, but is usually in the range of a few hundred meters. Cluster munitions are often used to inhibit enemy troop movements, disable airstrips, or destroy vehicle convoys.
What is DPICM?
The deliveries considered by the USA are 155 mm caliber artillery shells, so-called Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM). They include two variants of bomblets against two different types of targets (hence “dual-purpose”). One type is aimed at armored vehicles, the other against soft targets such as unarmored vehicles and soldiers.
The two main 155mm DPICM shells in the US Armed Forces arsenal are the M483 and M864. The former contains 88 bomblets, the latter only 72 bomblets, but has a longer range. It is unclear which version is being considered for Kiev.
How can cluster munitions help Ukraine?
The cluster munitions promised by the USA could “be used extensively against troop concentrations. Special types of munitions can also form remote minefields,” says Austrian military expert Colonel Markus Reisner to ntv.de. This puts Ukraine in a position to prevent Russian reserves from being brought in or to attack them in a targeted manner. “This leads to the isolation of possible planned breakthrough sites,” says Reisner. In addition, it was possible for the Ukrainians to use cluster munitions to target Russian positions at the breakthrough point themselves.
Ukraine has been demanding the delivery of cluster munitions from Western partners for months. On the one hand, artillery cluster munitions for howitzers with a caliber of 155 millimeters were desired, as is now being discussed. According to a Reuters report However, Kiev had also requested MK-20 air-dropped cluster bombs, also known as CBU-100s. They contain more than 240 arrow-like bomblets designed to destroy armored vehicles. According to the report, Ukrainian troops want to equip their drones with individual bomblets in order to attack Russian tanks.
Where has cluster munitions been used so far?
Cluster munitions were developed and used as early as World War II. However, their use only increased significantly during the Vietnam War. In the decades that followed, the technology continued to be refined, leading to increased effectiveness but also increased controversy. The US last used cluster munitions in 2003 in the Iraq war.
Cluster munitions were also used by both sides in the Ukraine war, as if from one Message by Human Rights Watch. This is said to have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. Civilian facilities such as houses, hospitals and schools were also damaged. The Russian one attracted a lot of attention Cluster munitions attack on a train station in Kramatorsk on April 8, 2022. At least 58 civilians were killed and 100 others injured.
According to Human Rights Watch, cluster munitions were also used by the Ukrainian side. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country inherited a large stock of cluster munitions – around two million tons. In April 2022, the “New York Times” about a Ukrainian use of cluster munitions in the town of Husarivka in the Kharkiv region. Uragan cluster munitions rockets of Soviet design were used.
What’s the big problem with cluster munitions?
Despite their effectiveness on the battlefield, cluster munitions are highly controversial. One problem: the submunitions are usually unguided and fall freely to the ground. Factors such as improper use and wind can cause the small bombs to land far outside of the intended target area.
The main criticism, however, is that a significant percentage of explosive devices often fail to detonate on impact. These duds remain on site and pose a constant threat to the civilian population. Disposing of the live bomblets after a conflict is also dangerous and expensive. “The presence of these weapons makes farming a dangerous activity and hinders the reconstruction and development of vital infrastructure such as roads, railways and power plants,” warns the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Some countries have struggled with unexploded submunitions for decades. Several million unexploded bomblets are still scattered in Laos, which has been hardest hit by cluster munitions since the Vietnam War. So far, fewer than 400,000 have been cleared and at least 11,000 have been killed, according to Reuters.
The UN human rights office in Geneva responded to reports of the possible shipment of cluster munitions from the US to Ukraine with a warning: “Such munitions kill and maim people long after a conflict has ended,” said a spokeswoman. “Therefore, the operation should be stopped immediately.” The Office called on Russia and Ukraine to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, production and transfer of certain types of conventional cluster munitions.
An international agreement that came into force in 2010 – the so-called Oslo Convention – bans the production, stockpiling, use and transfer of cluster munitions. However, neither the USA nor Ukraine have joined the agreement, nor have Russia and China, for example.