On Friday, July 7th, as the war in Ukraine neared its 500th day, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that the United States would send cluster munitions to the European nation in an effort to assist it in its bid to push Russian troops back across the border. The decision marks a dramatic reversal in position on the part of President Biden, who approved the weapons transfer last week despite the historical resistance of his administration to the distribution of cluster munitions.
That resistance existed for good reason.
Cluster munitions are explosive devices that contain dozens or even hundreds of submunitions — bombs with smaller bombs inside of them. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, cluster bombs “can saturate an area up to the size of several football fields. Anybody within the strike area… is very likely to be killed or seriously injured.”
Cluster munitions are so dangerous and kill so indiscriminately that their production and use has been banned by 123 countries, which have coalesced around the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Among the many reasons for the wide prohibition of cluster munitions is their unfathomably high civilian death toll.
A 2022 report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor indicated that civilians accounted for a staggering 97% percent of cluster munition fatalities. The report also estimated that, in incidents wherein the age groups of casualties could be determined, almost two-thirds of those casualties were children.
These figures are largely due to the imprecise and haphazard nature of cluster munition deployment, but a high failure rate exacerbates their already careless lethality.
A munition’s failure rate measures the percentage of deployed explosives that fail to detonate when and how they are intended to. Last year, a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that U.S.-manufactured cluster munitions have a failure rate between 10 and 30%. The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, placed that number closer to 40%. As a result, unseen and undetonated explosives often linger for decades, later maiming or killing innocent men, women, and children who step on, drive over, or otherwise disrupt them.
Almost 50 years after the end of the Vietnam War, undetonated cluster bombs still riddle the hills, fields, and streets of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In Laos alone, 80 million cluster bombs initially did not explode: roughly 30% of the 260 million cluster munitions dropped by the United States across the country. Today, farmers are killed by them as they plow their fields, and students are killed by them as they walk to school. Thanks to weapons like cluster munitions, the Vietnam War is still claiming lives nearly five decades beyond its conclusion.
For this reason, U.S. law bars the export of cluster munitions with a failure rate above 1%. And yet, officials at the Pentagon have admitted that the very cluster munitions that the United States is offering Ukraine have a failure rate of at least 14%.
That President Biden allowed the transfer of these weapons thus displays flagrant disregard for both U.S. law and human life.
Russia’s use last year of cluster munitions drew the ire and intense criticism of the international community, including the United States. At the time, the White House said that the use constituted a possible war crime. In an extremely rapid and inexplicable about-face, that same White House has elected to implicate itself in such crimes.
The Biden administration described this as “a difficult decision.” But it should not have been. It should have been an easy decision. The weapons that the United States is shipping to Ukraine kill noncombatants almost exclusively. They malfunction as much as a third of the time. They are derided and largely forbidden by the international community.
There is no excuse — not one — for their deployment.