The Pentagon on Thursday laid the groundwork to send controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine for use against Russia’s invading forces while denying reports it has already made a decision on weapons that human rights organizations – and some political leaders in the U.S. – say recklessly endanger civilians.
“That is something that is under consideration,” Defense Department spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, shortly after reports that the decision had been finalized regarding the munitions, known in military parlance as dual-purpose improved conventional munitions or DPICMs.
The munitions, like other cluster bombs, are designed to be fired and break apart in mid-air, spraying a target area with smaller explosives. They’re highly effective in destroying armored fighting vehicles and large troop formations – a key benefit for Ukraine as it struggles to maintain munitions stockpiles at the rate it needs to use them against Russian troops.
But the sheer number of explosives that each round fires incrementally increases the likelihood of a “dud” – or one that fails to explode at the time, only for it to wound or kill civilians who encounter it in the future. Current U.S. restrictions limit the use of only cluster munitions that have a dud rate of less than 1%.
“I will say, we have multiple variants of DPICMs in our stocks, and the ones that we are considering providing would not include older variants with dud rates that are higher than 2.35%,” Ryder added. “We are aware of reports out there from several decades ago that indicate certain 155mm DPICMs have higher dud rates, so we will be carefully selecting rounds with lower dud rates for which we have recent testing.”
Ryder declined to say on Thursday how the Pentagon would comply with those restrictions regarding the munitions he confirmed it is considering giving to Ukraine.
The Congressional Research Service noted in a report last year that the latest U.S. military policy states that “combatant commanders can use cluster munitions that do not meet the 1% or less unexploded submunitions standard in extreme situations to meet immediate warfighting demands.”
Cartoons on Ukraine and Russia
More than a hundred countries have signed a U.N. ban on the use of cluster munitions. The U.S. is not one of them, nor is Russia – a point Ryder highlighted on Friday, saying the Russians “have already been employing cluster munitions on the battlefield, many with very high dud-rate, reportedly.”
Ryder stated that cluster munitions are “clearly a capability that can be useful in any kind of defensive operations.”
“In the event we do provide this capability,” he added, “we would be carefully selecting rounds with low dud rates, for which we have testing data, including as recently as 2020.”
The Associated Press reported on Thursday afternoon, citing “people familiar with the decision,” that the Biden administration had approved sending cluster bombs to Ukraine as a part of a new package of $800 million in military assistance.
It noted Ukrainian officials have asked for the weapons to aid their bid to generate new momentum on the battlefield as a part of Kyiv’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian forces.
In the past, some cluster munitions have left behind unexploded bombs that have a dud rate as high as 40%, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. U.S. officials told the AP on Thursday that the rate of unexploded ordnance for the munitions that will be going to Ukraine is less than 3% and will pose less of a threat in the future to civilians.
The U.S. relied on cluster munitions as a key component of its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, according to Human Rights Watch, which claims the U.S.-led coalition deployed 1,500 cluster bombs in the first three years of the war. The Pentagon says the last large-scale use of the munitions was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.