The reason cluster bullets are controversial
Ukrainian soldiers collect unexploded submunitions from cluster munitions. Photo: Reuters

Many of the submunitions in cluster munitions failed to explode on impact, threatening civilians decades after the war, making the weapon controversial.

The Pentagon on July 7 announced the 42nd package of military aid to Ukraine, including the Advanced Conventional Multipurpose Ammunition (DPICM), which is rated as “highly effective and reliable.” However, this decision met with a fierce reaction from American public opinion as well as some European countries due to the risk of causing too much damage during and after the war of cluster munitions.

DPICM is a general term for many types of artillery shells and rockets carrying submunitions, with similar designs. This is a cluster munition developed and manufactured by the United States in the 1970s and 1990s, often used against armored vehicles and destroyed enemy infantry.

While cluster munitions are dropped from aircraft, cluster munitions are usually launched from artillery or rockets. They are large in size but do not deal damage with explosives or conventional penetrating warheads, but they contain large amounts of submunition that are released when approaching the target.

This mechanism allows a parent projectile to spread hundreds to thousands of submunitions over an area the size of several football fields, achieving much higher damage efficiency than conventional artillery shells or fragmentation rockets.

The submunition’s fuse is usually activated while falling, allowing it to explode in the air or on the ground. Each DPICM submunition is equipped with an armor-piercing concave (HEAT) warhead, surrounded by a metal shell that can shatter into pieces and shoot around at extremely high speeds when the main warhead explodes.

This leaves anyone standing in the area of ​​the cluster munitions detonation, whether soldiers or civilians, at risk of death or serious injury. According to the Cluster Ammunition Watch, 34 countries have developed or produced more than 200 types of cluster munitions.

An unexploded cluster bomb was dropped by the Israeli military over Lebanon in 2006. Photo: AP

When an army decides to use cluster munitions, the weapon’s accuracy is no longer valued as much as its ability to kill on a large scale.

Western experts say cluster munitions can help Ukraine deal more effectively with Russia’s dense network of trenches and minefields, which are causing heavy damage and hindering the long-awaited counter-offensive campaign of Kyiv.

“The trenches are an effective countermeasure against conventional artillery shells, forcing the attackers to use large amounts of shells to bombard them without much effect. In contrast, cluster munitions can cover an area. A large area in a short time, using much less total ammunition. Sub-munitions can also fall directly into the trenches and cause heavy casualties to the defending infantry,” expert Joseph Trevithick wrote on the military website Warzone of America.

However, this means that military commanders are less concerned with cluster munitions’ long-term consequences. Some submunitions can malfunction with the fuse, causing them to fail to activate and fall to the ground or entangle in groves of trees scattered over a large area without any map markers.

These submunitions retain their trigger mechanism and can explode when touched by someone, even after many years of hostilities have ended. This poses a particular risk to children who have no knowledge of military weapons.

Reuters report estimates that 60% of cluster munitions casualties occur in people’s daily activities. One-third of all cluster munitions victims are children because they often mistake baby munitions for toys.

This is why the group of countries involved in the development of the Oslo Process to ban cluster munitions used the term “unacceptable risk” to describe the consequences of such munitions.

The “unacceptable risk” of cluster munitions comes from their very large area of ​​influence and the many sub-munitions integrated into a parent projectile, making efforts to find and clear unexploded projectiles. Explosion has great difficulty.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates the rate of sub-munitions not exploding in recent military conflicts could be as high as 40%.

The US dropped about 260 million submunitions on Laos between 1964-1973. The Reuters report found that less than 400,000 of these shells, or 0.47%, were successfully cleared, and at least 11,000 people were killed.

Many human rights groups argue that using cluster munitions against densely populated areas is a violation of international humanitarian regulations, as they are designed to cause widespread destruction, irrespective of military and civilian targets.

Cluster bombs were first used during World War II. At least 15 countries deployed the weapon in the postwar years, including the US, UK, France, Russia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Israel, the Netherlands and Morocco.

Faced with the dangers of this weapon, more than 120 countries have signed the Cluster Munitions Convention (CCM), which prohibits their production, stockpiling, use and transfer. About 99% of the world’s cluster munitions stockpiles have been destroyed since the CCM took effect in 2008. However, the US, Russia and Ukraine have all refused to join the convention.

Human rights groups say both Russia and Ukraine used cluster munitions during the 17-month war. Russia’s rate of unexploded submunitions is thought to be 40 percent, while Ukraine’s is 20 percent, according to Sarah Yager, the Washington-based director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder said on July 6 that there are “many variations” of cluster munitions and that Washington will not supply Ukraine with those with a non-explosive submunition rate above 2.35% but choose a rate The lowest possible.

However, human rights groups argue that the Pentagon is not transparent about the failure rate data of submunitions. The ICRC says this rate is usually above 10%.

“The large-scale use of cluster munitions will expose many areas to tens of thousands or even millions of unexploded submunitions that can be activated at any time,” the agency warned.

The decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine caused controversy within the United States. Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, a Republican, supported the move, saying that Ukraine “is asking for a handover of weapons that Russia itself used.”

“Cluster munitions will be a game changer in their counter-offensive, and I’m pleased that the Biden administration has finally agreed to this request,” McCaul said.

Meanwhile, some Democrats voiced their objections. “Cluster munitions should not be used under any circumstances,” said Congressman Barbara Lee. “I think President Biden did a good job of managing this war, but the decision to supply cluster munitions should not be made.”