Cluster bombs: the weapon with which Ukraine hopes to break the Russian defensive lines | International
The United States did not include cluster bombs in the first 41 military aid packages it approved for Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion. Yes, it did in the last one, announced last week by the Pentagon, in which the green light was given to send a type of weapon prohibited by more than a hundred countries and that will cause civilian victims in the decades after the end of the war. Joe Biden, under pressure from kyiv, Republican congressmen and the National Security Council, gave in at the beginning of the month and argued that these bombs are necessary to alleviate the shortage of artillery ammunition. "It was not an easy decision," said the US president, justifying a step criticized by some allies, such as Germany, Spain and Canada. Ukraine trusts that the use of this weapon, which it has already begun to receive, will allow it to break the powerful fortifications that extend along the more than 1,000 kilometers of front.
Since February last year, the Ukrainian government has been demanding that Washington deliver cluster munitions. These types of bombs, free fall or directed, can be launched from planes, ships or artillery pieces. The artifacts contain a device that releases dozens of submunitions into the air that spread over a surface similar to a football field. The cluster bombs that the US has promised to supply to Ukraine will only be used for artillery. The Pentagon has huge reserves of so-called dual-use enhanced conventional munitions (Dpcim). The Dpcim that Washington will deliver to kyiv are fired from 155-mm caliber cannons and each contain 88 submunitions designed to kill the largest number of enemy troops and destroy armored vehicles.
Mark Cancian, a retired US colonel and researcher in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argues by phone that there are three main reasons that have led to Biden's recent change of position. On the one hand, the shortage of artillery ammunition in Western arsenals and "the inability to increase production at the rate that Ukraine requires." The Ukrainian army burns between 2,000 and 7,000 shells every day, compared to between 20,000 and 50,000 fired by the invading forces. Valeri Zaluzhny, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, declared a few days ago to The Washington Post that his troops use "10 times less artillery" than the Russians. Washington has already delivered more than two million shells to kyiv and other Western allies have supplied hundreds of thousands more, but they are insufficient for a war with such intensity of artillery fire. The United States has announced that it will six-fold its production of artillery ammunition by 2028, but has so far only managed to raise it from the pre-war 14,000 shells a month to just over 20,000 today.
The second reason Cancian cites is the Ukrainian government's commitment to use cluster munitions only against military targets and in areas far from population centers. The Ukrainian authorities argue that the ground on which it will launch them is already completely infested with anti-personnel mines and Russian cluster submunitions. And that the risk of Ukrainian civilians suffering the long-term consequences of the use of cluster bombs is less than that of remaining under occupation. The third reason cited by the CSIS investigator is the pressure exerted on Biden by his military advisers and several prominent Republican congressmen. "This is the same pressure that made him give in over time to the delivery of other types of sophisticated weapons, such as Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries, Himars multiple missile launchers, Abrams tanks or F-16 fighter jets." , notes Cancian.
"A turning point"
Oleksi Reznikov, Ukraine's Defense Minister, declared a few days ago that the cluster bombs will mark "a turning point" in the course of the counter-offensive launched in June in the south and east of the country. The kyiv army is trying to overcome the three Russian defensive lines at various points on the front. Ukrainian soldiers try to advance some 30 kilometers riddled with anti-personnel mines and anti-tank obstacles while being attacked by drones and Russian artillery. “Cluster bombs will make it much more effective against entrenched enemy troops,” Cancian believes, adding that they will also serve as covering fire for Ukrainian sappers to clear minefields. Washington argues that the cluster bombs will enable the Ukrainian army to cope with the superior artillery and personnel of the Russian army, while reducing the use of conventional projectiles and howitzer wear and tear.
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US Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl stated that cluster bombs destined for Ukraine have a failure rate of 2.35%, according to calculations drawn from tests carried out between 1990 and 2020 whose results are confidential. The Pentagon claims that more than 40% of Russian cluster bomb submunitions fail to explode.
The Kremlin responded to Washington's announcement by threatening to start using this type of weapon in Ukraine. However, the military has used cluster munitions since the start of the war. The Geneva-based NGO Coalition Against Cluster Bombs estimates that Russian cluster bombs killed nearly 700 civilians in the first six months of the war in Ukraine. The deadliest attack was at the Kramatorsk railway station in April 2022 in the Donetsk province, in which 61 people were killed and more than 150 injured.
Kiev has committed to keeping a register describing each use of cluster munitions on the battlefield, in order to prioritize those areas if they are finally released and the demining phase arrives. Even so, the Ukrainian army denies having used bombs of this type to date, despite the fact that different international organizations maintain that it has used those of Soviet origin that it kept in its arsenals. Human Rights Watch claims that a cluster bomb dropped by Ukraine killed eight civilians and injured 15 in an attack in Izium (Kharkov region) in spring 2022.
More than a hundred countries have ratified the 2008 Cluster Munitions Convention, including most NATO members. Neither Ukraine, nor Russia nor the United States are signatories, but some of the allies that have publicly criticized Biden's decision, such as Canada, Spain, Germany or, more lukewarm, the United Kingdom, are. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the Alliance, stated that the Euro-Atlantic organization does not have a formal position on the use of cluster bombs on the battlefield. Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Poland or Romania, some of Russia's closest allies, have not ratified the agreement that prohibits the production, distribution and use of this weapon either.
Cluster bombs have been used in countless wars since the Nazi German air force launched a prototype in the bombing of Gernika in 1937. In recent years, they have been used in Libya, Syria, Yemen or Nagorno Karabagh —both for Armenia as for Azerbaijan. Between 55,000 and 90,000 civilians have been killed worldwide by unexploded cluster submunitions, according to various estimates.
The governments of Laos and Cambodia, two of the countries with the highest proportion of land contaminated by cluster bombs, have expressed concern about the use of this weapon in Ukraine. At least 20,000 Laotians, most of them children, have been killed or amputated by cluster submunitions since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. US aircraft dropped more than two million tons of such bombs on Laos , and most of the victims have been civilians who were born after the end of the war. The Coalition Against Cluster Bombs estimates that it will take another 100 years to remove all the explosive charges planted by the United States in this Southeast Asian country.
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