Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  21 July, 2023

Skyfall: Cluster Munitions for Ukraine

Image: The Broken Chair, Geneva. A sculpture symbolising opposition to land mines and cluster bombs.
Sergii Figurnyi/

The US government has decided to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine after lengthy internal controversial debates. With this measure, the next step on the escalation ladder in this murderous war will be climbed. After long, hesitant discussions about the delivery of simple military equipment down to helmets, promises for the unrestricted defence of Ukraine, the delivery of modern weapons such as anti-aircraft guns, heated discussions about the yes or no of battle tanks, then combat aircraft – now, the delivery of the outlawed cluster munitions.

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, repeatedly asked for this ammunition, as it appears to be militarily highly effective against targets such as fortified trenches, artillery and convoys of the armed forces. Ukraine hopes to carry out its counteroffensive more resoundingly. Perhaps Ukraine's long heralded, but now extremely slow and costly counter-offensive has prompted the US government to take this problematic step.

Since the signing of the so-called Oslo Convention in 2008, which has been in force since 2010, the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of cluster munitions is banned. These weapons are problematic because they continue to cause human suffering and destruction many years after the end of a war. A disperser contains so-called submunition, also labelled as bomblets or pellets, which are released from the container high above the target, spreading out over a wide area as they fall. When the cluster munitions explode on the ground, a much larger area is affected than in a single concentrated explosion. Some of these cluster bombs contain more than 500 projectiles.

These cluster munitions kill indiscriminately and do not always explode completely when they hit the ground. A high number of the unexploded ordnance, ranging from 2.5 to 40 percent depending on the type of bomb, will pose a danger to civilians for decades to come. Amputation of limbs and non-cultivation of agricultural land are the result. During the Vietnam War, several hundred million cluster bombs were dropped in the forests and rice fields, many millions of which still remaining unexploded in and above the ground.

Because of the dire consequences of these weapons, the Oslo Convention outlaws cluster munitions. A majority of UN members, 123 states, have acceded to the convention, but not the US or Ukraine or Russia. Three arguments or excuses are used to justify the controversial decision to supply these outlawed cluster munitions. These weapons are militarily effective and could provide benefits to Ukraine. The US decision was spurred on by the fact that there are obviously significant bottlenecks in the production of conventional ammunition, especially artillery shells, in this war of attrition. Cluster munitions are available in large quantities in the US and could remedy this shortage.

To defend this decision, proponents point out that Russia has already used cluster munitions several times in attacks on cities in Ukraine. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, excuses the US announcement by saying that both sides have already used cluster munitions. Can the inhumane warfare of one side justify the decision of the other? In doing so, the Western alliance is calling into question its own moral superiority, which it has always emphasised.

The argument that Ukraine's use of cluster munitions is also less problematic because it will  use them only on its own, Russian-occupied territory will be of little consolation to the generations who will later suffer from the unexploded ordnance.

Three different types of cluster munitions exist: artillery ammunition, missile-delivered bomb containers and aircraft-delivered bomb containers. Presently, the United States supplies only artillery ammunition. But in view of the escalation of this war, who can rule out the possibility that the next stage of escalation will be taken in the future? After pledging to supply F-16 fighter jets, the delivery of air-delivered cluster bombs would be the next logical (military) step.

Under the Oslo Treaty, participating states not only undertake not to manufacture, stockpile, transfer, and use cluster munitions, they also assert not to support non-participating states in the use of these weapons and, even more so, to contribute to the enforcement of the ban. Article 21 of the Convention states: “Each State Party shall encourage States not party to this Convention to ratify, accept, approve or accede to this Convention, with the goal of attracting the adherence of all States to this Convention.” The signatories to the treaty should dissuade others from transferring or using cluster munitions, and they should, according to the treaty, "work strenuously towards the promotion of its universalization."

Not only human rights organisations objected. US allies, including the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Spain pointed out that they are opposed to the transfer of US-produced cluster munitions. The New York Times wrote: “In the face of the widespread global condemnation of cluster munitions and the danger they pose to civilians long after the fighting is over, this is not a weapon that a nation with the power and influence of the United States should be spreading.”

Criticism has been raised only partially and rather hesitantly. The Biden government announced its intention to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine shortly before the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, 2023. It is astonishing that this controversial decision hardly sparked a debate in Vilnius. Most NATO member states have signed the Oslo Convention and, according to the text of the treaty, would be obliged to push for non-delivery by its ally. However, the NATO summit avoided criticising the US decision, as would have been expected according to the spirit of the Oslo Treaty. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO would not take a position, which was a de facto carte blanche for the US. How does this behaviour tally with the repeated rhetorical flourishes about rules-based order? Understandably many governments of the Global South think the West is hypocritical.

In Germany, critique of the government was harsh. The daily German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was "in breach of contract and cowardly" since he defended the US announcement and declared that he did not want to fall into the arms of the Americans – especially since Steinmeier signed the Oslo Accords in 2008 in his capacity as Foreign Minister at the time, describing it as a "step towards making the world a safer place".

Apparently, the NATO summit did not dare to make it clear to the US that their decision is diametrically opposed to the Oslo Accords. At the NATO summit in Vilnius, the participants apparently wanted to demonstrate unity and continued solidarity with, and support to, Ukraine. Solidarity with Ukraine is one thing, ignorance of the Convention against cluster munitions is another. Where will this dark journey of escalation lead? Even the use of nuclear weapons can no longer be ruled out if one takes the Kremlin's hidden and open hints seriously. And I guess we have to take them seriously.


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The search for a political solution to the Ukraine war (3-minute read)

The Wagner coup: Strategic setback or military deception? (3-minute read)

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI.