Should the U.S. be sending cluster bombs to Ukraine?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images
Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images (Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s happening

The United States agreed last week to provide Ukraine with cluster bombs to aid its counteroffensive against Russia, despite concerns from human rights groups and American allies about collateral damage the controversial weapons may cause.

President Biden told CNN that he made the “difficult decision” to add cluster bombs to the stockpiles being sent to Ukraine over fears that the country’s munitions were running low after intense fighting to hold off invading Russian forces for nearly a year and a half. “The main thing is, they either have the weapons to stop the Russians now … or they don’t.” he said.

Cluster bombs or cluster munitions are a type of weapon that is designed to break apart in midair and a group of smaller “bomblets” then inflict broad damage on enemy targets over a wide area. More than 100 countries have banned the use of cluster weapons because they carry a high risk of civilian casualties both during a conflict and long after the fighting has ended. That list doesn’t include the U.S., Russia or Ukraine, though the American military reportedly hasn’t used cluster weapons since the early stages of the war in Iraq in 2003.

Because they spread explosives over an area that can be as large as “several football fields,” cluster bombs are far less precise than traditional single-warhead weapons, creating risk for any civilians who may be nearby. But the main danger comes from the fact that the individual bomblets don’t always explode when they reach the ground, meaning they pose fatal danger to anyone who may stumble upon them years or even decades into the future.

It’s estimated that about 20,000 people in Laos — half of them children — have been killed over the past 50 years by dormant explosives left over from cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. More than 25 countries are considered to be “contaminated” by unexploded cluster munitions from past conflicts, according to an international group seeking to ban the weapons worldwide.

Why there’s debate

Biden’s decision sparked strong criticism from some members of his own party, along with more measured pushback from some of America’s key allies, over fears that Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs in its own territory will cause unnecessary civilian deaths during the war and for years after it’s been resolved. Others make the case that none of the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine, including extensive use of its own cluster bombs, vindicate abandoning our principles on the rules of war.

But supporters of the move say the Russian army poses far greater danger to the Ukrainian people than any cluster bombs ever could, especially since Ukraine’s leaders have pledged to use them judiciously and only in areas where they’re confident the risk to civilians will be low. Many add that the power to decide between the advantages and dangers of using cluster bombs should rest with Ukraine itself, not a foreign country that doesn’t have direct involvement in the conflict.

What’s next

Biden said Friday that the U.S. will not be providing Ukraine with cluster bombs permanently, but only until the country’s stockpiles of traditional artillery can be replenished. He didn’t provide a time frame for how long that may take.



Ukraine should be trusted to use the bombs wisely

“Russia, which has targeted civilians from the start of the war to terrorize the Ukrainian population into submission, sees the delayed carnage of cluster munitions as a feature, not a bug. Meanwhile, Ukraine has also used cluster munitions — not on Russian civilians, however, but on the hardened battlefield positions of the Russian invaders.” — Jonah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times

It’s different when cluster bombs are used for self-defense

“Ukraine isn’t seeking to use these bombs against civilians. It wants them because they are running out of other munitions and figures they can compensate for some of the advantage Russia still holds. The greater risk to Ukrainian civilians is from Russia’s invading army and indiscriminate weapons targeting. If you can’t see a moral distinction between Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs for defense, then you have the blurred vision.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Ukraine has earned the right to decide how to defend itself

“Ukrainian officials understand the risks of using cluster munitions. But facing an existential threat from Russia, Kyiv believes the pros outweigh the cons. Washington should respect that decision.” — John Hardie, Foreign Policy

The way to protect the Ukrainian people is to give them every weapon they need to stop Russia

“Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation, and its forces are committing atrocities. The overriding human rights imperative is to liberate all of Ukrainian territory as quickly as possible and end the war. The only way to do that is to send Ukraine all of the weapons it needs.” — Max Boot, Washington Post


The idea that cluster bombs can ever be used responsibly is a fantasy

“In Ukraine, the civilians who would be at risk are the very people the Ukrainians are trying to protect. Any cleanup campaign would fall on Kyiv to undertake once the war is over. But no matter what promises Ukraine makes about how these weapons will be used, the use of cluster munitions in any theater isn’t worth the price.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

For all the danger they pose to civilians, cluster bombs may not make much of a difference in the war

“The rain of bomblets may give Ukraine a military advantage in the short term, but it would not be decisive, and it would not outweigh the damage in suffering to civilians in Ukraine, now and likely for generations to come.” — Editorial, New York Times

Russia’s abuses are no excuse for Ukraine to do the same

“The idea that Russian war crimes excuse Ukrainian ones is laughable: Russia’s use of cluster bombs is abominable; it’s also not a reason to use cluster bombs on Russians.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic

Other nations may now feel they have permission to use cluster bombs against their own enemies

“The decisions of the world’s most powerful country and military are key to determining global norms. … Their use will have terrible long-term consequences for civilians there — and perhaps, through the example it sets, for civilians elsewhere too.” — Editorial, Guardian