Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said recently that he is keeping the door open to sending cluster munitions — widely banned around the world due to their track record of maiming and killing civilians — to Ukraine.
In a May interview with Politico, Smith said that the advantage of cluster munitions “is we have a lot of them. To the extent that we’re unable to provide sufficient ammo in other areas, they could certainly fill that gap.” He also framed the munitions as a potential way to end a conflict with no end in sight. “If our cluster munitions could bring the war to a conclusion sooner, it’s something I’m open to,” Smith said. This followed comments Smith made a week earlier at a Council on Foreign Relations event where he similarly described the pros and cons of sending cluster munitions to Ukraine.
Ukraine has asked the United States to provide it with cluster bombs, which Russian troops have deployed against Ukrainian civilians and which Ukraine has reportedly used as well. The Biden administration has expressed concerns about Ukraine’s requests, but it also hasn’t rejected them outright — and U.S. lawmakers continue to press the administration to provide the weapons. While most of those calls have come from Republicans, Smith’s openness to the idea, amid a general bipartisan consensus on sending arms to Ukraine, shows that congressional pressure is ramping up.
The administration seems unlikely to approve sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, but that the idea is even on the table has raised concerns among international security advocates about the disintegration of humanitarian law and the potential for the U.S. to further erode standing norms of civilian protection. “As long as the administration holds the line, keeping with the approach that so many of our NATO allies and others in the global community takes, that will be positive,” said Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. “It’s frustrating that much of what you’re hearing from [Capitol Hill] is a call for sending cluster munitions. That Representative Smith did not fully cut off the possibility is also wrongheaded. These weapons have not been used by the United States in more than a decade.”
In order to gauge congressional support for the transfer of munitions banned by over 100 countries, The Intercept contacted the other 27 Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, which conducts oversight on U.S. military support to Ukraine, seeking comment on each member’s stance on the issue.
Only two representatives — Donald Norcross, D-N.J., and Sara Jacobs, D-Calif. — responded at all, asking for a deadline to provide comment.
Shortly afterward, Tracy Manzer, communications director for the House Armed Services Democrats, wrote to The Intercept to address its “outreach to other Members of the HASC.” In her email, Manzer provided quotes from Smith seeking to clarify his position.
“I am not open to sending cluster munitions right now. As I have said previously, for the United States to consider providing Ukraine with cluster munitions there are several critical questions that need to be answered. How would the weapons be used? What effect would such action have on the worldwide coalition in support of Ukraine? How might it affect support for Ukraine within the Democratic Caucus and Congress?”
“Russia is already using cluster munitions and has left unexploded ordnance all over Ukraine. Ukraine wants such weapons as a part of their efforts to take back their territory and force Putin to the negotiating table. To clarify a misconception, I am open to having the conversation about this issue with the understanding that crucially important questions be addressed.”
None of the other members responded with their own position on the issue. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The United States has not used cluster munitions since 2009, when it used the weapons during a strike in Yemen, and cluster munitions have not been produced in the U.S. since the manufacturer Textron shut down production in 2016. Yet the U.S. military maintains massive stockpiles of them. Under a 2017 policy directive, the U.S. military is still authorized to use weapons containing submunitions, in sharp contrast to the dozens of countries that have banned them.
The international community has entrenched norms against the use of cluster munitions, said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director at Project Ploughshares, a peace research institute in Canada, namely because they cause indiscriminate harm to civilians and prolong the impacts of war by leaving unexploded munitions. Cluster munitions fracture before impact, sending out a cascade of small bombs that can impact well beyond their intended target.
Yet neither the U.S., Russia, nor Ukraine is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
In February, Ukrainian officials reportedly urged U.S. lawmakers to press the White House to approve sending cluster munitions to the country. The next month, GOP members atop powerful Senate and House committees pressed Biden on the issue.
In March, Sens. Roger Wicker and Jim Risch and Reps. Michael McCaul and Mike Rogers sent a letter to Biden, criticizing him for failing to waive the 2006 law banning the export of cluster munitions with a failure rate higher than 1 percent. Wicker and Risch are the ranking members on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, respectively, while McCaul and Rogers chair the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees.
“Providing [Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions] will allow Ukraine to compensate for Russia’s quantitative advantage in both personnel and artillery rounds, and will allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to concentrate their use of unitary warheads against higher-value Russian targets,” the four Republicans wrote.
While Smith’s comments indicate an openness among some Democrats to arm Ukraine with cluster munitions, other Democrats have been more cautious. On Friday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on the Biden administration to provide army tactical missile systems, ATACMS, to Ukraine. Ranking Member Bill Keating, D-Mass., said he opposed providing cluster munitions or other “systems that cause indiscriminate harm to civilians” to Ukraine, but that the ATACMS would allow Ukraine to “strike high-value Russian military targets” that are currently inaccessible. Lauren McDermott, a spokesperson for Keating, did not respond to a question about whether the statement was in response to Smith’s comments raising the possibility of sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, but she pointed to two letters Keating led in 2022 to Biden advocating against the use of cluster munitions.
Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions could set a dangerous precedent for war by normalizing the use of indiscriminate weapons and further militarizing and escalating the conflict on both sides, said Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares. “It by definition will serve to prolong the fighting and to create the conditions for further humanitarian suffering. Not to mention that in the background there is the specter of nuclear escalation, another category of indiscriminate weapons.”
“If the United States were to provide cluster munitions, it would lose a great deal of its moral credibility.”
The continued use of cluster munitions won’t make war less horrific for civilians, if that’s even possible, Abramson, of the Arms Control Association, said. “If the United States were to provide cluster munitions, it would lose a great deal of its moral credibility,” he said. The Biden administration has tried to emphasize the idea that the U.S. can lead on civilian protection in the face of autocratic rule, Abramson added. “If he were to send a weapon that historically has primarily, overwhelmingly harmed civilians into the battle in Ukraine, that would be undermining this idea that democracies are actually different than autocracies.”