Jul 11, 2023 - World

U.S. spends millions worldwide to clean up widely banned bombs destined for Ukraine

One-of-four parts of a cluster bomb found on the ground in Ukraine

Part of a cluster bomb found on the ground south of Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Photo: Matteo Placucci/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years helping other countries clean up unexploded bombs — including the same type of controversial weapon that it now plans to send to Ukraine.

Why it matters: President Biden's decision Friday to green-light the transfer of widely banned cluster munitions to Ukraine in its ongoing fight against Russia has sparked humanitarian concerns — even among some in his own party.

  • There are "a lot of inconsistencies" in the Biden administration's decision to send this type of weapon to Ukraine, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Axios.
  • “The fact that you've got to spend millions and millions of dollars 50 years later, to try to clean up the damage that was done back then, I think should be a lesson enough for us to withhold this kind of weapon," he added.

By the numbers: Since 1993, the U.S. has spent more than $4.6 billion to help other countries clear out landmines and other unexploded ordnance, including cluster munitions, according to the State Department.

  • During the 2022 fiscal year alone, the U.S. "supported conventional weapons destruction activities in more than 65 countries and areas with more than $376 million," it added.
  • During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dropped roughly 270 million cluster bombs on Laos, up to 30% of which did not explode. The U.S. has now spent decades helping to fund the cleanup.

What they're saying: "The legacy of cluster bombs is misery, death, and expensive cleanup generations after their use," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said in a statement opposing Biden's move.

  • "The U.S. pays tens of millions of dollars annually to remove cluster munitions in Laos from the Vietnam era as these remnants of war continue to kill and maim civilians," she added.

Zoom in: Cluster munitions can fall often outside of the intended target range and up to 40% fail to explode on impact as intended, meaning they can injure and kill civilians long after a conflict has ended.

State of play: Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) have introduced an amendment to the yearly must-pass defense spending bill to ban transfers of cluster munitions altogether.

  • As for the cleanup of Ukraine, the U.S. previously pledged $91.5 million to help "address the urgent humanitarian challenges posed by explosive remnants of war created by Russia’s invasion," a State Department spokesperson told Axios.
  • But neither the spokesperson nor the White House answered questions about whether the U.S. would commit to more cleanup funding in light of Biden's decision to send cluster munitions.

What's next: "We expect this to be one of the largest landmine and unexploded ordnance challenges since World War Two," Michael Tirre, a senior official in the State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, said in December.

The bottom line: Castro said despite the urge to "do every single thing" to help Ukraine, the decision to send cluster bombs will affect Ukrainians generations from now.

  • "I don't think that we should contribute to the inhumanity in this way," he said. "It's just like if a country asked us for chemical weapons. We would say no."

Go deeper: Bipartisan push forms in Congress to deny Ukraine cluster bombs

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