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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling weighs in on the U.S. sending cluster munitions to Ukraine


There's more American firepower headed to Ukraine. The Biden administration says it's providing cluster bombs as Ukraine runs low on ammunition in its fight to repel Russian forces. More than a hundred countries have agreed not to use them because of the risk undetonated explosives posed to civilians. Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is with us now. Welcome to the program.

MARK HERTLING: Thank you, Ayesha. It's great to be with you today.

RASCOE: You have had experience with this type of weapon. Can you explain how these cluster bombs work and how effective they are?

HERTLING: You know, first of all, what I'd say is these are not bombs. These are artillery rounds. They're fired like a normal artillery round from a cannon. And in the case of these rounds, they contain somewhere between 72 and 88 small munitions about the size of a small Coke can. And each one of those acts as a grenade. What they are designed to do is come down on the top of vehicles, hard targets. They can't clear minefields, and they aren't very effective in clearing trench lines.

In Desert Storm, when the unit I was with - we were hit accidentally with five rounds of cluster munitions. Immediately, it's - first of all, it's like being inside of a popcorn popper because these rounds are exploding all over the ground, if you've seen films of this. It did cause 31 soldiers to have casualties. But of those 31, 29 of them returned to duty with shrapnel wounds. That was my case. Two of them were medevaced out and treated at a hospital, but they recovered. But the biggest issue are the fact that not all of the small bomblets explode when they hit the ground.

RASCOE: So why don't these bomblets detonate when they hit the ground?

HERTLING: If the round hits at an angle and the detonator doesn't hit the ground or doesn't hit something correctly, then it becomes a dud, or if it hits a very soft surface. And there's a high dud rate. In the past, that dud rate has been anywhere from 5 to 10%. The Department of Defense says these rounds have been tested, and they'll go somewhere between 1 to 2%. I think that's a conservative estimate.

But even with that percentage, you're talking about several hundred thousand unexploded pieces of ammunition that are littering the battlefield that civilians can pick up, young children can pick up. And there are places around the world today that still have these unexploded munitions all over a small part of their territory.

RASCOE: So then I have to ask, why is the U.S. making the decision, when these weapons don't sound very precise and because, you know, they could injure civilians - why do they have to send them over to Ukraine, or why make the decision to send them over to Ukraine?

HERTLING: Well, part of that - since the beginning of the war, we have been providing precision artillery rounds. But those rounds, first of all, are very expensive, and we've been running out of them. So these are - literally, I believe the Department of Defense has said, OK, we don't really want to provide these rounds, but it is a bridge strategy to give the kind of artillery ammunition that Ukraine needs right now because they are in the middle of this offensive operation.

RASCOE: Ukraine and the Biden administration have pointed out that Russia has been using cluster bombs throughout its siege of Ukraine. And they stressed that this is Ukraine defending its own territory and civilians. They're going to be very mindful about how these munitions are deployed. Does that give you any more assurance about sending American cluster bombs to Ukraine?

HERTLING: It does slightly, Ayesha. I'll say that candidly. Minister of Defense Reznikov of Ukraine has said repeatedly that he has five principles for using these weapons. First of all, they'll only be used against the enemy in the intent of deoccupying Ukrainian territory of Russians. They will not use them in urban areas like the Russians have been doing. Ukraine will keep records of where the rounds are fired, and those records of those locations will be prioritized when the war is over for demining operations or rendering these munitions safe. So they're going to have to send crews into areas where these rounds have been fired to make sure that they are safely destroyed.

The last condition that Reznikov said was that Ukraine will report the effectiveness of these rounds to all the allies. And truthfully, the majority of the NATO allies have signed the ban against these weapons. So the United States, in sending these munitions, are kind of running contrary to what the rest of NATO wants them to do. And by the way, if I can add to that - for the last several months, another NATO ally that has not signed the ban, Turkey, has been contributing these munitions to Ukraine for the last several months, and they have proven to be effective in some fights.

RASCOE: That's Gen. Mark Hertling. General, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HERTLING: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.