Timeline: Use of controversial cluster bombs in past conflicts

The widely condemned use of cluster bombs can be traced back to World War II.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds a defused cluster bomb from an MSLR missile allegedly used by the Russian army
A Ukrainian serviceman holds a defused cluster bomb from a missile allegedly used by the Russian army [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Several countries have announced they will not send Ukraine cluster munitions following the United States’ decision to send the controversial weapons to the front line.

On Friday, Washington confirmed it would supply Kyiv with the widely condemned bombs as part of a new $800m security package.

US President Joe Biden defended his decision as difficult but necessary, saying Ukraine needed them and has assured Washington that the bombs would not be used to target territory in Russia.

More than 100 countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, have signed an accord under the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the production, stockpiling, use and transfer of cluster bombs.

Civil defense members safely detonate cluster bombs
Civil defence members safely detonate cluster bombs in the rebel-held area in Deraa, Syria [File: Alaa al-Faqir/Reuters]

Paul Hannon, of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), said the US move will “contribute to the terrible casualties being suffered by Ukrainian civilians both immediately and for years to come”.

Cluster munitions typically release large numbers of smaller bomblets that can kill indiscriminately over a wide area but have a high failure rate leaving those that fail to explode to pose a danger for decades after a conflict ends.

Here is a timeline of the use of the weapons throughout history:

1943, Battle of Kursk (World War II): 

Soviet forces dropped cluster munitions on German forces in Kursk, western Russia.

1943 in the UK (World War II): 

Germany released 1,000 butterfly bombs on Grimsby, a port city in northeast England.

1960s and 70s, Vietnam War:

US forces targeted Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with cluster munitions during the Cold War.

According to a monitor,  the US dropped 413,130 tonnes of cluster munitions over Vietnam between 1965 and 1973.

Citing authorities, the Red Cross reported that Laos is contaminated by about 80 million cluster submunitions, affecting all 17 provinces and resulting in 300 yearly casualties.

1975-88 in Western Sahara:

Moroccan forces used cluster munitions against non-state armed groups.

1978, Lebanon:

During Israel’s invasion, Tel Aviv used cluster munitions in southern Lebanon.

1979-89, Afghanistan:

Soviet forces used cluster munitions in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

1982, Falklands War: 

British forces released cluster bombs on Argentinean infantry positions during the 10-week undeclared war, in which hundreds died.

1991, Gulf War:

According to Human Rights Watch, the 61,000 aerial-delivered cluster munitions released by the US and its allies accounted for “about one-quarter of the bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait”.

Civil defence members gather cluster bombs to safely detonate them
Civil defence members gather cluster bombs to safely detonate them inside a field in al-Tmanah town in southern Idlib countryside, Syria [File: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

1992-95, Bosnian War: 

Yugoslav forces used available cluster munitions during the war for independence. According to the CMC, in 1992, 195 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina were victims of cluster bombs. During the war, the highest number of causalities reached 175, with 31 deaths.

1994-96, First Chechen War:

Russian forces used cluster munitions against Chechen independence groups.

1995, Croatia:

On May 2-3, Serbian forces attacked Zagreb using cluster bombs.

1996-99 in Sudan:

Sudanese government forces air-dropped cluster munitions in southern Sudan.

1998, Ethiopian-Eritrean War:

Ethiopia and Eritrea exchanged bomb strikes, with Ethiopia attacking the Asmara airport and Eritrea targeting the Mekelle airport.

1998-99, Albania:

Yugoslav forces launch cross-border rocket attacks on Albania.

1999 in Yugoslavia (Kosovo War):

NATO allies dropped 1,765 cluster bombs containing 295,000 bomblets.

2001-02, Afghanistan War:

The US dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets in Afghanistan between October 2001 and March 2002, according to HRW.

A boy holds unexploded cluster bombs
A boy holds unexploded cluster bombs after jet shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in al-Meyasar district of Aleppo [File: Hamid Khatib/Reuters]

2003-06, Iraq War:

Nearly 13,000 cluster munitions were used by the UK and the US during three weeks of combat, according to the CMC.

2008, Georgian war:

Russia used air- and ground-launched cluster bombs during a conflict in South Ossetia. Georgia also used cluster munitions.

Together, their cluster munitions killed at least 16 civilians and injured another 54.

2011 in Libya:

Then-President Muammar Gaddafi’s forces used cluster munitions in a village in Misrata, Libya.

Ongoing since 2012 in Syria:

The use of cluster munitions in the Syrian conflict started in 2012, since the Arab Spring revolutionary protests.

2014-15, Crimea:

Russia and Ukraine used cluster munitions during Moscow’s invasion to annex Crimea, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

2015-18 in Yemen:

Saudi Arabia used UK-made cluster bombs against Houthi rebels in Yemen

2022, Ukraine War:

According to HRW, Russia and Ukraine have extensively used cluster bombs during the conflict.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies