The United States could provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, a controversial weapon system that more than 100 other countries have vowed not to use, Task & Purpose has confirmed.
No decision has been made yet on whether to give Ukraine the munitions which saturate an area with bomblets to maximize death and destruction.
One major drawback to cluster munitions is that many of the submunitions often fail to detonate on impact, creating unexploded ordnance that can later kill civilians and even U.S. troops. During the Gulf War, seven American soldiers were killed while trying to clear unexploded bomblets from an airfield in Iraq.
Although the United States has not joined the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions, under which 123 countries have agreed not to use the weapons, the Defense Department initially committed in 2008 to upgrading its cluster munitions so that 99% of bomblets detonated.
The U.S. military also planned to phase out its existing stockpiles of cluster munitions with these new weapons by 2018, but it abruptly reversed course roughly a month before that deadline.
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“Although the Department seeks to field a new generation of more highly reliable munitions, we cannot risk mission failure or accept the potential of increased military and civilian casualties by forfeiting the best available capabilities,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in a Nov. 30, 2017 memo. “It is for these reasons that the Department will retain cluster munitions currently in active inventories until the capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.”
The new policy did not establish a deadline for the Defense Department to replace cluster munitions that have a fail rate greater than 1%, according to a March 9, 2022 Congressional Research Service report. However, the 2017 policy does require the military to only buy cluster munitions that either meet the fail-rate requirement or have “advanced features to minimize the risks posed by unexploded submunitions.”
Several media outlets previously reported that President Joe Biden’s administration is now considering whether to provide Ukraine with Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, or DPICM, which can burst in the air or on the ground to spread submunitions.
It is unclear whether such a move might run into legal challenges. The Consolidated Appropriations Acts of 2010 and 2019 both have provisions that limit the transfer or sale of cluster munitions unless they are built so that no more than 1% of the submunitions fail to explode, according to the Congressional Research Service Report.
The dud rate for DPICM ranges between 1% and 2% of submunitions, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, former commanding general of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
“Over the years the U.S. has reduced the dud rate for DPICM but it remains above 1%,” Shoffner told Task & Purpose. “This is a consideration for use on the battlefield, especially in the vicinity of populated areas.”
Still, DPICM would be very effective against the entrenched Russian formations arrayed in depth that the Ukrainians are trying to overcome, Shoffner said. Because these munitions cover such a wide area, they also require less precise targeting information than Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.
The idea to give Ukraine cluster munitions comes as Ukrainian forces have made limited progress in their counter-offensive against well-prepared Russian defenses, which include minefields and trenches not protected by artillery and other fires. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently acknowledged that the counteroffensive is moving “slower than desired.”
A U.S. defense official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 22 that these cluster munitions could be useful for Ukrainian forces against dug-in Russian positions.
“The reason why you have not seen a move forward in providing this capability relates both to the existing congressional restrictions on the provision of DPICMs and concerns about allied unity,” said Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
DPICMs are ideally suited for use against Russian trenches and artillery according to retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who served on the Defense Department’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force advisory board.
Each DPICM round has a killing radius at least 10 times greater than a unitary round, Scales told Task & Purpose. Each of the submunitions, which are the size of flashlight batteries, falls almost vertically, meaning they will go down into trenches.
“There are so many points of detonation, that they will almost always smother a trench line,” Scales said. “So, anyone hunkering down in the trench, thinking he is going to hide from the mortars or the artillery, is going to get wounded.”
During the Gulf War, the U.S. military used DPICMs to destroy Iraqi 122mm and 152mm howitzers, Scales said. The rounds burst into jagged fragments that did severe damage to the howitzers’ optics.
“If you’re trying to kill Russian artillery, most of which is still towed, they are optimally suited for that role, as they were in the Gulf War,” Scales said.
DPICM can be fired by both 155mm artillery systems and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, former commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Not only would these cluster munitions devastate Russian trenches, but they would also deliver “catastrophic results” against Russian soft-skinned and lightly armored vehicles, Donahoe told Task & Purpose on Friday.
“Most of these munitions have been in storage in the U.S. and would require expensive elimination,” Donahoe said. “The Ukrainians can use them to great advantage and save us the cost of removing them safely from our stockpiles.”
Armed with DCPIM, the Ukrainians would be able to break up Russian counterattacks and convoys, said retired Marine Col. J.D. Williams, a defense policy researcher with the RAND Corporation. The Russians would be slowed by high casualties and unexploded bomblets.
DPICM would also help the Ukrainians protect the flanks of their advancing units, Williams told Task & Purpose.
“The munitions can be employed adjacent to avenues of advance to prevent Russian units from moving through those areas and attacking the Ukrainian flanks, in effect, creating temporary ‘no go’ areas that limit an adversary’s ability to maneuver,” Williams said.
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