US Releases Cluster Munitions to Ukraine in Stopgap Effort to Aid Ukraine's Offensive

M-109 firing at night. CREDIT: Department of Defense

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced on Friday that the next US aid package to Ukraine will include Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) ammunition, commonly called cluster munitions for 155mm and 105mm artillery. I previewed this announcement yesterday in Putin’s War, Week 71. The Fighters Go to Their Corners.

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What is DPICM?

Improved Conventional Munitions were developed in the late 1950s to increase the effectiveness of conventional artillery ammunition. They are part of a class of weapons for artillery, missiles, and aircraft bombs called “cluster munitions.” The 105mm. The idea is that an artillery projectile that saturates a large area with bomblets will probably kill more people and break more stuff than a so-called unitary round. The best way to think of the early munition is as a bouncing hand grenade. The artillery projo opens and drops about 40 bomblets. These hit the ground; they arm on impact, bounce and explode at about waist height. Except when they don’t. Of course, the downside to this was that ICM shot into jungle canopy might arm and not explode until the wind, or a passerby, disturbed the bomblet causing it to fall. If they landed in the mud…like in rice paddies…they might arm and just lay there waiting to be kicked.

As ways were sought to counter Soviet and Warsaw Pact armor pouring over the North German Plain and through the Fulda and Hof Gaps, up-gunning ICM to attack armor formations was a logical decision. By 1975, the Army was using bomblets that were effective against armor or personnel, hence the “dual purpose” part of the title. With DPICM, a single 155mm DPICM could scatter as many as 88 bomblets. Imagine that hitting a Soviet convoy or assembly area, and you see why they quickly became the preferred artillery round.

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What is the Controversy?

If you develop a better mousetrap, the first thing the mice do is try to outlaw the mousetrap. The Soviets, and their willing agents in the West, carried out a skillful campaign to make DPICMmade illegal. (That last sentence is strictly my opinion, I have no data to prove that Human Rights Watch and the like were Soviet tools.) To really appreciate what follows, you have to read Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, where she analyzes Germany’s campaign to outlaw the dum-dum bullets that made the new British .303-caliber rifle as effective as the bigger, heavier, and slower-to-load .577/.450 Martini-Henry rifle familiar to fans of “Zulu.” Just as the Germans used humanitarian arguments to attack a weapon that they were afraid shifted the balance of power of infantry forces, the Soviets capitalized on the “dud rate” to try to force DPICM out of existence. The result was the “Convention on Cluster Munitions,” with 123 nations pledging not to use such weapons.

CREDIT: Convention on Cluster Munitions

In 2008, as the George Bush administration was about to ride off into the sunset, the US Defense Department did the most George Bush thing; it took DPICM out of the US inventory.

In 2008, at the very tail end of President George W. Bush’s tenure in office, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did put a policy into place calling for the elimination of cluster munitions in U.S. inventory with failure rates above one percent. For nearly a decade after, the U.S. military was steadily moving away from cluster munitions more generally in favor of alternative options. The policy was suspended in 2017 under Preisdent Donald Trump. Congress has since blocked the production, use, or transfer of cluster munitions that do not meet the one percent standard, but the Biden administration officials are of the view this can be waived by citing vital national security interests, according to a report from The Washington Post.

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The rounds slated to go to Ukraine have a dud rate of less than 2.5%. Groups like Human Rights Waclaimming that the in-the-field dud rate is around 20 percent or more. Anyone who refers to cluster munitions as “banned” is lying to you. Cluster munitions are only banned by those nations who agree to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Neither the United States, Russia, nor Ukraine are members of the agreement, and cluster munitions are used by Russians every day. Many of the objections to transferring DPICM are just as dishonest as international organizations condemning Ukraine’s use of anti-personnel mines on its own territory while completely ignoring Russia’s use of anti-personnel mines in Ukraine.

It is fair to ask guys like Glenn Greenwald why they have never expressed a syllable of concern about Russia using cluster munitions but have now changed into their brown trousers from the stress of complaining about DPICM being used on Russians.

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In case you’re wondering, the pile of debris above is expended Russian cluster munition canisters for rockets, bombs, and artillery.

All of the whinging and sniveling about civilian casualties, demining operations, and dud rates just obscures one salient fact. Even with a 20% dud rate, they are damned effective. And cheap.

Why Now?

Ukraine has asked for DPICM for months. Why the White House dragged out the decision is anyone’s guess. The combatants in Ukraine are burning hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition. Several Western countries have new artillery ammunition production lines powering up, but the current production rate can’t keep up with the burn rate unless we dig deeper into war stocks than anyone wishes. On the other hand, we have millions of DPICM rounds awaiting demilitarization. The DPICM ammunition will provide a critical stopgap supply, a pivotal point in the war. It will also save Defense dollars by being dumped on Russians instead of broken up in ammunition depots.

As an aside, it really saddens me to read social media comments by guys I know and who I know know better, claiming that we’ve “used up all of our ammunition.” It isn’t true, and they know it, which calls into question a lot of things.

What Will Be the Effect on the War?

Make no mistake about it; DPICM allows one artillery round to take out multiple vehicles and lots of troops. Both sides are already using scatterable mines to seal off attacks. DPICM will prevent Russian reinforcements from massing. It will not be a war-winner, but I believe DPICM will change how the Ukrainian offensive plays out.

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