Was Biden Right To Send Cluster Munitions To Ukraine?

Was Biden Right To Send Cluster Munitions To Ukraine?

The answer is not unequivocally yes, but it’s close to it.

The main objection to so-called cluster munitions, which use an artillery shell or rocket warhead to carry multiple bomblets is that a percentage of the smaller submunitions fail to explode on impact and thus leave behind on the battlefield quantities of unexploded munitions which outlast the war and can injure or kill (in this case) Ukrainian civilians when the war is over.

This is true, but the objection to cluster munitions omits one crucial fact: if Russia were to win this war and seize Ukrainian territory to be ruled by Russian leaders and used as they wish, the land won’t belong to Ukrainians anymore and there won’t be any Ukrainians around to be injured or killed. Cluster munitions are by their nature a last chance form of warfare, used when other forms of fighting the enemy and re-taking land aren’t working.

The kind of cluster munitions being considered for shipment to Ukraine do not include so-called cluster bombs that are dropped from airplanes. Instead, the U.S. will send 155 mm howitzer rounds called the M483A1 Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM – the Army has an acronym for everything). It consists of a carrier shell that contains 88 grenade submunitions. The shell explodes in the air, spreading the small grenades over the ground. The small grenades are principally intended for anti-personnel use, that is, they are sized to kill human soldiers spread out over wide areas. In Ukraine’s case, the cluster munitions would drop and explode in trenches the Russians have dug in great numbers across southern and eastern Ukraine, killing the Russian soldiers occupying the trenches.

Cluster munitions are also used for clearing mine fields. The 88 small grenades within each howitzer shell can explode anti-personnel and anti-tank mines the Russians have laid over large areas to slow down the advance of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. What little specific news there has been from Ukrainian front lines of the counteroffensive has been about the difficulty Ukrainian armored forces have faced from Russian minefields. Ukrainian soldiers and combat vehicles enter the minefields and must slow down to navigate through the mines, making them easy targets for enemy soldiers and artillery. I suspect that one of the major reasons President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been asking for shipments of cluster munitions has been specifically to clear minefields.

The other reason cluster munitions delivered by 155 mm artillery rounds would increase Ukraine’s chances of penetrating Russian defensive lines is the limitation of conventional 155 mm rounds against entrenched positions. When a 155 mm round hits the ground, it explodes in all directions, creating at the place of impact a crater about eight to ten feet in diameter and four feet deep. But the round explodes upward and outward from its impact, preventing the explosion from hitting soldiers who are in trenches dug six to eight feet below ground level. The exact purpose of the trenches dug by the Russians is to protect their soldiers from Ukrainian artillery. In order for a 155 mm round fired by a Ukrainian howitzer to kill a soldier in a trench, it must be a direct hit on the position in the trench where the soldier is standing or crouching.

However, cluster rounds from 155 mm howitzers get around this problem by exploding in the air above trenches and spraying the ground below with each shell’s 88 mini-grenades. Because the bomblets come from above, trenches do little to protect the soldiers using them to defend against artillery bombardment. When a 155 mm shell containing cluster bomblets explodes, the ground area covered by the explosion is much larger than the typical eight-to-ten foot crater left by conventional 155 mm artillery rounds. I couldn’t find a technical description of the ground area covered by the 155 mm cluster munition, but I would estimate an exploded cluster round to cover a ground area 50 to 100 feet in diameter, depending on the altitude of the shell when it explodes. The higher the detonation, the greater the ground area covered, although the number of cluster bomblets per square foot would not be as dense.

Like so many things in a war, the decision to use cluster munitions is necessarily a trade-off between the need to kill the Russian soldiers who occupy their land right now, against the possibility that unexploded bomblets on the ground may injure or kill Ukrainian civilians in the future. I saw a quote a few days ago from a Ukrainian general, one that I cannot locate right now, defending the use of cluster munition artillery in Ukraine’s war against Russian aggressors. I recall that he said something like, “It’s our land, so we should be able to decide what risks to take defending it.” His justification clearly refers to the unavoidable reality, that if Russian aggressors are not driven from its land, Ukraine won’t have the land in the future. Ukrainian farmers will not be able to farm land taken by Russia. Ukrainian villagers will not return to villages destroyed by Russia and then occupied by its soldiers.

It's easy to forget that almost immediately after Russia had seized territory in Eastern and Southern Ukraine last year, Putin ordered that fake votes be held as to whether citizens of that territory wanted to join the Russian federation. They were fake elections with fake results “proving” that Ukrainians in the occupied territories approved of being ruled by their Russian occupiers.

One hardly has to wonder how the citizens of Bakhmut would vote today, now that Russia has spent the better part of a year leveling every structure within its boundaries and killing countless civilian residents. My bet is Ukrainians would rather get their land back and rebuild their houses and take their chances with unexploded munitions in the future, than yield it to the same Russian soldiers who have murdered civilians and destroyed Ukrainian towns from the Russian border in the north all the way to the Sea of Azoz in the South, not to mention rocketing Kyiv and Lviv and other population centers, killing civilians all over Ukraine in the process.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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