There has been a bit of a hoo-hah since the US administration announced its intention to supply cluster bombs to Ukraine as part of its most recent £625 million military aid package.
Cluster munitions, to give them their more generic description, work by dispersing large numbers of small bomblets from a rocket, missile or artillery shell. Typically, the chosen delivery system scatters them in mid-flight over a wide area, although they can also be delivered from a low-flying aircraft.
A typical cluster bomb is the US dual-purpose improved conventional munition, or DPICM. Seventy-two sub-munitions can be carried in a 155 mm shell, with the bomblets optimised against armoured targets, personnel, or indeed as mini mines. Usually they are designed to explode on impact but can also have a delay fuse.
Opponents to their use usually refer to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, an agreement to which over 100 countries have now signed up including the UK, Germany, and France, but importantly not the USA, Ukraine, or Russia. So in supplying the weapons the US is not breaking any legally binding pledge, and in any case both Ukraine and Russia have been using their own versions in the Russo-Ukraine war already.
The primary objection to them is their alleged indiscriminate nature. They are area weapons, not precision ones, and many claim that they can endanger the civilian population. This is true, but mainly if used against positions sited in villages and towns, the so-called “settlements” in the Ukraine context.
Research after the Vietnam War showed that it took 13.6 standard 155mm rounds to kill one enemy, for cluster delivery shells of the same calibre it took only two.
The other major worry about the use of cluster munitions is that they have a high dud rate, leaving unexploded bomblets to be picked up by the curious – often children – with fatal consequences. Bomblets may fail to detonate on impact for a variety of reasons, whether it be faulty manufacture, landing on soggy ground or wet farmland, or landing at an angle with insufficient impact to cause them to explode.
All of these may be true, but the US claims that its modern DPICMS munitions have a failures rate of just 2.35%, compared to those already used by the Russians in Ukraine of up to 40%.
There are no “good” weapons in war, only bad ones, and for Ukraine cluster munitions may represent the least worst option at present. In any case, their supply of conventional 155mm shells is running perilously low and western factories are struggling to ramp up production to replace stocks already sent to Ukraine.
Cluster shells, on the other hand, can be supplied from extant stocks and are immediately available. Another bonus is that given their “bigger bang for the buck” status they reduce barrel wear. All artillery pieces have a barrel life, after which accuracy and predictability can vary widely. Replacement barrels are also in short supply.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, has declared that, as part of the deal, Ukraine has given written guarantees that it will not use the US-supplied weapons in Russia, nor in urban areas where civilians might be killed or wounded. It will also record their use, to expedite demining when the conflict is over.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has not directly criticised Washington’s decision, only stating that the UK “discourages” their use. Spain and Canada, which are both NATO members, have openly voiced opposition to them being sent.
But before we Brits get too po-faced and holier-then-thou on the topic, we should remember that our armed forces have also used cluster munitions in the recent past. Famously, at Goose Green during the Falklands War in 1982, the Argentinian defenders were eventually persuaded to surrender after a Harrier jet made a low pass and dropped a cluster bomb on their positions.
We also used them in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and have supplied them to the Saudis for use in their war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Our hands are hardly clean.
From a Ukrainian military perspective, such weapons can be horribly effective when used against dug-in ground troops in trenches and fortified positions, rendering large areas too dangerous to move around in until carefully cleared. And the UkrAF have at least three lines of major Russian defence works to penetrate before they can claim any sort of breakthrough.
All weapons of war are nasty and result in death and injury, sometimes to the innocents. But given the caveats that Ukraine has allegedly signed up to with regards to their use, perhaps its the best that can be achieved in the circumstances.
For Ukraine this is a war of survival, and they need all the help that they can get.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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