When NATO leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week, US President Joe Biden will bring with him a plan to hand over controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine, the administration announced today. But not all allies and partners agree, which could lead to a series of awkward interactions.
The decision, included as part of a new $800 million weapons package, comes at a time when Ukraine is firing an estimated 1,000 artillery shells a day, and the US is still trying to ramp up production of those unitary shells. , as announced at the White House by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
“We have already seen substantial increases in production, but this process will continue to take time, and it will be critical to provide Ukraine with a supply bridge,” he told reporters. “As our domestic production [increases], we will not leave Ukraine defenseless at any time during this period of conflict.”
Today’s announcement by Sullivan clears the way for Kyiv to deliver 155mm Dual-Purpose Enhanced Conventional Munitions (DPICM) for its forces to fire from existing artillery launchers. Proponents of this move say the weapons could help alleviate a shortage of artillery shells while also providing an effective mode of attack against larger Russian formations.
However, concerns about the high failure rate and the risk to the civilian population mean that these weapons are highly questioned and are banned in many countries, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
Ahead of the expected announcement, Reuters reported that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she was opposed to sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance as a whole would not pronounce.
“A number of allies have signed the convention, but a number of allies have not signed it, and it is up to each ally to make decisions about sending arms and military supplies to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg stated. “So this will be decided by governments, not NATO as an alliance.”
“We have to remember that this brutality is also reflected in the fact that every day we see casualties from cluster munitions on both sides,” he later added. “Russia [uses] cluster munitions in its aggressive war to invade another country, while Ukraine is using it] to defend itself.”
US officials have not disclosed the level of acceptance they have received from other countries, especially those that have signed the treaty, but the White House appears to side with Stoltenberg’s “both sides” argument to help justify his position. In a preview of the decision, published in Breaking Defense on June 30, a US official stated that with both Ukraine and Russia using similar cluster munitions throughout the conflict, there is already a need to “clean” the explosive devices without detonating scattered around the area.
A controversial weapon wanted by Ukraine
Like traditional artillery shells, DPICMs are surface-to-surface weapons. However, warheads are designed to explode and then disperse smaller munitions, which are designed to explode over a wider area.
“What DPICMs bring to the battlefield is anti-armor and anti-personnel capability,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters on Thursday. “So, essentially, they can be loaded with shape charges, which are armor penetrating, or they can be loaded with antipersonnel fragment munitions.
“So this is clearly a useful capability in any type of offensive operation,” he added.
However, cluster munitions have a higher failure rate and do not always explode. When that happens, civilians are at greater risk of being killed or injured if they accidentally trip over them and set off an explosion.
This risk led 123 states to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans cluster munitions. The United States, Russia and Ukraine are among the countries that have not signed the treaty.
Past US leaders have also taken steps to stop the proliferation of these controversial weapons. For example, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010 and 2019 limited Washington’s transfer of cluster munitions unless the submunition failure rate was less than 1 percent, a number below the Pentagon’s assessment for weapons destined for Ukraine.
At a press briefing at the Pentagon on Friday, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said Biden has the right to waive that requirement on national security grounds. While he did not disclose which “newer” variants of DPICM are destined for Ukraine, nor how many, he said those weapons have a failure rate of 2.35 percent or less, based on five tests conducted between 1998 and 2020. However, the public will not have a chance to see the details because they are classified.
“We trust those figures [and] I will also say that how they are used is important,” he said, noting that Kyiv has guaranteed in writing that it will not use DPICM in “civilian-populated urban areas” and that it will monitor where they are used for future clearance efforts.
Following the DPICM announcement, a trio of Republican lawyers – House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (Texas), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senior Member Jim Risch (Idaho), and Senate Armed Services Committee Senior Member Roger Wicker (Mississippi) — sent out a joint press release praising the decision and also outlining what they want to see next.
“While no weapon system is a proverbial golden bullet, DPICMs will help fill a key gap for the Ukraine military and enable the Ukrainian armed forces to target and eliminate Russian forces more efficiently, even in fortified positions on the battlefield,” the three men wrote. “The supply of DPICM will also ease the pressure on the US arsenal of unitary nuclear warheads. But the Biden Administration cannot stop here. It is critical that they also send the Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS).”