March 28, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S. Should Send Cluster Munitions to Ukraine

March 28, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S. Should Send Cluster Munitions to Ukraine

The top Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs and armed services committees sent a letter to President Joe Biden last week urging him to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, specifically the Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM). While not without risks, providing DPICMs could ease Kyiv’s artillery ammunition shortage, which undermines Ukraine’s ability to repel Russian advances and may hamper its upcoming counteroffensive.

The DPICM is a type of warhead that releases smaller explosive submunitions, increasing lethality. Most relevant for Ukraine are the M483A1 and M864 artillery shells, which Ukraine’s Western-made 155mm artillery systems can fire.

As the lawmakers note, DPICMs “are highly effective against personnel — both enemy troops in the open and entrenched infantry — and mechanized vehicles. The United States relied on similar cluster munitions during the Cold War as a means of offsetting Soviet military advantages in manpower, artillery, and armored vehicles.” Russia today possesses similar numerical advantages against Ukraine, using some of the same Soviet-era vehicles that DPICMs were originally intended to defeat.

Cluster munitions are controversial because some of their submunitions typically fail to detonate, leaving behind unexploded ordnance (UXO) that can harm civilians or friendly forces. Like Washington, neither Kyiv nor Moscow has joined an international convention banning cluster munitions. (Nor has Poland or Romania, through whose territory the munitions would be delivered.) Both Russia and Ukraine have already used cluster munitions in the war.

Kyiv has been asking Washington for U.S.-made cluster munitions since last summer. But the Biden administration has demurred, perhaps fearing political blowback at home and in parts of Europe. U.S. law generally prohibits the transfer of cluster munitions with a “dud” rate of over 1 percent, but the president can waive this prohibition under Section 614 of the Foreign Assistance Act. Some of the DPICM rounds in the U.S. arsenal have a dud rate of just above 1 percent, according to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl.

DPICMs would ease Kyiv’s dangerous shortage of artillery ammunition. This “shell hunger” has already undermined Ukraine’s ability to repulse Russian advances around the eastern city of Bakhmut and may worsen as Western stockpiles continue to dwindle. Unless resolved, this shortage would likely hinder Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive — in which Washington and its allies have invested billions of dollars — later this spring.

DPICMs offer an untapped source of supply. According to the lawmakers, the United States possesses nearly 3 million DPICM rounds. Some are likely past their shelf life or otherwise unsuitable for Ukraine. But even a few hundred thousand could make a critical difference to Ukrainian forces, who are currently firing around 3,000 to 4,000 artillery shells per day.

DPICMs would be especially useful in countering the infantry-heavy assault units Russia has used to gain ground in Bakhmut and is increasingly employing in other parts of the battlefield as well. Sending DPICMs now would also allow Kyiv to conserve more of its traditional artillery shells, which pose less of a threat to friendly forces advancing across the battlefield, as Ukrainian troops would be doing in the planned counteroffensive.

The risk cluster munitions pose to civilians is not lost on Ukraine’s elected representatives. But Kyiv, facing an existential threat from Russia, believes the rewards outweigh the risks. The atrocities committed by Russian forces in places such as Bucha and Izyum demonstrate that the greatest threat to Ukrainian civilians comes from Russian territorial gains. Moreover, Ukraine would be firing DPICMs in areas that are mostly depopulated and already littered with UXO.

If Biden does not send DPICMs now, he may be forced to do so later as Ukraine’s ammunition shortage grows more dire. But by then it may be too late. Kyiv has decided it needs DPICMs to defend its people from Russian aggression. Biden should respect that decision and send Ukraine these munitions without delay.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from the authors and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy Ukraine