Cluster Munitions Will Change Nothing for Ukraine

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by Scott Ritter, published on Information Clearing House, July 13, 2023

I give the last word for today to Scott Ritter, an expert by any standard.   [jb]

The US decision to provide Ukraine with the M864 DPICM round is driven by one thing and one thing only….

The Biden administration has announced that it will be authorizing a new tranche of military support for Ukraine
Totaling around $800 million, it will also feature Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles, air defense missiles, and anti-mine equipment—and hundreds of thousands of 155mm artillery dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) rounds, the M864.

The United States has, prior to the recent announcement, refused to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine for one simple reason—much of the world, including many of America’s NATO allies—views cluster munitions as representing an unacceptable risk to civilian life due to the high occurrence of “dud” munitions (i.e., munitions that fail to detonate on impact). As a result, cluster munitions continue to kill long after the battle where they were employed has ended. The victims tend to be civilians who stumble upon these munitions and inadvertently set them off. 

Cluster Munitions Will Change Nothing for Ukraine

While the US has refused to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty that prohibits all use, transfer, production, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, it has recognized the need to develop cluster munitions with a designed “dud” rate of less than 1% to minimize the post-conflict risk to civilian populations. For this reason, the US military stopped using the M864 in 2016, replacing it with an improved DPICM round.

While the M864 round does not meet the 1% “dud” threshold set by the US Department of Defense for DPICM munitions, the Biden administration touts the fact that the M864 has a “dud” rate of less than 2%, which given the urgency of the need for artillery shells by Ukraine, is deemed to be an acceptable departure from the US norm. However, like virtually every statement made by the United States regarding the conflict in Ukraine, the claim that the M864 DPICM rounds being sent to Ukraine are comprised only of batches “certified” as possessing a “dud” rate of less than 2% is a calculated lie. The tests cited—five of them, conducted between 1998 and 2020—were carried out at the KOFA firing range, located within the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona, using the Terminal Ballistics Evaluation Area, which possesses a prepared and instrumented impact area optimized for data collection. This range employs a surface area consisting of hard-packed, flattened dirt designed to maximize point-detonating fuses such as those employed on the 24 M46 and 48 M42 dual-purpose anti-materiel/anti-personnel sub-munitions contained in each M864 round.

However, when employed in real-life situations, the “dud” rate of the sub-munitions will be much higher—often up to 20%. Rough terrain, mud, soft soil, trees, and bushes all conspire to prevent the sub-munitions from detonating. Moreover, given that the lifespan of a 155mm artillery shell is 20 years, and that production of the M864 round, which began in 1987, terminated in 1996, the vast majority of the M864 artillery shells being provided to Ukraine have reached or exceeded their expiation date, which means that there is an increased probability that many of these shells will not perform as designed.

Likewise, the US government knows that the “dud” rate is derived from laboratory-like testing conditions, and not the real-world environment that exists in Ukraine. The fact is that the M864 DPICM round being delivered to Ukraine is neither as reliable or safe as the Biden administration contends.The M864 is considered by the US military to be 5-15 times as lethal as conventional high-explosive 155mm artillery shells.

This calculation, however, is derived from comparisons made regarding massed infantry and light armor vehicles deployed in the open—a situation which may have existed in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, where some 25,000 M864 rounds were fired against Iraq. However, the battlefield Ukraine faces today against Russia is a far cry from Iraq. The Russian defenses that Ukraine is seeking to breach are constructed on uneven terrain and integrate natural and man-made overhead cover. The reality of the actual battlefield conditions will result in a significant degradation of the lethal impact of the DPICM round, given it at best a three-fold advantage and in many cases making it inferior to a conventional high explosive round. In short, the M864 is not a “game changer.” The Ukrainian forces will achieve limited tactical advantage through its employment, and in many cases, see their probability of kill factors drop.

The US decision to provide Ukraine with the M864 DPICM round is driven by one thing and one thing only—the fact that Ukraine is running out of 155mm artillery shells, and the US has nothing left to give Ukraine except the M864. The drawdown in Afghanistan led to the Department of Defense slashing its artillery acquisition budget in 2021, creating a deficit of production that is only now being addressed in the 2023-24 defense budget. Ukraine’s ambitious counteroffensive is predicated on planning factors built around anticipated availability of 155mm artillery shells.

As things stand, Ukraine will exhaust its supply of 155mm artillery shells prior to any of the objectives set for the counteroffensive having been met. The Biden administration has decided to provide the M864 DPICM round as an emergency stop-gap measure designed to allow Ukraine to sustain its planned rate of fire until which time US and European production of 155mm artillery can be expanded to meet Ukraine’s operational needs, something that isn’t anticipated to occur until mid-2024 at the earliest.But the provision of artillery shells, whether conventional or DPICM, cannot alter the reality that the Ukrainian military lacks the capabilities necessary to successfully defeat the Russian defenses currently deployed against them. The M864 munition cannot offset Russia’s ten-fold superiority in artillery fire, and unchallenged supremacy in the air, where Russian fixed-wing and helicopter assets operate without meaningful opposition while breaking up Ukrainian attacks with precision fire.

The decision by the Biden administration to supply Ukraine with the M864 round is simply a callous continuation of a policy designed to prolong a conflict Ukraine cannot win, and which causes Ukraine to lose hundreds of men killed every day. It does nothing to alter the current trajectory of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which as things currently stand points to a decisive Russian victory, an outcome the Biden administration is loath to accept.

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