Ukraine Faces A Deadly Dilemma Over Cluster Weapons

Ukraine faces a dilemma over cluster weapons, seen as military effective but morally unacceptable. The issue was highlighted this week by an article in Foreign Policy magazine claiming Ukraine has received cluster munitions from Turkey, a claim immediately denied by Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey.

The weapon at issue is the M483 Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM), an artillery round for the 155mm howitzers supplied to Ukraine by the U.S. Each round scatters 88 powerful grenades; the ‘Dual-Purpose’ part of the name refers to the fact that as well as spraying lethal shrapnel to cut down footsoldiers, the grenade also has an armor-piercing shaped charge capable of damaging vehicles. Some have argued that it is exactly what the West should be giving Ukraine.

“DPICM ammunition is typically 5-15 times more effective per round than the older high explosive artillery rounds the U.S. is currently providing to Ukraine,” according to Dan Rice writing in Small Wars Journal last September. Rice is a special advisor to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and has seen firsthand how artillery is being used in the current conflict. He believes something more powerful is needed.

Rice’s view was echoed by Major General Andrii Kovalchuk, a senior Ukrainian officer, who told Sky News in December that: “We need more collective weapons – not an assault rifle, but a machine gun; not a projectile, but a cluster munition.”

Such weapons are controversial, because while they may be effective, they are notorious for leaving dangerous unexploded munitions scattered over a wide area. These pose a hazard for civilians, especially children, for many years after a conflict has ended. In 2017, eight people were killed and six injured in Vietnam by cluster munitions left over from than forty years previously. Many others around the world are killed by remnants from more recent conflicts.

This danger from unexploded submunitions led to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, now signed by more than 100 states, which outlaws the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of such weapons. The U.S. has not signed the convention, but has replaced its cluster weapons in frontline use with high-tech alternatives claimed to be just as effective. The U.S. has also retained it stocks of old cluster.

In December, the Biden administration was reported to be considering a Ukrainian request for cluster munitions , but evidently decided not to go ahead with the transfer. FP claims that Ukraine went instead to Turkey, which has its own supplies of the U.S.-made rounds.

Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, denied the claim, tweeting that the story was “produced to undermine the relations between Turkey and Ukraine and to create a bad image about Ukraine and Turkey in the world.”

Technically, as Ukraine is not a signatory to the Convention, there is no legal reason it should not use cluster weapons. Russia is not a signatory either, and has made extensive use of cluster bombs in its attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities.

And regardless of the Turkish-supplied weapons, there are unconfirmed videos and reports of other cluster weapons used by Ukraine.

“We have seen sporadic reports of Ukrainian use of tube artillery delivered submunitions,” Marc Garlasco, former Pentagon chief of high value targeting and military advisor to Dutch NGO PAXPAX
, told Forbes. He contrasts this with the repeated large-scale use of such weapons by Russia, and questions whether it is necessary.

“Ukraine is winning this war without resorting to using weapons banned by the majority of NATO so I find it difficult to understand why they are using them now,” says Garlasco.

Even Russia understands the amount of negative reactions that cluster weapons produce, and has repeatedly denied they used them in Ukraine despite abundant physical evidence.

Garlasco notes that using such munitions in populated areas is an indiscriminate attack, making it legally a war crime. (Garlasco also trains war crimes investigators). And, since the war is being fought in Ukrainian territory, the unexploded submunition will be a hazard for Ukrainian civilians.

“It is deeply disappointing Ukraine would also use weapons outlawed by so many states, including the majority of NATO, that will only endanger their own population,” says Garlasco. “To date Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs has been minor and sporadic. Hopefully they will see the error of their ways and cease all use of cluster bombs and remove them from service.”

As Garlasco notes, cluster weapons could lose Ukraine the moral high ground. In a war often portrayed as one of good versus evil, that may be too high a price to pay for any military advantage they might bring.