The US’s decision to transfer cluster munitions to Kyiv will give Ukraine access to a massive reserve of critically needed artillery shells in the battle against the Russian army, potentially opening a way to end the ammunition shortages that have been chronic since the war started.

American news platforms led by Washington Post on Thursday widely reported US President Joe Biden had approved the provision of American cluster munitions to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), to be drawn from US Army and Marine Corps ammunition stocks.

This was then confirmed on Friday evening. A new military aid package "will provide Ukraine with additional artillery systems and ammunition, including highly effective and reliable dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM)," the Pentagon said in a statement, referring to cluster munitions.

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The decision reversed longstanding US bipartisan policy not to export controversial cluster munitions, a weapon banned by most western nations including most of Ukraine’s allies.

Once implemented, the executive order will give AFU gunners potential access to somewhere between 3 and 5 million shells, rockets and aerial bombs designed to scatter explosive sub-munitions over an extended target area, before blowing up. 

Critically for Ukraine, these stocks contain millions of two munitions Ukrainian gunners have learned to fire with devastating effect: NATO-standard 155mm artillery shells fired by systems like the French Caesar and Polish Krab howitzers, and 227mm artillery rockets fired by the US-made M270 and HIMARS launchers.

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Assuming US political will to back Ukraine remains strong and that logistical chains bear the stress, Ukraine’s battle-tested howitzer and rocket artillery gunners could, once the Friday decision is implemented, fight battles against Russian forces with more ammo than targets for the first time in the war.

Cluster munitions as a weapons system are, of themselves, neither new nor particularly advanced technologies in Ukraine’s war with Russia. The most common cluster munition used by both sides starting in 2014 and continuously through the present, is delivered by a Soviet-era BM-30 Smerch artillery rocket. 

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An unguided and relatively inaccurate weapon, each Smerch rocket carries 72 9N235 sub-munitions, each about 25-cm long and weighing about 300 grams, that scatter by parachute over a target area the size of a football field.

Probably the bloodiest use of cluster munitions since the launch of Moscow’s full-scale invasion took place on April 8, 2022, when a pair of Russian Tochka-U medium range surface-to-surface missiles – each toting a warhead packed with sub-munitions seven times as destructive as the bomblets aboard a Smerch – slammed into the main rail station in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk.

Sidings were crowded with hundreds of women and children hoping for transport away from fighting. At least 63 civilians died and more than 150 were injured in the strikes.

One of the most recent, confirmed incidents of cluster munition use by Ukrainian forces was in April when the AFU’s 26th Artillery Brigade published video of a cutting edge, Germany-manufactured SMArt 155 artillery shell destroying two Russian tanks with a single shot.

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Germany and other NATO nation weapons developers first turned to cluster munitions during the Cold War-era as a counter to expected Red Army massed tank assaults into northwest Europe.

The SMArt 155 is one of the most advanced versions of that technology, building a pair of “smart” anti-armor mines into a howitzer shell that flies the sub-munitions to a target.

Equipped with advanced electronics, sensors and flight programs, the twin bomblets guide themselves to attack the thin roof armor of a tank or other heavy armored vehicle. Germany reportedly first sent Ukraine the munition in March 2023. 

Reportedly, a single SMArt 155 shell costs $80,000. A conventional 155mm shell – the munition the AFU is chronically short of – costs between $500 and $3,000. 

AFU gunners have reserved expensive SMArt 155 shells, or small quantities of similar Swedish-manufactured 155 BONUS anti-armor cluster munition shells, for use only against very high value targets. 

One of the earliest confirmed engagements took place in September 2022 – months before Germany announced it was sending Ukraine such munitions – when AFU drones operating in the Zaporizhzhia sector found and obliterated a Russian artillery fire control and radar guidance center called a Zoopark-1 hidden in a wood-line, video released by the AFU showed.

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Cheaper, non-guided, area coverage cluster munitions fell out of wide use in NATO armies by the mid-2000s due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and also because of humanitarian concerns about cluster munitions’ typical 3-10 percent failure rate, sowing target areas with unexploded bomblets potentially still lethal for decades, Human Rights Watch research said.

An international convention banning cluster munitions went into effect in 2008 and by 2023 a total 123 nations had promised neither to manufacture nor to maintain stocks of cluster munitions. Russia, Ukraine and the US are not signatories.

The US last used cluster munitions widely during its 2003 invasion of Iraq. A Pentagon focus on counter-insurgency and precision strikes over the next two decades moved US weapons development priorities away from munitions designed to striking a large area, and towards precision-guided systems.

This left reserves of decades-old American cluster munitions, designed for a conventional war rather than the actual War Against Terrorism, without a mission.

Now operating hundreds of towed and self-propelled howitzers sent by allies, and somewhere between 800 and 1,500 of its own artillery systems, the AFU’s capacity to fire off artillery shells has far outstripped allies’ ability to feed the cannon.

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In December 2022 US Secretary of Army Christine Wormuth said the entire American defense industry is capable of manufacturing about 14,000 medium caliber 155mm artillery shells a month.

Ukrainian military analysts estimate that the Ukrainian army fires off between 5,000 and 9,000 155mm shells a day, depending on fighting intensity.

The US in January tapped into shell reserves held in Israel in an attempt to close the gap between American production and Ukrainian expenditure, and a European munitions consortium led by Germany’s Rheinmettal in March announced plans to spend a half billion euros to jump-start shell production across the continent.

But future production estimates don’t predict an end to Ukrainian shell shortages any time soon. According to Defense Express, the Pentagon hopes to be manufacturing 80,000 shells a month by 2028, somewhere between one-third and half of the volume the AFU is firing right now.

Currently, the US still manufactures cluster munitions systems but only for export, leaving millions of American 155mm shells and 227mm artillery rockets – the Ukrainian artillery’s two most preferred munitions – unused in US stockpiles, and previous to the Friday decision, inaccessible to the AFU.

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Comments (4)

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Alex Povolotsky
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So the reason of Lewisit lie was to justify cluster munition transfer?

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I support
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My only concern and this is only my opinion of course is the dud rate. As we all know land mines and dud shells are the left overs of war. I mean there still finding bombs and shells from WW2 so these will be a danger long after this war is over tough choice tough times .

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RepublicanshateAmerica&LovePutin
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Orcs deserve worse. I hope America gives them White Phosphorous mutations next.

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Andrew Lockett
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About time. AFU will use these much needed munitions wisely, against dug in russian invaders, eventually saving potentially thousands of civilians from the rashists future offensive intentions. Human Rights Watch have shown themselves to be toothless and hypocritical on these issues and completely unable to grasp the paradox that this highly important decision entails. These cluster munitions will save many more innocent lives than they take.

Alex Povolotsky
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@Andrew Lockett, I have some first-hand information from Donetsk. ZSU are indiscriminately shelling civilians, using even high-precision munition to strike "just city".

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