The US undersecretary of defense has said the White House “wrestled with the moral issues” and made a “really hard” choice when deciding to send cluster munitions to Ukraine.
Speaking during a Chatham House event, Colin Kahl gave a broad talk on US policy titled “Reflecting on US defense strategy” which he presented both live and on-line.
The discussion was predicated on the US 2022 National Defense Strategy which listed four main defense priorities:
· Defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China;
· Deterring strategic attacks against the United States, Allies, and partners;
· Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe;
· Building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem.
The undersecretary spoke for almost half of the talk on the US assessment that China was the only real global competitor to the US because of its existing military, technological, economic and diplomatic capability and its plans to develop greater strength in those areas.
The strategy, which had been prepared and published prior to Moscow’s full-scale invasion assessed the threat from Russia as “acute” in that its actions since 2008 posed an immediate military threat, that it had acted recklessly in the past. While its nuclear capability was kept very much in mind, Russia was not considered to represent an ability to compete with either the US or China.
He was then asked about China’s threats to Taiwan which he said were real but the US assessment was that China was focusing on the global reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of its “cost / risk analysis.” If China believed the world community would react as it has done for Ukraine then it would not act against its neighbor.
On the eve of the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Vilnius he was asked about Ukraine accession to NATO. He responded very much in line with the views expressed by his President that there was no question of there being “a degree of automaticity or immediacy” to NATO membership. He would not be drawn any further as this would be addressed by NATO’s leadership at the summit.
Kahl was asked for his views on the US decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine. In answering he gave a reasoned and justifiable case to support the US decision.
He began by reminding the audience that the US had, so far, provided over $40 billion in military aid, was proud of that and even more so in the fact that with US and UK leadership 50 nations were now involved in the Ramstein Ukraine Defense Contact Group. Even so there were still accusations that the US and its partners were not giving Ukraine the types of weapons it wants, when it says it wants them, and the quantities it wants. He pointed out that during the initial stages of the war some allies were calling for tanks, Patriot air defense systems and long-range artillery to be provided.
The US and its partners assessed that in those critical first few weeks the necessary logistic chains didn’t exist, there was not time to deliver these weapons and no time to train Ukrainians to use them. Instead, they provided short-range air defense weapons such as Stinger, anti-tank weapons such as Javelin and NLAW and ex-soviet munitions that would fit the weapons Ukraine already had.
He pointed out that Ukraine had been asking for cluster munitions for months but the US had resisted. At the same time commentators continued to insist, in terms of aircraft and long-range weapons the US “should give them what they’re asking for.”
Now the US has taken the decision to give Ukraine the cluster munitions it wants, those same people are saying “but we didn’t mean those weapons.”
Kahl said coming to the conclusion to provide the dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) munitions had been “really hard” and that the US had “wrestled with the moral issues” involved. He believed it was justified for a “combination of existential stakes and emergency conditions”.
Kahl said the move was necessary because Ukraine was experiencing a shortage of 155mm artillery ammunition without which its summer counteroffensive would be unlikely to succeed. While the west was ramping up production, the US had doubled its manufacturing capability, stocks at the necessary levels would not arrive in time. Losing the momentum to drive Russian occupiers out and allowing them in turn to start another offensive would have worse humanitarian consequences than the use of cluster munitions. Supplying them now was a decision of urgency, which tipped the balance, he said.
The DPICM munitions being provided are also not comparable to the old soviet types that have been used indiscriminately by Russia since February 2022, which have a failure rate of 30-40% compared with the US munitions which have a failure rate of 1–2%. In addition, the US has received assurances from Ukraine only to use the weapons against military targets.
As Kahl said, while winning the war is Ukraine’s priority, it doesn’t want to do so by killing or injuring its own civilian population or adding to the already extraordinary levels of unexploded ordnance contamination that exists.
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