As Pressure Builds, US Keeps Mum on Ukraine’s Cluster-Munitions Request
Proponents and military leaders note their tactical benefits, but strategic concerns may quash the deal.
The White House has met Ukraine’s requests for cluster munitions with silence, even as U.S. military officials affirm the utility of the widely banned weapons, according to leaked documents and three senior congressional aides.
The Pentagon still holds stocks of the munitions, which are banned by most countries because the bomblets they scatter can accidentally kill civilians, either in the initial blast or long afterward. Both Ukraine and Russia have reportedly used their own such weapons on the battlefield.
Ukraine has been pushing to acquire U.S. cluster munitions for months, the congressional aides said. One said the requests started at least seven months ago.
A Ukrainian lawmaker confirmed that Kyiv has been asking.
“It could be one of the solutions to cover the lack of 155mm” artillery, said Yehor Cherniev, the Rada’s deputy chairman on national security, defense, and intelligence. Ukrainian forces are chronically short of shells for the NATO-caliber cannons donated by the United States and other countries.
The congressional aides said that senior U.S. military officials have said the weapons would be useful in Ukraine.
“We’ve heard from EUCOM that it would be the No. 1 tool of utility that they don’t have,” one said, referring to U.S. European Command, which coordinates international military aid to Ukraine. The second congressional aide said that U.S. military leaders support sending cluster munitions, and a third congressional aide said the Defense Department was supportive.
At least one document leaked by Airman Jack Teixeira appears to support the aides’ claims. As described by the Washington Post, a U.S. intelligence assessment suggests Ukraine could use cluster munitions—specifically, dual purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPCIMs—to fight off waves of attacking Russians.
Four high-profile Republican lawmakers agree. In a March letter to President Biden, they argued that sending the weapons would help Ukraine push back Russian forces near Bahkmut and elsewhere while “alleviating pressure on U.S. and allied munitions supplies.” The letter was signed by the Republican chairmen and ranking members of the House Armed Services, Senate Armed Services, House Foreign Affairs, and Senate Foreign Affairs committees.
In their letter, they assert that the U.S. military holds around three million DPCIM rounds that can be fired from 155mm howitzers already in use in Ukraine.
This figure is broadly supported by a 2004 study released by the Defense Department which showed the Army and Marine Corps as having the equivalent of millions of DPCIM 155mm rounds on hand. The U.S. military last used cluster munitions of any sort in combat in 2003 (with the exception of a single cruise-missile strike in Yemen in 2009) and last bought them in 2007, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, an advocacy organization.
A RAND analyst concurred that cluster munitions would have tactical benefits for Ukraine. They could help counter Russian human-wave assaults like those seen near Bakhmut, could help destroy Russian artillery, and could help defeat counterattacks as the Ukrainian army advances, said Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
The ability to use a single round to take out multiple targets could also reduce barrel wear on heavily used Ukrainian artillery. Ukraine has been firing 6,000 to 8,000 artillery shells per day, Oleksandra Ustinova, head of the Holos party faction in the Ukrainian parliament, said at a German Marshall Fund event in Washington, D.C.
The Biden administration has been publicly silent about the Ukrainian requests. Cherniev and Ustinova said Ukraine had received no answer to their request. One of the congressional aides said the topic had come up in conversation with administration officials, but they had been told “the president doesn’t have an appetite to go down this road.”
The National Security Council did not respond to multiple emailed questions about the provision of cluster munitions.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Garron Garn, said, “We will not comment on the deliberations for security assistance for Ukraine. We are in regular contact with Ukraine about their battlefield needs, and we expect to have more security assistance to announce soon.”
In their letter, the GOP lawmakers said the administration was not sending DPCIMs due to “concerns over the reaction of allies and partners” and fears of escalation.
One of the congressional aides said France and Germany were particularly opposed to the U.S. sending cluster weapons because Paris and Berlin hope that Washington’s refusal would encourage Moscow to show similar restraint. Russia has widely used cluster munitions through the conflict, including shelling downtown Kharkiv, as reported by other outlets and witnessed by Defense One.
There’s a “lack of political will” to tell the French and Germans that “we’re going to do it anyway because it’s in our national-security interest and in the Ukrainian national-security interest,” the aide continued.
But Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that sending the weapons could be penny-wise but pound-foolish.
“The key point is the solidarity of the coalition,” Reed said at an event Monday at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Do you want to inject something that would be useful to the Ukrainians, but perhaps not essential, but would jeopardize [the provision of aid by] even one or two nations?”
Calling the delivery of cluster munitions an “obvious issue,” Reed said the U.S. was looking into delivering “compensatory weapons” that would have the same battlefield effect but not draw objections from NATO allies.
Other countries appear willing to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. In January, Foreign Policy reported that Turkey is already doing so. Estonian outlet EER has also reported that Estonia is considering sending German-manufactured cluster munitions, but would need Germany’s permission.
Two other aides also pointed to the international convention against cluster munitions as a factor in the White House’s reluctance, even though the United States is not a signatory to these conventions.
Ustinova said the Biden administration is also concerned about civilian casualties. “One of the main issues is that it will hurt civilians,” the lawmaker said. But she suggested that Ukraine would use them in the wide, empty fields of southern Ukraine, where many analysts have said a Ukrainian counter-offensive may occur. “We’re not killing our own people,” she said.
RAND’s Boston noted that many bomblets per weapon fall to the ground unexploded, often remaining live and dangerous. The 2004 Defense Department study gave a dud rate of three percent, suggesting two or three in a typical 155mm DPCIM round.
This “is a problem for civilians and a longer-term problem in the places where it is used,” Boston said. In 2021, unexploded bomblets killed more than 200 civilians around the globe.
Dud bomblets can also be hazardous to the army that uses them, and can injure or kill soldiers and limits a unit’s mobility, he said.
Still, Boston sees the weapons as fair game to be sent for Ukraine. “I am in favor if Ukraine is asking for them – the limitations are real but this is probably a case where they can make the decision about how best to use them.”
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