The Biden Administration has decided to authorize the release of cluster munitions to Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia.
Proponents of this move claim this class of bombs is highly effective and could provide a game changer in the war for Kyiv.
I can confirm from personal experience that cluster munitions are indeed quite powerful, but also that by themselves they will not tilt the balance of power in the war towards Ukraine.
It is important to understand what this ammunition can and can’t do.
I Fired Cluster Munitions In Combat
My first job in the U.S. Army in the mid-1980s was as a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) crewman. An MLRS launcher carries 12 rockets at any given moment, and some of the warheads – like the M77 cluster munitions variant – carried 644 sub-munitions, or bomblets. These small hand-sized bombs would drop over the target and spread out over a considerable distance, showering everything in the area with powerful explosions. The most common cluster bomb is the dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) for the 155mm howitzers.
A 155mm DPICM round, like its MLRS cousin, will fly over the target and then release 88 bomblets. Some of these munitions will be fused to detonate above the ground, sending lethal shards of steel raining on troops or light-skinned vehicles. The rest of the bomblets are small point-detonating shape charges that will explode on impact, sending molten steel into the vulnerable thin armor of tanks and armored personnel carriers. As I observed firsthand in 1991, the effects during combat can be devastating.
In 1991 I was a fire support officer for a cavalry troop in Desert Strom. My job was to coordinate artillery, mortar, and rocket fire into the tank commander’s maneuver plan once we had contact with Iraqi armored forces in northern Kuwait. On the night of February 26, my unit (Eagle Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment) fought in the largest American tank battle since World War II, the Battle of 73 Easting. Late that night, the commander of U.S. Forces ordered our unit to hold fast so that two U.S. armored divisions could pass through our lines to continue to fight.
There was an enemy logistics hub, however, that was beyond the range of our tanks to our front, and our intelligence officer believed there was another tank battalion waiting to ambush any U.S. unit that tried to go forward. To suppress the enemy, I coordinated with our maneuver commander to launch a major attack of long-range artillery and MLRS rocket fire on the enemy position using DPICM and M77 rockets. Ordinary 155mm artillery shells, point-detonating high-explosive (HE) rounds, must land almost right on top of an enemy tank to knock it out. DPICM, as I observed, is far more lethal.
Even from many miles away from the impact zone, I could see and feel the rounds as they peppered the target location (to understand what DPICM and cluster bombs do on impact, see this demonstration video: this is exactly what it’s really like). We later discovered that most of the enemy vehicles and personnel were destroyed in this massive strike. This example shows both the capabilities as well as the limitations of what cluster munitions can produce.
We were able to mass fires of both an entire artillery battalion and an MLRS battery on the target. We had an entire Armored Cavalry Regiment in the attack spread over more than 10km across, composed of Abrams Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, scout and attack helicopters, availability of A10 attack jets above us, and two U.S. armored divisions behind us (not to mention the intelligence capacity of the U.S. V Corps headquarters). We had been trained, as a unit, for over a year before that big battle. We were also fighting in the open desert where there was no possibility of hiding behind any cover.
Further, we were fully staffed by privates and crewmen who had trained for over a year on their combat vehicles, crews that were highly proficient in their individual tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and then additional training at the platoon, company, battalion, and finally regimental (brigade) levels. Even more critically: our leaders at each level – platoon through brigade – had experience commensurate for their positions – one to two years for platoon leaders, five years for a company commander, 12 to 15 years for a battalion commander, and 22 years for the regimental commander.
Ukraine has none of these components.
For example, one of the elite Ukrainian brigades, the 47th Mechanized Brigade, was commanded by an officer – 28-year-old Col. Oleksandr Sak – with about as much experience as a seasoned lieutenant in an American tank brigade. Virtually all of the Ukrainian offensive brigades have been formed and trained in mere months, with elemental training from NATO countries, given a hodgepodge of modern Western and old Soviet equipment, with grossly insufficient time to form cohesive units, much less coordinated and equipped combined arms formations.
Adding cluster munitions, regardless of how much more lethal they are than standard 15mm HE rounds, will not make a difference in the outcome of the current offensive. The cluster rounds will increase the lethality of Ukrainian gunners against the Russian enemies, but alone cannot change the course of the war. The same, sadly, will be true of F-16s and long-range missiles which may be provided later this year.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.”