So I think I can be fairly accused of beating a dead horse at this point in continuing to write about the necessity of cluster munitions.
So it may be fair to ask, what could I possibly have left to say about cluster munitions?
I feel like I haven’t laid out the strategic case for cluster munitions, and why the logistical issues solved by the 155mm DPICM (dual purpose improved conventional munitions) cluster munitions have massive implications for the course of the Russo-Ukrainian War. So that’s what I plan to do here.
First a brief summary of the case I’ve laid out thus far.
A 1983 DoD study is cited frequently to make the case for the advantage cluster munitions provide, which indicated one DPICM shell could replace the effects of four conventional shells. In terms of the lethal zone similar missiles create, the GMLRS Unitary vs. GMRLS DPICM provides a 1 for 1 comparison, as the same size missile with the same range and accuracy.
The Unitary warhead, which is a conventional warhead with a single large explosive, has a lethal zone that is much tighter. So to kill all the infantry in the same area as the DPICM warhead’s area of effect, you would need to launch six unitary warheads.
Intuitively, the idea of cluster munitions just makes sense. When artillery is firing at a trench, it’s mostly only effective if you get a direct hit. If your shell hits an area instead of a tight circle where a single explosion happens, if all you’re looking to do is kill infantry, it makes sense cluster munitions would be more effective.’
The effectiveness of these munitions in the Gulf War and the conventional warfare portion of the Iraqi War are well documented. For example, the Third Armored Division used DPICM against Iraqi trench positions at Al Busayyah in 1991.
Although the Iraqi forces (2 infantry battalions and a tank company) were heavily entrenched in fortified machine gun nests and a series of trench lines, they were raked by DPICM munitions. After just 3 hours of resistance, Iraqi resistance broke and some soldiers surrendered, others fled. The US took the position with no losses.
Indeed, all the studies and discussions around the idea that “cluster munitions are ineffective” focus on criticism that has little to do with Ukraine’s problem of attacking Russian trench positions manned by infantry.
First, during the Vietnam War, US heavy usage of cluster munitions was ineffective at denying North Vietnamese troops freedom of movement through Laos to reinforce units in Southern Vietnam. It also was very limited in effectiveness at attacking guerilla units hiding in broad areas.
Second, during the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, it was found that DPICMs were not very effective against Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles. It was thought, before the Persian Gulf, that the sheer volume of explosives in DPICM could even take out tanks—this turned out to be wishful thinking. They even struggled to seriously damage lighter armored IFVs and APCs.
So a few lessons emerge:
- Cluster munitions are not area denial weapons. Bombarding an area virtually randomly, hoping to prevent movement is not a good use of cluster weapons.
- Cluster weapons are not good weapons against insurgent forces in dispersed areas.
- DPICM specifically is not a good weapon against tanks or armored vehicles.
What none of these address is “DPICIM used against infantry in trenches.”
infantry in trenches are not armored vehicles. They are very unlike guerrilla forces hiding out in a jungle, as they are deployed in a more concentrated and visible manner, easily spotted by reconnaissance drones. Bombarding trenches are not like bombarding jungles near-randomly.
DPICM is virtually designed to take on infantry in trenches, and testing and practice have repeatedly proven effective. I have never seen any study or report indicating otherwise. Attacking the Russian trench position is one of the unique military situations in which Cluster Weapons are the perfect weapon to do so.
This is why DPICMs are not only capable of replacing standard 155mm unitary shells, they are likely to perform better when fired at a Russian trench position. They are one of the untapped sources of stockpiled shells capable of averting a Ukrainian shell crisis.
The United States' 155 mm shell production capacity is only 14,000 shells per month. As a result of the sharply increased demand for shells, the U.S. has made a major investment in shell production and is expanding production to 24,000 per month by late 2023, with production to be increased to 85,000 per month by 2028.
Numerous EU-based manufacturers produce bulk quantities of 155 mm ammunition: BAE Systems (UK), Expal (ESP), Santa Barbara Sistemas (ESP), Explosia (CZE), Nexter (FRA), Nammo (NOR), and Rheinmetall (GER). Their combined production capacity is estimated at 45,000-50,000 shells per month. The EU is also investing in expanding arms production but faces significant challenges in dramatically expanding production in the short term.
The problem is pretty clear. The U.S. and the EU combined only produce around 60~65K shells per month.
This 65K must be compared to Ukraine’s actual usage, which is around 110K, and is even further short of their stated ideal of 356K shells.
So, one could make the argument, why rush? Cluster munitions are such horrific weapons with the potential for decades of civilian casualties, perhaps Ukraine should pause its offensive and wait for the arrival of more conventional shells before resuming its offensive rather than use these dangerous munitions.
There are some clear humanitarian reasons why such solutions are unacceptable.
- Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian civilians with drones and missiles.
- Russia’s continued deportation of children from occupied areas is in contravention of international law.
- Russia’s torture centers were uncovered in Izium and Kherson.
These are some easy examples of how allowing the Russian occupation to lengthen caused its humanitarian costs on the Ukrainian people.
However, there are strategic reasons why such a pause would have major consequences and significantly lengthen the war.
Clausewitz laid out a principle of offensives called “culmination.” The idea can be expressed in its most simple form like this:
Long-term military strength is the capacity of the nation to provide arms, ammunition, soldiers, training, fuel, and other equipment that maintain an aggregate ”combat strength” to the front lines.
This combat power is accumulated into a “short-term reserve” of strength that can be built up over time. The reserve is both human and material, soldiers, tanks, and bombers, but also fuel depots, ammunition depots, stockpiled missiles, and more.
By drawing on the stockpiles, a greater than normal frontline power can be established.
Take, for example, artillery shells. If monthly production is 10,000 shells, if the army just used up every shot it received, it would never be able to use more than 10,000 shells a month.
But if they restricted ammunition usage to 2,000 shells a month for 10 months, they could accumulate a reserve of 80,000 shells (8,000 x 10). They could then suddenly boost their firepower to 30,000 shells a month by drawing 20,000 shells from their reserves, and the 10,000 that arrive from factories until the reserves run out (after 4 months)
However, when the reserves run out, you would fall back to only being able to draw on your long-term average monthly production—which might not be sufficient to gain progress in an offensive.
This cycle of
Build up → Offensive → Exhaustion
is a simplified way of understanding Clausewitz’s idea of “culmination.” After a sustained offensive continues for some time, frontline power almost inevitably dwindles, and the offensive will lose momentum.
In practical terms, it’s important to understand that “culmination” happens due to the weakest link in the attacker’s ability to sustain the offensive.
Many people think of an offensive continuing until one side runs out of soldiers—but that need not be the case.
An offensive requires soldiers, vehicles, fuel, small arms ammunition, anti-air missiles, and artillery shells. Culmination need not mean that an army has run out of soldiers to send to the front. A shortage of any number of resources like anti-air missiles, fuel, or artillery shells can force the suspension or cancellation of an offensive just as much as a shortage of soldiers could do the same.
So can a lack of small arms ammunition or fuel.
When you look at Ukraine’s overall strategy, you see a broad-front offensive. Ukrainian attacks are going on ranging from the Dnipro River Crossing up to Kreminna, 500km away.
This is all happening even as Ukraine has only committed six of 16 armored brigades to combat, keeping their main force in reserve. Some of Ukraine’s most powerful units like the 1st Tank Brigade (Leopard 2s) or 82nd Air Assault Brigade (Challenger 2s) have been kept in reserve, as have a majority of Ukraine’s new NATO-trained and equipped armored brigades.
The goal is evidently to sap Russia’s combat power before the decisive push—to grind down Russia’s available ammunition, fuel, armored vehicles, and infantry reserves. This is combined with numerous long-range strikes on rearward Russian logistical nodes, to reduce the flow of men and material that can be brought forward.
Some look a lot like God smiting the Russians.
The key to this type of offense is sustained pressure. Ukraine is trying to grind down Russian resources, to stretch out its defenses till it reaches a breaking point, when it will throw in its main forces into a decisive attack.
If Ukrainian attacks are forced into a pause due to a lack of ammunition, it would give Russia the time to restock its ammunition, fuel, and reserves—potentially undoing weeks or months of Ukrainian attempts to degrade the Russian position.
This is the way the war devolves into a stalemate.
Even if Ukraine has plenty of uncommitted reserves, it doesn’t do Ukraine any good if it’s forced to let up the pressure due to its logistical issues.
Conversely, if Ukraine DOES have plenty of ammunition it can push, push, push continuing to strike Russian positions until the cascading losses of ammunition depots, fuel, and troops empty Russia’s reserve strength and a fatal break in its defenses open up that Russia is unable to plug.
Opening up 155mm DPICM artillery shell stockpiles to Ukraine gives Ukraine as much ammunition as it needs to keep the pressure on Russian defenses. It even lightens Ukraine’s logistical burden, because fewer DPICM shells are needed to clear Russian defenders from an area compared to conventional shells.
Providing Ukraine with hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of DPICM shells to sustain Ukraine’s offensive momentum is the key to breaking the back of the Russian Army. With this offensive logistical piece in place, Ukraine’s offensive need not end after 2-3 months. It can keep grinding, and grinding and grinding until the Russian Army begins to disintegrate.
It’s the “Battle of Normandy” scenario I laid out a couple of weeks ago, where German defenses at Normandy appeared to hold steady for about a month and a half before the defenses failed and Allied forces liberated Paris in a matter of days following the breakout. In the same way, Russian defenses will be weakened slowly until it reaches a critical point where they will fail.
The DPICM 155mm stockpile is likely the difference between the Russo-Ukrainian War devolving into a long-term stalemate, and a sustained Ukrainian offensive that might break the back of the Russian defense.