The First Rule of Cluster Munitions:
Don’t Talk about Cluster Munitions
By John Nagl and Dan Rice
On January 10, 2024, the Congressional Research Service published a thorough 91-page document “Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense- Issues for Congress”. The report covers the past, present and future of the Competition between Russia, China and the United States. The report includes grand strategy, geopolitics, nuclear weapons, deterrence, conventional weapons, research & development, acquisitions, and supply chain issues; it provides a framework by which the Congress can set priorities and allocate resources for our national defense.
The two words that are conspicuously absent from this entire document: “Cluster Munitions.”
Referencing one of the greatest movies from the 20th Century, “Fight Club”, the first rule of cluster munitions must be “Never talk about ‘cluster munitions.” This study repeats the word “deter” 90 times, Russia 370 times, China 344, Ukraine 152 times, conventional 33 times, and cyber 24 times. But artillery is named only once, and “Cluster Munitions” were mentioned ZERO times.
This narrative needs to change if we are to successfully deter Russia and China. Artillery has long been the #1 killer on land battlefields, as it is in Ukraine. While aircraft carriers, fighters, UAVs, cyber, electronic warfare, and hypersonic missiles are of course important, the Ukraine war brings into focus the importance of artillery, and especially cluster munitions, for the future deterrence of our enemies in a land war.
Cluster munitions were one of the main pillars of our Air-Land Battle defense plan against a massive Russian army with significant fire superiority in artillery, and deterrence worked from 1945-1991, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. But cluster munitions have disappeared from the literature on great power deterrence.
The reason likely dates to 2008, when a group of well-meaning but naïve leaders started the Cluster Munitions Convention in Olso, Norway. The resulting Convention weakened the West and set the stage for a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It did nothing to hurt the aggressor nations, who did not sign the Convention and have no intention of adhering to it, but the democracies that complied with it lost their best weapons to defend against an invasion.
Any country bordering Russia, China or North Korea should be heavily armed with cluster munitions and publicly make both China and Russia aware that they have significant quantities of these weapons and are prepared to use them. If they arm themselves to be porcupines, they are less likely to be attractive. The weaker they appear, the more attractive they will be. Had Ukraine had the 50 HIMARS launchers with cluster rockets that it now possesses prior to February 24, 2022, it is doubtful the Russians would have advanced nearly as far as they did. The Russian movement along known avenues of advance would have been impossible given HIMARS range, accuracy and lethality against armored columns. Every country bordering Russia, China and North Korea should take particular note of the ability of DPICM and HIMARS cluster rockets/missiles to halt any advancing army.
The war in Ukraine is the first full scale war in Europe in 75 years, and although Ukraine is a much smaller country, it is destroying the Russian Army. The #1 killer on the Ukrainian battlefield is artillery, with an estimated 80% of the casualties on both sides coming from indirect fire (artillery and mortars). And the #1 killer of Russians is cluster munitions. Cluster Munitions have essentially shut down any ability for the Russians to advance, as they are especially lethal to exposed troops and armor in the open, and they have dramatically increased combat losses to Russian troops in three inflection points during the nearly two years of the war.
The three inflection points for Russian casualties all occurred with the increased arrival of cluster munitions. The first was the arrival of Turkish supplied 155mm Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) in November 2022 at the Battle of Bakhmut. The second was the US approval of large quantities of 155mm DPICM on 7 July 2023 by the President of the United States. The third was the arrival of cluster rockets and missiles on October 17, 2023 that was announced on the battlefield when Ukraine hit two Russian airfields and destroyed 24 Russian “Alligator” attack helicopters. The effective use of cluster munitions in the Battles of Bakhmut and Avdiivka show that taking ground, even with large, Russian armored forces, is incredibly costly and potentially impossible when advancing into cluster munitions, supported by accurate drone surveillance and adjusting of fires. Cluster munitions are, essentially, the perfect deterrence against a land invasion.
This result has been underreported, and as a result both our publics and our enemies are insufficiently advised about how effective cluster munitions have been in destroying the Russian army. This super-weapon has what we call in marketing “a branding issue.”
The battlefield success of Cluster Munitions in Ukraine is not well known. One reason is that Ukraine wants to maintain operational security to avoid signaling to the Russians exactly how their army is being destroyed. American industry, which is usually happy to promote the effectiveness of new weapons systems, does not want to be anywhere near this topic of cluster munitions. Cluster munitions manufacturing in the West was discontinued in 2016 due to the Cluster Munitions Convention and negative press; currently Ukraine is using old cluster munitions from the US inventory. The U.S. government needs to balance educating the public on the benefits of cluster munitions, to maintain U.S. public support and deter future aggressors around the world, while limiting any backlash against their use, due to the negative branding issue surrounding the weapon.
This strategy of keeping the use of cluster munitions as quiet as possible, and if possible off the front page, has merit. However, the second and third order result is that Cluster Munitions lack the widespread support needed to increase production and shipping of the quantities necessary for Ukraine to win the war. Ukraine’s best strategy is that with enough cluster-munition-equipped HIMARS rockets Ukraine can increase Russian attrition to the point that the Russian army cannot remain in Ukraine.
History of the Cluster Munitions Convention
The well-meaning, yet naïve Cluster Munitions Convention, started in Oslo in 2008, bifurcated the world between those who need cluster munitions to defend against near-by aggressor nations and those far away from aggressor nations, who do not need cluster munitions. The former used the Convention to dictate what weapons could be used to defeat aggressor nations, weakening aggressor nation neighbors- and hence weakening deterrence.
The concept initially had a mass appeal. Landmines are still killing civilians in Laos, Cambodia, and many areas around the world; many of these victims are children. Most people can agree that is a terrible legacy of those wars. The challenge is the Convention confuses at least four major categories of weapons: land mines, cluster bombs, cluster munitions, and munitions. Cluster bombs are different than cluster munitions. Cluster bombs are air dropped and scatter over a very large area. Cluster munitions are delivered from artillery or rockets, and can be very accurate. For any weapon, the “intent” can be the difference between a legal weapon and a war crime. The Convention makes no distinction in these areas.
Russia and China most certainly appreciated the Cluster Munition Convention, which weakened the West by sidelining the best weapon to counter their artillery fire superiority; it is not implausible that they financed some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that promoted the Convention--because they were the beneficiaries.
The Convention arbitrarily set a 1% dud rate as the standard for banning cluster munitions, knowing the western cluster munitions had a 2% “dud rate”, and claiming that anyone who used a weapon with a dud rate greater than 1% was immoral. It was brilliant marketing and strategy, and it was foolish for NATO countries to buy into it. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, they were firing 63,000 artillery rounds per day with up to a 20% dud rate. The Ukrainians were restricted from firing back at the invading Russians, on Ukrainian territory, with DPICM with 2% dud rates. The argument against supplying a country to defend itself with DPICM is now moot, but the delay cost the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians.
While Ukrainians have paid a heavy price in blood for the limitations on warfare imposed by the Cluster Munitions Convention, it is past time to make sure this never happens again to a Ukraine, or a Norway, Lithuania, Poland, Taiwan or South Korea. Which nations signed and did not sign the convention is of more than historical interest.
Fact #1: None of the great powers have signed the Convention: not the United States, nor Russia, nor China.
Fact #2: The majority of those countries who neighbor Russia, China and North Korea and are the most likely to need cluster munitions in the defense against an invading army with artillery fire superiority, did not sign. There are 23 countries that neighbor Russia, China and North Korea, and only three signed the Convention: Afghanistan, Norway and Lithuania. 86% of those countries bordering a likely aggressor neighbor did not sign the Convention.
Fact #3: The vast majority of those that did sign, do not face an aggressor neighbor and therefore have no significant need to obtain cluster munitions, and many of those that did sign do not even have an army and therefore have no military expertise to weigh in on the defense of free nations against aggressors. 112 countries signed the Cluster Munitions Convention; only three border an aggressor neighbor of Russia, China or North Korea. Stated bluntly 97% of the signatories do not face an aggressor neighbor.
Russia is bordered by fourteen countries. Only two signed the Cluster Munitions Convention- Lithuania and Norway. Yet Ukraine, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and North Korea did not sign. . If either Norway or Lithuania were attacked by Russia, they would not be able to use cluster munitions in their defense. But the 12 neighbors that did not sign are harmed by those who did sign. When war comes, as it did Ukraine, those countries that signed the Convention protested the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine and sent many Ukrainian soldiers to their deaths because they did not have the most lethal artillery munitions to defend themselves.
China borders 14 countries: North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. None of these countries have signed the Cluster Munitions Convention and all reserve the right to defend themselves against an aggressor should they be attacked. And of course, China has another neighbor across the straights- Taiwan. Taiwan has not signed the Cluster Munitions Convention and is well armed with HIMARS launchers with cluster munitions.
North Korea borders three countries: Russia, China and South Korea. None of these have signed the cluster munitions Convention.
Of all Russia, China and North Korea’s neighbors- only Lithuania and Norway have signed the Cluster Munitions Convention. Lithuania has already publicly stated that it is reconsidering removing itself from the Convention. Norway should show leadership and do the same.
- South Korea
*Red indicates the country is a signatory to the Cluster Munitions Convention.
On the other side of the coin, the press is always quick to point out that 112 countries around the world have signed the Convention. This usually is a compelling argument that is not challenged. But thoughtful military analysts should consider that the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Maldives, New Zealand, Palau, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Samoa, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Saint Kitt and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Iceland, are Ireland are almost all islands, safe from any invading army. Many of these countries do not even have an army, and should not be deciding what weapons should be used in defense against the aggressors of Russia, China, and North Korea. Afghanistan is an anomaly. Many of the examples used by the Cluster Munitions Convention of the intentional use of cluster bombs, cluster munitions, and land mines against civilians, were done by the Russians/Soviets in Afghanistan. So it is understandable that although Afghanistan shares a border with Russia, it also signed the Convention.
All countries concerned with peace and wishing to deter aggression should revoke their signature on the Convention. Norway in particular is very worried about an aggressive Russian invasion and should be arming themselves with cluster HIMARS ATACMs as their neighbors are doing. Revoking Norway’s signature on the Cluster Munitions Convention would be a symbolic message to the world that might help repeal the entire naïve and foolish Convention.
Having many NATO Members as signatories causes problems for interoperability. Article V of NATO agreement ensures that “an attack on one, is an attack on all”. But with Lithuania and Norway being signatories to the Cluster Munitions Convention, NATO forces could be forced to risk their lives without their most powerful defensive weapons of cluster munitions. This also makes Lithuania and Norway appear much weaker, and potentially more attractive for a Russian invasion. Deterrence does not work well if NATO forces are restricted from using the most effective weapon against an invading Russian force.
Twenty-three NATO countries have signed the Cluster Munitions Convention, although only two of them border Russia. But the 21 who do not border Russia have put all of Europe in jeopardy by protesting the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine. Ukraine is facing an existential threat that threatens all of Europe. The NATO countries that signed the Convention delayed Ukraine from being able to use cluster munitions on their own territory, allegedly to protect future generations of Ukrainians from “duds”. These signatures also make it difficult to transport cluster munitions, and Ukrainians pay the price in blood for the delay.
The countries that have not signed the Cluster Munitions Convention should form an alternative Convention and invite all of NATO to join. The “Responsible use of Cluster Munitions in the Defense of Democracy Convention” could help set goals and objectives for the safe use and cleanup of our most powerful weapon in the defense against an aggressor nation. The American University Kyiv would be pleased to sponsor discussions on this subject.
Alfred Nobel is known for both inventing dynamite, which caused massive numbers of deaths in World War I after his death, and also for creating the Nobel Peace Prize, two seemingly diametrically opposed ideas and projects. Yet, he believed strongly in deterrence and claimed “on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” Cluster munitions are a powerful weapon that can annihilate a Russian brigade in a few seconds and they helped contribute to the deterrence of aggression that won the Cold War. The incredible story of the lethal performance of Cluster Munitions on the modern battlefield in Ukraine, if told properly to our friends as well as our enemies, can help win the war in Ukraine by getting Ukraine more cluster munitions and help prevent future wars by acting as a deterrence against any aggressor in the future. The time to act is now.