Small Wars Journal

Cluster Munitions Have Changed the Course of the Ukraine War

Fri, 12/29/2023 - 1:59pm

Cluster Munitions Have Changed the Course of the Ukraine War- 

They are the Solution to Ukraine Defeating Russia through attrition of the Russian Army

Which can only come from increased numbers of Cluster Munitions


By Daniel Rice


The prior “bad reputation” of cluster munitions has prevented the press from highlighting the significant contributions that cluster artillery munitions, supplied by the allies, have made on defeating the Russian army in Ukraine and helping to save Ukraine.   There are three significant dates that stand out in the timetable of the Ukraine War in which cluster munitions have altered the fate of the war- November 2022, July 2023, and October 2023.  And the data from these charts will show the meaning of these dates.  The fact is that cluster munitions have caused the majority of Russian casualties in this war.  


During the initial full scale invasion starting in February, Russia held a significant advantage in artillery fire superiority, firing an estimated 63,000 rounds per day vs. Ukraine firing 4,000 rounds per day.  A massively disproportionate fire superiority.  When considering that 70-80% of the casualties on both sides come from indirect fires, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, and mortars, this is a large part of the war.  Whereas Russia would fire large volleys indiscriminately against entire cities, Ukraine had to be much more disciplined and accurate, to make every round count.  And Russian artillery systems has always been a top target of Ukraine since Russian artillery is claiming the majority of Ukrainian casualties.  


Over the course of the war, Ukrainian artillery has ground down Russian artillery.  Using better Western made radars to pick up every round that leaves a Russian tube, using HARM missiles to target Russian radars, to take them out and “blind” Russian artillery from firing back. Using Excalibur precision guided 155mm Howitzer artillery rounds to target precisely Russian artillery and tanks.   Three charts explain the war, specifically the three dates that made a significant contribution to the artillery duel taking place in Ukraine.   


The first date is November 2022, when Turkey began supplying 155mm cluster artillery shells (called Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions).  The first shipment of 3,500 rounds arrived just in time for the Battle of Bakhmut.  This is when Russia started using human waves of convicts to attempt to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders.   The previously supplied 155mm High Explosive rounds were far inferior to the DPICM cluster munition rounds, so the DPICM had arrived just in time.  After this date, large scale Russian offensives would be hit with DPICM, which is an “area weapon” so much more effective than High Explosive rounds.  Instead of one round equaling one explosion, one round would rain down 88 smaller submunitions, causing much more destruction and death for Russian soldiers. 


The second date is 7 July 2023. The President of the United States signed the authorization to transfer cluster munitions, 155mm DPICM, in large numbers, to augment the smaller numbers that Turkey had been providing.  This essentially crossed the “cluster munitions threshold” that the US had been avoiding for 17 months of war.   Now with large quantities of DPICM, Ukrainian 155mm artillery, supplied by US, French, Swedish and German 155mm artillery pieces, would now have the most lethal artillery ammunition. And the US has over 3.5 million rounds of DPICM available, so there is on shortage to worry about.  But at this point, the US was still withholding the cluster rockets for the HIMARS M142/M270 rocket systems.  


The third date is 17 October 2023 when cluster artillery rockets, M-39 ATACMS, first made their appearance in Ukraine with the attack on two airfields, destroying a reported 24 Russian Alligator attack helicopters.   In addition to the 165km M-39, two other types of HIMARS rockets, the M26 and M26A1, 30km and 45km ranges, with 644 and 512 submunitions, started appearing in large numbers.   


The results are clear.  Starting in November 2022, Russian casualties increased significantly, from the first six months of the war averaging 5,000 killed in action per month, to 20,000 killed in action per month.  Starting in November 2022, the lowest month for Russian casualties would not be under 15,000. When the HIMARS cluster rockets appeared in October 2023, Russian casualties again increased dramatically.  October, November and December were all increasing from 25,000 to 30,000 killed in action per month.  


General Zaluzhnyi stated in December 2023 that the key to winning against Russians was to kill more Russians.  “It’s challenging to predict how many more losses are necessary to bring this to a halt. I believe it’s essential to continue relentlessly until the war ceases, until the adversary abandons hostile actions against our country.” The majority of casualties in this war come from artillery.  Increasing the lethality by providing cluster munitions in November 2022 made a major difference in the Battle of Bakhmut.  In July 2023, the US crossing the threshold of cluster munitions, increased the quantity of cluster munitions available to all Ukrainian 155mm artillery rounds.  The introduction of cluster rockets in October 2023 increased the Russian casualties to 80,000 in three months.  This is a massive increase in Russian casualties.   


General Zaluzhnyi has stated that victory will come when enough Russians are killed.  The solution is to provide more cluster munitions. And fast.  More cluster rockets M26/M26A1/M39.   All these rockets/missiles are scheduled to be destroyed. And we have tens of thousands of them.    So, from an accounting standpoint, they have $0 value.  So it is questionable if they should need Congressional approval.   Other allies could pick up the transportation costs.  This will save taxpayers the cost of dismantling them, as they are scheduled to be destroyed by Lockheed at a significant cost.   DOD and White House lawyers should be looking into transferring these cluster rockets and missiles with Presidential approval, at no cost to taxpayers.    


Cluster munitions are much more effective as counter-battery fire. When a cluster round explodes precisely over the target and drops 88 submunitions, each capable of destroying both personnel and armor, has exponentially higher success of destroying not only the artillery, but the personnel, the generators, the ammo, the fuel, and all vehicles.  Russian losses have increased significantly since the summer of 2023. This has a multiplier effect.  Russians are now on the defensive. They are not good at “Shooting and scooting” and are under fire immediately after firing.  Therefore, the number of outbound rounds has gone from 63,000/day to 4,000/day. 


As Ukraine has improved its counter-battery fire, in addition to HIMARS attacks against supply depots, has been additive to deceasing the overall numbers of Russian artillery rounds going out. The increase in Russian casualties, and the increase in the number of Russian artillery pieces being destroyed, and the decreasing number of outbound Russian artillery rounds, are all correlated.   


Ukraine is winning the artillery duel.  We need to give them more cluster artillery shells and rockets.  


Especially the rockets.  As soon as possible.  


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About the Author(s)

Dan is the President American University Kyiv and Co-President Thayer Leadership and a 1988 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He served his commitment as an Airborne-Ranger qualified Field Artillery officer. In 2004, he voluntarily re-commissioned in the Infantry to serve in Iraq for 13 months.  He has been awarded the Purple Heart, Ranger Tab, Airborne Badge and cited for ‘courage on the field of battle” by his Brigade Commander. 


Dan has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Small Wars Journal, and Chief Executive magazine. In 2013, he published and co-authored his first book, West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage, which features 200 of West Point graduates who have helped shape our nation, including the authorized biographies of over 100 living graduates.. The book received 3 literary awards from the Independent Book Publishers Association plus an award from the Military Society Writers of America (MSWA). Dan has appeared frequently on various news networks including CNN, FOX News, FOX & Friends, Bloomberg TV, NBC, MSNBC, and The Today Show.


Ed.D., ABD, Leadership, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education (graduation expected 2023)

MS.Ed., Leadership & Learning, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, 2020

M.S., Integrated Marketing Communications, Medill Graduate School, Northwestern University, 2018

M.B.A., Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, 2000

B.S., National Security, United States Military Academy, 1988

Full bio here: