Cluster Munitions for Ukraine

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

News that the Biden administration is sending cluster munitions to Ukraine highlights the dangerous escalatory nature of wars. These are special bombs and artillery shells with hundreds of “bomblets” that disperse to kill or maim as many people as possible. They persist in the environment; children have been known to pick them up and to be killed or grievously wounded as a result.

The apparent rationale behind this decision is that cluster munitions will help Ukraine in its counteroffensive against Russia. While these munitions will certainly increase the body count, probably on both sides, they are unlikely to be militarily decisive.

There are other issues as well, notes Daniel Larison at Eunomia:

The decision also opens the U.S. up to obvious charges of hypocrisy. US officials have condemned the Russian use of these weapons and said that they have no place on the battlefield, but now the administration is saying that they do have a place. Providing cluster munitions to Ukraine makes a mockery of the administration’s earlier statements and creates more political problems for its effort to rally support for Ukraine. Many states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are parties to the treaty banning the use, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and now they will have one more reason to dismiss US appeals to defending the “rules-based order” as so much hot air. The decision will probably embarrass and antagonize some of our allies in Europe, as most members of NATO are also parties to the treaty.

It’s rather amazing to think about the incredible variety of weaponry being sent to Ukraine in the name of “victory.” At first, the Biden administration spoke only of providing defensive weaponry. Biden himself declared that sending main battle tanks, jet fighters, and the like was tantamount to provoking World War III. More than a year later, the US has committed to sending Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and offensive weapons of considerable potency like depleted uranium shells and now cluster munitions. And always with the same justification: the new weapons will help break the stalemate and lead to total victory for Ukraine.

This is nothing new, of course, in military history. Think of World War I. Poison gas was introduced in 1915 in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. It didn’t. But it did stimulate the production of all sorts of dangerous chemical munitions and agents such as chlorine gas, phosgene, and mustard. Tanks were first introduced in 1916. Stalemate persisted. Flamethrowers were introduced. Other ideas to break the stalemate included massive artillery barrages along with “creeping” barrages timed to the advancing troops.

But there was no wonder weapon that broke the stalemate of World War I. After four years of sustained warfare, the German military finally started to falter in the summer of 1918. The Spanish Flu, the contagion of communism from Russia, and an effective allied blockade also served to weaken German resolve. The guns finally fell silent on November 11, 1918, a calm that wasn’t produced by magical weapons.

I wonder which weapon will next be hailed as crucial to Ukrainian victory? Who knows, maybe even tactical nukes might be on the minds of a few of the madmen advising Biden.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.