– Washington’s decision to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine in the form of 155mm artillery shells containing a combination of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle submunitions, known as the dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs), reveals much about US foreign policy in terms of its military power, geopolitical ambitions, and adherence to its own “rules-based” international order.
Cluster munitions are banned by many nations around the globe, including the majority of Washington’s allies in Europe. They are banned specifically because of their indiscriminate nature and the lingering danger they pose long after fighting on any given battlefield ends.
Unlike a conventional artillery round, which explodes upon reaching its target, cluster munitions scatter numerous smaller explosive bomblets across the battlefield. Inevitably, a percentage of these bomblets fail to detonate as designed and remain a deadly hazard to soldiers on both sides of the conflict until it is over. Furthermore, they continue to pose a danger to civilians who may unknowingly walk or drive over the unexploded ordnance for years to come.
A legacy of brutality
The US’ extensive use of cluster munitions stretches as far back as during the Vietnam War and cluster bombs have been used as recently as in Iraq from the 1990s onward. The US’ use of cluster munitions is so extensive that it serves as the largest and most disturbing example of why many nations have banned this type of weapon in the first place.
During the Vietnam War, the US dropped millions of tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, including large amounts of cluster munitions, burying the region in unexploded ordnance (UXOs). For example, to this day, there are more UXOs than human beings in Laos, with over 8 per man, woman, and child.
UXOs still kill or maim dozens of people each year in nations such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Thousands have died or have been seriously maimed since the US-led war ended in 1975.
UXOs have also proven to be an obstacle to regional development. For example, when China constructed Laos’ first high-speed rail line, connecting China’s southern city of Kunming to Laos’ capital in Vientiane on the border with Thailand, engineers were initially required to clear the railway path of US-dropped UXOs, including cluster munitions.
In Cambodia, it is estimated that approximately 20,000 people have lost their lives due to UXOs, including cluster munitions, over the past four decades. The issue is so sensitive in Cambodia that the country’s leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, strongly urged the US not to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine.
It is important to note that Prime Minister Hun Sen has expressed support for Ukraine since Russia’s military operations began in February 2022. Despite this support, his concerns and opposition to the transfer of US cluster munitions to Ukraine’s armed forces aim to spare the Ukrainian people from the enduring suffering that cluster munitions have inflicted on Cambodia over the past several decades.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine exhibits the characteristics of a war of attrition, marked by intense positional fighting that necessitates the use of substantial amounts of artillery ammunition and other long-range weapons. Initially, Ukraine entered the conflict with Soviet-era guns and 152mm ammunition. However, as these resources gradually diminished and vanished from the battlefield, the US and its allies have endeavored to substitute them with NATO’s 155mm equivalent.
However, the collective West’s military-industrial output for the past several decades has focused on maximizing profits amid a series of “small wars” fought against woefully outmatched armies in developing or failed states, rather than against peer or near-peer opponents like Russia. As a result, the US and its allies are unable to produce the number of artillery shells Ukraine requires. On the other hand, Russia inherited and has maintained a substantial military-industrial output from the Soviet Union. The Western media have admitted that while Ukraine has been firing anywhere between 4,000-7,000 artillery rounds per day, Russia has been firing anywhere between 20,000-50,000.
Not only is Russia outgunning Ukraine, but due to the low production of artillery shells in the West, Ukraine will eventually be unable to maintain its current rate of fire. It will take several years for Western artillery shell production to even match Ukraine’s current rate of fire. This is why the US is seeking to transfer cluster munitions, not because they provide Ukraine with any necessary capability, but simply because it is the only option available to the US, regardless of the potential human costs in the present and future. The fact that the US is transferring cluster munitions to Ukraine due to a desperate shortage of ammunition was clearly stated by US President Joe Biden himself when he admitted, “the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition,” in response to a question about the decision.
Thus, the transfer of widely-banned cluster munitions to Ukraine is not a decision made carefully, taking into consideration the enduring suffering the Ukrainian people will face long after the fighting ends, regardless of the outcome. Instead, the decision is being made out of Washington’s desperation to perpetuate its proxy war with Russia, lest it admit defeat.
For the “prize” of protecting Washington’s pride, even if temporarily, and delaying the inevitable defeat of Washington’s proxies in Ukraine, Ukraine will be transformed into another “Vietnam,” “Laos,” or “Cambodia,” or “Iraq” – a nation buried in cluster munitions that will inevitably kill thousands of civilians long after the fighting stops.
The US proclaims its actions around the globe including in Ukraine are meant to uphold the “rules-based” international order. The transferring of cluster munitions so clearly undermines any such order. Washington is making this decision specifically because its geopolitical ambitions for hegemony far exceed its military means to achieve them.
Ultimately the US’ decision to transfer cluster munitions will not make Ukraine or the US itself militarily stronger, nor will it help the US achieve its objectives in Ukraine, nor will it enhance US geopolitical strength. It is a stalling action by a fading hegemon, exposing its hypocrisy while creating more victims to count both today and well into the future.