Biden Administration Should Support Ukraine with Cluster Munitions
Written by: Morgan Ortagus & Andrew Mckenna
Published by: The Washington Examiner | washingtonexaminer.com
On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden described his support for Ukraine’s defensive war as “unwavering” and “unflagging.” So why, then, is he refusing to send a game-changing weapon to Kyiv?
A cluster munition is a special bomb that blossoms midflight and releases a multitude of lethal seedlings, explosive submunitions that disperse over a wide area with devastating effects. These bomblets are designed to kill enemy infantry or enemy armor. The United States military fields shells that are pregnant with both styles of weapon and can wreak havoc on enemy formations.
Though we stopped producing cluster munitions over the past decade, enormous reserves remain on the shelf. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made clear his urgent need for these weapons, but the Biden administration has so far refused.
The Ukrainian Army has fought their Russian invaders with a tenacity few military experts predicted, but Kyiv does not have Moscow’s vast reservoirs of manpower, munitions, and manufacturing capacity. The Russian Army has for centuries relied on these colossal reserves to grind their enemies into dust, paying little attention to its own losses. Russia’s claim to great power status rests not only on its nuclear weapons and its limitless fields of fossil fuels but also the sheer will of her people to tolerate horrific losses on the battlefield.
Cluster munitions were thus designed to arrest this horde’s offensive maneuvers. A single round can do as much damage as over five individual warheads. Biden’s advisors understand this deep value to Ukrainian defenders, but they are nonetheless withholding them from Kyiv.
To that point, the administration has been reluctant to provide Ukraine with any weapon that U.S. officials deem “escalatory.” That is, any type of bomb, missile, plane, or artillery that the White House frets would, in Ukrainian hands, incentivize Russia to intensify the war. This is the precise style of faulty reasoning that led Russia to invade Ukraine in the first place. U.S. leaders sat paralyzed in fear of escalation and did little while Moscow mobilized and encircled Ukraine, and Russia took advantage of the moment.
Cluster munitions do pose a small risk to civilians, as bomblet submunitions fail on occasion and can lay inert and undiscovered for years. But Russian weapons fail at much higher rates than American ones, and Moscow has to date been unrestrained in seeding them over civilian areas.
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), hardly a cheerleader for arms proliferation, criticized this double standard. “I’m not in favor of spreading cluster munitions around the world,” he said, “but in this particular case, the Russians are already doing that in Ukraine. The issue of the Ukrainians having to deal with unexploded ordnance is done.”
While safety concerns are not irrational, the battlefield is already a deadly place, and it makes little sense to impose limits on Ukraine while Russia faces no such restrictions. Further, if Ukraine had cluster munitions now, they would be able to judiciously use them in times and places of their choosing. But if the Biden administration waits until reserves of 155mm and other shells are depleted, Ukraine would have to use cluster everywhere, heightening the risk and prolonging any postbellum cleanup.
America has more than 3 million cluster munitions stored in our armories, and there they have remained since the war started. Instead of exerting this capacity, Biden has resorted to stalling tactics and politics. In a letter expressing their frustration at this bureaucratic inertia, the leaders of four key congressional committees implored the president to untether these stockpiles.
“We remain deeply disappointed in your administration’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with the right type and amount of long-range fires and maneuver capability to create and exploit operational breakthroughs,” wrote Sens. Jim Risch and Roger Wicker and House Chairmen Mike McCaul and Mike Rogers. “Sadly, the immediate consequences…are playing out on the battlefield.”
Their frustrations are reasonable. Just before the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut fell last week, the Biden administration said they would finally release F-16 fighters to Kyiv. This was a long-standing request from Zelensky. The fanfare that accompanied Biden’s announcement was in poor taste. Had he not waited so long, Bakhmut might still be standing.
No one weapon will win this war, but cluster munitions would profoundly tip the scales in Kyiv’s favor. They would lighten the load on U.S. and allied munitions supplies, such as our fast-depleting 155mm artillery shells, help bottleneck enemy forces onto vulnerable ground that is advantageous for precision fires, and offset Russia’s massive advantage in artillery tubes and rounds.
Napoleon is rumored to have once said that “God fights on the side with the best artillery.” Biden’s fear of escalation is what tempted Russia to invade in the first place. He can correct these errors of timidity by sending Kyiv the rounds they need now. If he dawdles any longer, the artillery will favor the Russian army.
Morgan Ortagus is the founder of Polaris National Security and a former State Department spokeswoman, and Andrew McKenna is a defense industry leader.