When the White House announced on Friday it would agree to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, it came after Pentagon officials assured that the weapons had been improved to minimize the danger to civilians.
The weapons, which have been shunned by many countries, launch small grenades built to destroy armored vehicles and troops in the open, but often fail to detonate immediately. Years or even decades later, they can kill adults and children who come across them.
The Pentagon said the weapons it allegedly sent to Ukraine had a failure rate of 2.35 percent or less, far better than the usual common rate for cluster weapons.
But the Pentagon’s own statements indicate that the cluster munitions in question contain older grenades known to have a failure rate of 14 percent or more.
They are 155mm artillery shells that can each fly about 20 miles before opening up in mid-air and releasing 72 small grenades that typically explode on impact around the perimeter of an oval-shaped area larger than a football field .
Pentagon officials have said the shells they will be sending to Ukraine are an improved version of a type used in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. But the reality is slightly more complicated. The shells sent to Kiev can fly farther than previous versions, but contain the same grenades, which had damage rates that the Pentagon called unacceptably high.
Al Vosburgh, a retired army colonel trained in bomb disposal, said once the shooting stops in Ukraine, it will take a massive education campaign to warn civilians of the risks of unexploded grenades before they can go home. insecurity.
The biggest operational concern for Ukrainian soldiers, he said, is that dud grenades dropped by these shells cannot be safely moved by hand.
‘You have to work very hard to remove them because you shouldn’t be moving them,’ said Mr Vosburgh, who now runs the non-profit demining group Golden West. “In an area that has become saturated with it, you will find a lot of waste, so it is a slow and methodical process to get rid of it.”
But Biden administration officials have said they have no choice but to supply cluster munitions despite their enduring danger as Ukraine burns through artillery fire and tries to make gains in a grueling counteroffensive against Russian troops.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, defended the use of the weapons and said Russia had used them since the beginning of the war. Ukraine has also used Russian-made cluster munitions and has repeatedly requested American-made ones, knowing that the United States maintains large reserves.
« Ukraine would not use this ammunition in a foreign land, » Sullivan said. “This is their country they are defending. These are their citizens they are protecting and they are motivated to use whatever weapon systems they have in a way that minimizes the risk to those citizens. »
Weapons of this type are banned by more than 100 countries, in part because more than half of the people killed or injured by them are civilians. Neither the United States, nor Russia, nor Ukraine have signed the treaty banning its stockpiling or use.
Analysts say as many as 40 percent of Russia’s cluster munition bombs have resulted in damage.
Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department conducts comprehensive tests of the cluster munitions in its stockpile and « those we are supplying to Ukraine are tested at a rate of less than 2.35 percent. » .
Such a rate would mean that for every two shells fired, approximately three unexploded grenades would remain scattered in the target area. But the destruction rate of these grenades has been observed at seven times higher rates in combat.
In a briefing to reporters on Friday, Colin H. Kahl, the defense undersecretary for policy, said shells sent to Ukraine had been tested five times between 1998 and 2020.
« The tests themselves are classified, » he said, adding that he has « great confidence » in their results.
The timing of these tests matches the availability of a round called the M864 that ceased production in 1996, and an Army official confirmed Friday that the latest live-fire reliability tests of cluster artillery shells the service had conducted they were on M864 shells in Yuma, Arizona. , in 2020.
The dud rate numbers offered by Pentagon officials vary greatly from what civilian bomb disposal technicians and deminers find in the field in postwar areas, including the M864 round.
U.S. military bomb disposal specialists are trained to exercise extreme caution in locations where cluster weapons have been used and to expect approximately 20 percent of all munitions, regardless of country of origin, not to explode.
The shells sent to Ukraine are commonly referred to by the name given to those little grenades: Enhanced Dual-Purpose Conventional Ammunition, or DPICM – and pronounced by some officials as dee-PICK-’ems.
The grenades, which are roughly the size and shape of a D-cell battery, are stabilized in flight by a nylon ribbon that runs from the top. Weighing less than a pound each, they contain an explosive warhead that will launch a jet of molten metal downward capable of penetrating two and a half inches of armor plate.
The detonation also causes the grenade’s steel casing to fragment outward in the hopes of injuring or killing unprotected enemy troops. These two functions – anti-armor and anti-personnel – are the dual purposes referred to in the weapon’s name.
The Pentagon built millions of these artillery shells from the 1970s to the 1990s, according to government records, and fired 25,000 of them during the Persian Gulf War. Combined with the 17,200 ground-launched rockets carrying the same type of submunitions that the Army and Marine Corps fired, the United States fired more than 13.7 million grenades at Iraqi targets in the 1991 conflict.
Army and Marine Corps artillery shells of this type are tested in Yuma, Arizona, in a relatively flat area of compacted, vegetation-free terrain, the ideal environment for exploding shells on impact .
But in a conflict, these shells are fired into a wide variety of locations forcing destruction rates of up to 10%, and in some cases even higher, especially when they land in water, sand, mud, or soft soil like plowed fields. . The fuzes on the grenades released by the M864 are designed to explode when hitting hard targets such as armored vehicles and bunkers, Vosburgh said.
« Those fuzes rely on impact, and if you land on something soft, you might not get the shock you need, » Vosburgh said. Light grenades often get caught in tree branches or bushes and fail to even detonate.
A senior defense official confirmed on Friday evening that the M864 rounds would be sent to Ukraine and acknowledged that environmental factors can affect their performance, but said the Defense Department did not believe terrain problems would result in a rate substantially higher damage.
The US Army designed many of its modern cluster weapon designs in the 1970s and 1980s with one primary mission in mind: to stop a Soviet invasion of Western Europe by dropping tens of millions of munitions on tanks and armored personnel carriers in what was then East Germany during preparations for an attack.