Explosive Edge: How US Cluster Munitions Could Help Ukraine Shatter the Russian Line

As part of an extended assistance package exceeding $800 million, the United States will initially provide Ukraine with a 155mm DPICM fragmentation shell, designed to have an increased destructive capability.

On July 7, the Pentagon made an announcement regarding the 42nd military aid package to Ukraine, which encompasses the provision of the Advanced Conventional Multipurpose Ammunition (DPICM), commonly referred to as cluster munitions. The primary objective of this weapon is to assist Ukraine in neutralizing the complex system of trenches along the Russian front.

The Pentagon emphasized that DPICM is recognized as a “highly effective and reliable” tool, and extensive consultations have taken place with the US Congress, as well as allies and partners, before the decision was made to supply DPICM to Ukraine.

DPICM shells refer to a broad category of artillery shells and rockets carrying submunitions that share similar designs. These types of ammunition were predominantly manufactured during the 1970s-1990s and include 105mm, 155mm, and 203mm artillery shells, as well as 227mm rockets and ATACMS Tactical Ballistic Missiles launched from M270 MLRS and M142 HIMARS rockets.

DPICM (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition) is derived from the Advanced Conventional Ammunition (ICM) family. While DPICM possesses the capability to engage both armored vehicles and conventional targets, its primary focus remains on infantry. Each DPICM submunition contains an armor-piercing concave (HEAT) warhead encased within a metal shell. When the main warhead detonates, the shell fragments into high-speed projectiles, dispersing in various directions.

The DPICM parent projectile typically releases multiple submunitions at a predetermined point along its trajectory. These submunitions, resembling infantry grenades in size and weight, lack guidance systems and employ a cloth stopper to stabilize their flight path upon separation from the main projectile.

DPICM is known for its capacity to inflict damage over a wide area, depending on the specific version. For instance, a 227mm M26 rocket, launched from the HIMARS system, can disperse 644 M77 submunitions within a 200-meter radius circle.

The Ukrainian army, with support from Western nations, can effectively deploy DPICM shells through various artillery systems. Examples include the M142 and M270 rocket artillery, as well as several NATO-standard 155mm and 105mm cannons, all capable of firing different types of DPICM cluster rounds.

In the realm of 155mm cluster ammunition, the US military currently employs the M483A1 and M864 munitions. The M483A1 can carry M42 submunitions, while the M864 can carry either 48 rounds of M42 or 24 rounds of M46. These cluster rounds have ranges ranging from 17km to 30km, respectively.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, has stated that the provision of cluster munitions by the US could aid in expediting the recapture of territories currently under Russian control. Reznikov has also emphasized that Ukraine commits to not deploying cluster munitions on internationally recognized Russian territory.

Experts from Western countries believe that DPICM ammunition can assist Ukraine in addressing Russia’s extensive network of trenches and minefields more effectively. These defensive measures implemented by Russia have already inflicted significant damage and are impeding Ukraine’s anticipated counter-offensive.

In March, Republican senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden stating that the United States possesses a substantial number of DPICM (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions) ammunition, with nearly 3 million rounds mostly located in the U.S. and European bases. However, the use of such ammunition is controversial due to the potential risk it poses to civilians. After a conflict, unexploded submunitions can scatter over a wide area, similar to infantry mines, and have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians worldwide since World War II.

To address public concerns, the Pentagon has assured that the cluster munitions provided to Ukraine are the latest type, with a failure rate of less than 2.35% after firing. This low failure rate is considered optimal by the U.S. military, especially when compared to similar Russian cluster munitions, which have error rates ranging from 30% to 40%.

Nevertheless, military experts caution that DPICM ammunition is not a guaranteed solution, as it may not be sufficient to breach the defensive line established by the Russians over the past six months. Instead, it is viewed as a temporary addition to Ukraine’s depleting ammunition stockpile, buying time for Western allies to produce new ammunition.

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