US officials and military analysts warn that US-made cluster munitions are unlikely to immediately help Ukraine in its counter-offensive against Russian defenses, as hundreds of thousands of weapons have flown into the country from US military depots in Europe, according to U.S. officials. Pentagon.
“The scale of the effect will be modest,” said Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, who has made several trips to Ukraine. “It will make the Ukrainian artillery a little more deadly. The real impact will be felt later in the year when Ukraine has significantly more ammunition than would otherwise have been the case.”
Colin H. Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, recognized last week that “no capability is a silver bullet” but said cluster munitions would allow Ukraine to “sustain the artillery fight for the foreseeable future.”
President Biden had wrestled with a decision for months. Cluster munitions, which have been outlawed by many of America’s closest allies, scatter small bombs across the battlefield that can cause serious injuries even decades after fighting ends when civilians pick up unexploded debris.
Russia has used weapons of this type in Ukraine for much of the war. The Ukrainians have used them too, and President Volodymyr Zelensky had pushed for more to drive out the Russians who are dug in trenches and blocking his country’s counteroffensive.
Biden determined last week that depriving Ukraine of weapons while it faced dire ammunition shortages would be tantamount to rendering it defenseless against Russia. He said it was a temporary move to hold Ukraine back until production of conventional artillery shells could be ramped up.
The decision gives Ukrainian troops more time to probe Russian defenses for weak points along three main lines of attack: shelling Russian artillery attacking their advancing forces, and then breaking through dense minefields, tank traps and other barriers. It also allows the Ukrainian military to do more of what it does best: fire thousands of artillery shells a day to wear down Russian defenders.
“It looks like they’re back in an artillery duel,” said Amael Kotlarski, weapons team manager at Janes, the defense intelligence firm.
But that artillery-focused approach raises questions about whether Ukraine has lost confidence in the combined arms tactics — synchronized attacks by infantry, armored and artillery forces — that nine new brigades learned from American and Western advisers in recent years. months. Western officials announced that the approach was more efficient than the costly strategy of wearing down Russian forces by attrition and depleting their ammunition stocks.
In recent weeks, senior US officials had privately expressed frustration that some Ukrainian commanders, exasperated by the slowness of the initial assault and fearing mounting casualties among their ranks, had reverted to old habits (decades of Soviet-style training in artillery barrages) instead of sticking to Western tactics and pushing harder to break through Russian defenses.
When asked about the US criticism, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who advises the government, said in an email: “Why don’t they come and do it themselves?”
Biden administration officials hope the nine brigades, some 36,000 troops, will demonstrate that the American style of warfare, which uses combined arms, synchronized tactics, and regiments with empowered high-ranking enlisted soldiers, is superior to the rigidly command structure. centralized which is the Russian approach. .
“It pushes them out of their comfort zone a bit because it makes them use fire and maneuver in a way that is more familiar to NATO forces than the kind of forces that have a Soviet legacy and Soviet doctrine behind them.” Kahl said. . “It requires them to fight in different ways.”
Now that the Ukrainians have a vast new supply of artillery shells at their disposal, the pressure to fight like Western armies has eased. But Kahl and other senior US officials and senior uniformed officials said it was too early to judge the counteroffensive and how the Ukrainians will fight back.
“It’s slower than we expected, but the Ukrainians have a lot of combat power left,” Kahl said, noting that most of the nine Western-trained brigades have yet to commit to the fight and are being held in reserve. for when Ukrainian troops can sneak through the holes drilled through the Russian defenses.
“The real test will be when they identify weaknesses or create weaknesses and breach, how quickly they can exploit that with the combat power they have in reserve and how quickly the Russians will be able to respond.” said Mr. Kahl.
US and Ukrainian military officials have refused to say exactly how Ukraine will use the cluster munitions, which are US-made M864 155mm artillery shells that can be fired from howitzers and release 72 small grenades once on their target.
“I don’t think there’s that much of an immediate effect,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research in Philadelphia and a former US Navy officer.
Lee said Ukraine would likely try to use cluster munitions near sections of the 600-mile front lines where it is less likely to send troops to avoid putting its forces at risk.
The United States will work with Ukraine to minimize the risks associated with weapons, Kahl said. Specifically, he added, the Ukrainian government has said it would not use the shells in densely populated urban areas, and that the use of the shells would facilitate post-conflict demining efforts.
“Cluster munitions will be used only in fields where there is a concentration of Russian military,” Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement. a twitter message last week. “They will be used to break through enemy defense lines with minimal risk to the lives of our soldiers. Saving the lives of our troops, even during extremely difficult offensive operations, remains our top priority.”
Mark F. Cancian, a former White House arms strategist who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “Cluster munitions will not only provide enough projectiles to continue the high level of fire but will also provide more effective munitions against area targets such as infantry, artillery, and truck convoys.”
The ammunition arrives at a time when Ukrainian troops are advancing slowly.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that Ukraine was “steadily advancing, deliberately cutting its way through very difficult minefields” at a rate of between 500 and 2,000 yards per day. “The slow advance is very deliberate,” General Milley said. “That’s happening.”
He added that the fact that the long-awaited push to recapture the occupied territory was not moving as fast as many experts had predicted “does not surprise me at all.”
“It’s going to be very long and very, very bloody, and no one should be under any illusions about any of it,” General Milley said. “At the end of the day, Ukrainian soldiers attack through minefields and trenches, and this is literally a fight for your life. So yeah, sure, it’s going a little slow, but that’s part of the nature of war.”