Winston Churchill is reputed to have said “You can depend on Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted every other possibility.” That's certainly the case with President Biden's military aid to Ukraine. After months of dithering and delay, the president must have known that he would be attacked for finally approving the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine.
And so, he has.
“This is not a weapon that a nation with the power and influence of the United States should be spreading,” preached the New York Times editorial board, in a piece titled, “The Flawed Moral Logic of Sending Cluster Munitions to Ukraine.”
That is nonsense.
Without a doubt, US cluster munitions, also called “dual purpose improved conventional munitions” (DPICM), are deadly weapons. When these artillery shells are fired, they disperse approximately 88 bomblets, each designed to explode above the ground, spreading a “steel rain” of shrapnel over a wide area. But a very small fraction of these submunitions may fail to detonate. These “duds” can lie like ticking time bombs for years, threatening to explode under the tire of an unsuspecting driver or the foot of a child.
That's a horrific possibility. However, this future risk cannot be considered in isolation from the fact that Ukrainians are fighting for their lives right now. One of the reasons that provision of DPICMs has become an urgent and overdue necessity is because the Ukrainian counter-offensive is not progressing as quickly as hoped.
The country is being drained of its greatest resource—its people—who have suffered under Russia's unprovoked, relentless, indiscriminate onslaught for nearly a year and a half.
Without DPICMs, Ukraine has been forced to expend lives, and shoot a larger number of its dwindling stocks of 155 millimeter artillery shells. And the United States and our allies don't yet have the industrial base to keep up with the Ukrainian demand for these rounds.
What we do have are millions of stockpiled DPICMs. These weapons are highly effective at clearing trenches and dug-in positions, which are the very type of fortifications the Russians are using to stymie the Ukrainian advance. Biden appears to have judged correctly that the Ukrainian government is best suited to determine what poses an unacceptable threat to its own civilians.
And Ukrainian President Zelensky has clearly decided that saving Ukrainian lives today outweighs the incremental risk posed to his citizens later. Yet all that still hasn't stopped the armchair generals and disarmament activists from baying about the humanitarian consequences of his decision. Again, they ignore the facts on the ground.
Ukraine already faces a massive unexploded ordnance problem. Russia has been spraying their own cluster munitions – which have a “dud” rate of up to 40 percent—all over Ukraine. Pictures are circulating online of an iron mountain of thousands of expended Russian shells outside of the city of Kharkiv. Moreover, Russia has been strewing land mines and booby traps to kill farmers and other civilians, as well as the advancing Ukrainian Armed Forces.
American DPICMs, with a failure rate of less than 2.35 percent, are not going to appreciably contribute to this humanitarian catastrophe. Finally, there is no legal impediment to the president's decision. Having worked with then-Senator Biden in the 1990s, I am sure that he never met a disarmament treaty that he didn't like, and outlawing cluster munitions has certainly been the focus of the far left for decades.
But neither the United States nor Ukraine, nor any of our NATO allies bordering Russia (other than Lithuania) have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which came into force in 2010. Nor have many countries in Asia, including Taiwan, South Korea, India and Vietnam.
The virtue-signaling benefit of a feel-good treaty simply didn't outweigh the dangers posed to our military, our allies, or Ukraine in event of a Russian (or, for Taiwan, a Chinese) invasion. The US rationale was straightforward: the DPICM was designed with Soviet “human wave” infantry tactics in mind. And that is exactly what is happening today. Russia is marching thousands upon thousands of men into this meat-grinder conflict, with little concern for their lives. Provision of these munitions to Ukraine is a win-win-win. If these purpose-built weapons bring the war to a speedier conclusion, they will be worth it.
This solution fills a looming artillery shortfall and buys time for our defense industries to ramp up production of 155mm shells. And the United States was going to “demilitarize” or destroy these munitions anyway. Providing them to Ukraine saves the US taxpayer tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
President Zelensky well knows, as Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote: “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” It is time for hand-wringing observers on the sidelines of this war to recognize the same.