Give Ukraine the “right artillery ammo:" DPICM
By Dan Rice
This war in Ukraine is the most critical conflict in generations. It is the first major combat action on the European continent in 70 years. And the most important decision facing the west right now is not being debated in public.
Unfortunately, we are providing Ukraine with the “wrong ammo” to fight an artillery duel against a numerically superior Russian invading army. The war is a 1,200-mile artillery battle and the Ukrainians are far outgunned, by 7:1 to 10:1 in artillery pieces. General Zaluzhnyi has asked the United States for Dual Purposed Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) ammunition, and the US has quietly said “no”, insisting on providing a less effective alternative: high explosive (HE). We have millions of rounds of the “right ammo” available and need to get approval to send it to them immediately. President Zelensky famously replied, “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammo”. We’ve sent him the “wrong ammo” for this battlefield. Let’s rectify that and start sending him the “right ammo”.
The West’s overall support of Ukraine has been extraordinary. 73% of all Americans support arming and defending Ukraine. If so, the majority of Americans should contact their members of Congress and demand we provide Ukraine with the DPICM artillery rounds General Zaluzhnyi has desperately requested.
Quite simply, DPICM is an artillery shell that separates prior to the target and drops 88 submunitions on the target in a tight area. DPICM ammunition has been in use by the U.S. military since the 1970s. An area weapon, or in other words a “cluster munition” DPICM ammunition is typically 5-15 times more effective per round than the older high explosive (acronym is HE) artillery rounds the U.S. is currently providing to Ukraine. While the current DPICM is being phased out in advance of the new C-DAEM round, the DPICM is still very much a significant component of U.S. warfighting capability with most of our artillery inventory being DPICM. Both rounds utilize area coverage cluster munition, with the C-DAEM having an improved dud-rate of under 1%, compared to DPICM’s 3%.
This dud-rate performance improvement goal drove the DOD policy decision in 2008 to phase out DPICM. In November 2017, DOD issued a new policy that essentially reversed the 2008 policy. Under the new policy, combatant commanders can use cluster munitions that do not meet the 1% or less unexploded submunitions standard in extreme situations to meet immediate warfighting demands. In addition, the new policy does not establish a deadline to replace cluster munitions exceeding the 1% rate and states that DOD “will retain cluster munitions currently in active inventories until the capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.” With the eventual fielding of the C-DAEM round, the U.S. military will both achieve its 1% rate standard while keeping up to standard with warfighting demands through current use of DPICM.
Russia has no such standard with area weapons and cluster munitions. Russia used air dropped cluster munitions against the Afghan population in the 1980s. The Russians disguised bomblets as leaves, or even toys, to cripple or kill children. This is not the first time Russians have terrorized innocent civilians. The Russians used at least six types of air dropped cluster bombs against civilian populations of Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Donbas, Crimea, and now in their illegal war against Ukraine in 2022. They attack military and civilian targets alike and leave behind unexploded ordnance (UXOs) from these cluster munitions that later can wound or kill or leave an area uninhabitable. They are usually cluster “bombs”, dropped from aircraft, that explode in the air, dispersing many submunitions on the target below. They are using this against civilian targets in Ukraine.
But Russia also fires tons and tons or regular artillery, missiles and rockets that are not cluster munitions. Some of these have terribly high failure rates, resulting in “duds” or unexploded ordnance (called UXOs). Our battlefields and cities across Ukraine have UXOs from the 50,000-100,000 artillery shells fired per day against Ukrainian civilian and military targets. UXOs will be a major problem for Ukraine, whether Ukraine wins, or Russia wins.
This pervasive unexploded ordnance and cluster munition usage of Russia indiscriminately against civilians was the driving factor in the formation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which just met for their 10th annual session last week. The goal of CCM is to create international agreement to limit use to only munitions with a UXO dud rate of less the 1%, the same goal as U.S. policy. While many countries immediately signed on to the provisions of the CCM, many have not, including the U.S.
Nearly every free democratic country that faces a totalitarian aggressor did not sign the convention. The countries that are most at risk from a large-scale Russian conventional invasion did not sign it: Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. The country that is most likely to face a large-scale conventional Chinese invasion did not sign it: Taiwan. The country that is most likely to face a large-scale conventional invasion from North Korea did not sign it: South Korea. Why? They all face an existential threat from a conventional much larger aggressor army than themselves.
The US did not sign the agreement as we were unwilling to compromise our war fighting effort in order to meet other nations’ dictated timeline of implementing our own policy. The reason the US retained the option to use cluster munitions is that for half a century the U.S. and NATO have prepared to fight the Russians in Europe what we believed was an imminent Russian invasion. The west always knew Russia would have a numerical superiority in artillery tubes and tanks. Mass artillery has been a Russian doctrine since World War II. The U.S. and NATO always knew that there was no way to match Russian artillery one for one. Or even the number of Russian tanks, aircraft or divisions of soldiers.
The USSR and later Russia was always expected to be a much larger military. The US and NATO, relied on superior technology, soldiers, and training. And more lethal conventional munitions.
We have better tanks, attack helicopters and artillery. The M1A1 Abrams main battle tank was designed to take on far greater numbers of Russian tanks, usually T-72s or T-80s. The M1A1 is faster, more survivable and fires all systems accurately at full speed. The Apache AH-64 attack helicopter could take on far greater numbers of aircraft and tanks and was armed with the most advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons systems.
Our NATO artillery was expected to be far outnumbered by Russian artillery in a 10:1 ratio. NATO had standardized on the same size artillery shell, 155mm, and all NATO members expected to fire much better ammo than the Russians fire. We always planned to use Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM). While not matching the Russians on a one for one artillery tube vs artillery tube ratio, the DPICM round was a force multiplier, making one artillery tube much more powerful. Each artillery round contained 88 submunitions. The round would explode in the air prior to hitting the target and scatter the 88 submunitions that each submunition explodes on impact below. It is not indiscriminate; it is highly accurate and fired only at known military targets. Instead of firing one high explosive shell (HE) which hits one target, the DPICM round would release 88 submunitions and hit 88 targets across a 150-meter radius. One DPICM round is much more lethal than one high explosive (HE) round. The use of DPICM has always been the strategy to counter Russian numerical superiority.
When Ukrainian units are being attacked by Russians now, if they have Ukrainian artillery, they are unfortunately firing 155mm high explosive (HE) rounds. I learned this when I was in combat on the front lines in the Donbas and was shocked. This high explosive round, while sounding ominous, is far inferior to firing DPICM. DPICM is between 5-15 times more lethal than high explosive (HE) depending on terrain, weather and other variables. That means fewer Russian soldiers killed per round, and more Ukrainian soldiers (and civilians) die in this war. If NATO would supply DPICM 155mm rounds, it would level the playing field and save Ukrainian lives, both military and civilian. In most wars, artillery is the #1 killer on the battlefield, as it is in the Ukraine war. To increase Ukrainian artillery lethality instantly to be 5-15 times more powerful, will be a game changer. And it is simply changing the shells that are being fired, no training necessary. And millions of artillery rounds are already in Europe and can be on the battlefield within days. For most of the war, Ukraine has been on the defensive, which usually has fewer casualties, than the force on the offensive. If Ukraine is to take back the Donbas and Crimea, Ukraine needs to go on the offensive. Without overwhelming force, Ukraine will take significant casualties in the offensive against overwhelming enemy artillery fires. DPICM will significantly reduce Ukrainian casualties in the offensive action that is needed to win.
There is a serious debate currently about how and why deterrence failed after 70 years. One reason is likely Putin knew he had artillery superiority and the west would not use DPICM because the U.S. complies with an agreement it never signed. And if we do not use DPICM here in Ukraine, the countries that face Russia, China and North Korea are therefore more at risk because the precedent is being set- we will not use DPICM to protect Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Taiwan or South Korea. The enemy is always watching.
Both the United States and European Union (E.U.) have recently claimed they are running low on ammunition. These two recent articles highlight the dilemma:
Because DPICM is the most lethal artillery, and because it was the primary planned defense ammo for the defense of Europe to defeat a potential Russian invasion, it was also the most massed produced. We have millions of rounds of DPICM. We are running out of ammo, but we aren’t using the most lethal and most mass-produced ammo.
General Zaluzhnyi has requested DPICM. I know this because after learning from Ukraine they were only receiving High Explosive; I advised the General staff to requests DPICM. General Zaluzhnyi approved and he spoke with the U.S. The Ukrainians will fire it on their own Ukrainian land, only against Russian military targets. Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi go into this fully knowing if they fire DPICM that it will be more deadly than HE against the Russian invaders. But it will have the downside to leaving UXO’s throughout anywhere they fight the Russians. They understand the risks and still request DPICM, because they know that the existential risk of not using them is much greater.
The warfighting effectiveness of DPICM ammunition is clear. The official written U.S. DoD policy for utilizing DPICM in combat is clear. General Zaluzhnyi’s reasons for pleading for DPICM ammunition is clear. What is unclear is why this request was denied. Not being in the room where the decision was made one can only speculate, but the comments against area munitions from numerous Hollywood celebrities at last week’s CCM conference has surely influenced the political lens through which Ukraine’s request for DPICM ammunition is being viewed. If that is in fact the case, then we are sacrificing the Ukraine war effort based on the opinion of a few actors, who would probably reverse their positions if they understood their support of the Cluster Munitions Convention emboldens Russia and hurts Ukraine’s chances of being free.
Political leaders in Washington, D.C. and Brussels need to choose “the harder right over the easier wrong” and get Ukraine the lethal aid it needs to win. Congress should immediately hold hearings and have our top generals give their testimony and expert opinions on what DPICM could contribute to the outcome of this war, and to remove politics from this conventional military decision. Ukraine does not have time for politics. The nexus of rising energy prices in Europe as Putin strangleholds the continent, declining ammo and weapons stocks in the EU and US, a stagnant artillery war of attrition, are all colliding in the coming months. And the battle lines will likely not move much in the coming months without DPICM. Leadership is needed to keep the coalition together and to get Ukraine the ammo it needs to win.
Give Ukraine DPICM now.
Dan Rice is a West Point graduate and combat veteran and President of Thayer Leadership at West Point. He is an unpaid Special Advisor to General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Commander in Chief of Ukraine Armed Forces and registered as a Foreign Agent with the Department of Justice under FARA. He is an American soldier for life and believes opening this public debate is in the best interests of the Secretary of Defense’s mission to defend and free Ukraine.