U.S. officials and military analysts warn that U.S. cluster munitions are unlikely to immediately help Ukraine in its flagging counteroffensive against Russian defenses because hundreds of thousands of weapons have arrived in the country from U.S. military depots in Europe, according to Pentagon officials.
“The scale of impact will be modest,” said Jack Watling, a senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, who has made several trips to Ukraine. “It will make the Ukrainian artillery a little more lethal. The real impact will be felt later in the year, when Ukraine has significantly more ammunition than would otherwise be the case.”
Colin H. Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, recognized last week that “no capability is a silver bullet,” but said the cluster munitions would allow Ukraine to “continue the artillery battle for the foreseeable future.”
President Biden struggled with a decision for months. Cluster munitions, which have been banned by many of America’s closet allies, scatter tiny bombs across the battlefield that can cause serious injuries even decades after the fighting ends as civilians pick up unexploded ordnance.
Russia used such weapons in Ukraine for much of the war. The Ukrainians have also used them, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pushed for more to flush out the Russians, who are dug into trenches and blocking his country’s counteroffensive.
Mr. Biden determined last week that disarming Ukraine, as it faced a serious ammunition shortage, would amount to leaving it defenseless against Russia. He said it was a temporary move to hold off Ukraine until production of conventional artillery rounds could be ramped up.
The decision gives Ukrainian forces more time to probe Russian defenses for weak points along three main lines of attack – shelling Russian artillery that attacks their advancing forces – and then smash through dense minefields, tank traps and other obstacles. It also allows the Ukrainian Army 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 to an artillery duel,” said Amael Kotlarski, weapons team leader at Janes, the defense intelligence firm.
But that artillery-centric approach raises questions about whether Ukraine has lost faith in the combined arms tactics — synchronized attacks by infantry, armor and artillery forces — that nine new brigades have learned from U.S. and other Western advisers in recent months. Western officials have heralded the approach as more effective than the costly strategy of wearing Russian forces down by attrition and depleting their ammunition supplies.
Senior U.S. officials in recent weeks have privately expressed frustration that some Ukrainian commanders, exasperated by the slow pace of the initial attack and fearing increased casualties among their ranks, have reverted to old habits — decades of Soviet-style training in artillery barrages — rather than . sticking with the western tactics and pressing harder to break the Russian defenses.
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 that the nine brigades, some 36,000 troops, will show that the American way of war – using combined arms, synchronized tactics and regiments with empowered senior soldiers – is better than the rigidly centralized command structure that is the Russian approach. .
“It pushes them a little bit out of their comfort zone because this makes them use fire and maneuver in a way that is more familiar to NATO forces than the kinds of forces that have a Soviet legacy and Soviet doctrine behind them,” Mr. Kahl said. . “It requires them to fight in different ways.”
With a vast new supply of artillery bypasses now at the disposal of the Ukrainians, the pressure to fight like Western armies has lessened. But Mr. Kahl and other top U.S. policymakers and senior uniformed officers said it was too early to judge the counteroffensive and how the Ukrainians would fight back.
“It’s slower than we hoped, but the Ukrainians have a lot of fighting power left,” said Mr. Kahl, noting that most of the nine Western-trained brigades have yet to be committed to the fight and are being held in . a reserve for when Ukrainian troops can pour through holes punched through the Russian defenses.
“The real test will be when they identify weak points or create weak points and create a breach, how quickly they are able to exploit that with the combat power they have in reserve and how quickly the Russians can respond.” said Mr. Kahl.
U.S. and Ukrainian military officials declined to say exactly how Ukraine will use the cluster munitions, which are U.S.-made M864 155-millimeter artillery shells that can be fired from grenade launchers and release 72 small shells once over their target.
“I don’t think there will be that much of an immediate impact,” said Rob Lee, a Russia military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former U.S. Navy officer.
Mr Lee said Ukraine would likely try to use the 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 the weapons, Mr. Kahl said. Specifically, he added, the Ukrainian government said it would not use the bypasses in densely populated urban areas, and that using the bypasses would make demining efforts easier after the conflict.
“Scrap munitions will be used only in the fields where there is a concentration of the Russian military,” said Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. 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 weapons strategist who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, “Hardware will not only provide enough shells to sustain the high level of artillery fire but will provide more effective ammunition against area targets such as for example infantry, artillery, and truck convoys.”
The munitions arrive at a time when Ukrainian troops are slowly grinding forward.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that Ukraine was “making steady progress, deliberately working through very difficult minefields” at about 500 to 2,000 yards a day. “Slow advance is very intentional,” General Milley said. “That happens.”
He added that the fact that the long-awaited push to recapture occupied territory is not progressing as quickly as many experts predicted “doesn’t surprise me at all.”
“It’s going to be very long, and it’s going to be very, very bloody, and nobody should be under any illusions about any of that,” General Milley said. “At the end of the day, Ukrainian soldiers are attacking through minefields and in the trenches, and this is literally a fight for their lives. So yes, sure, it’s going a little slowly, but that’s part of the nature of war.”