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Ukraine Gets the Weapons It Needs, But Always Too Late
After months of dawdling, the Biden administration announced cluster munitions deliveries for Ukraine.
THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE’S ANNOUNCEMENT Friday that it would send “hundreds of thousands” of dual-purpose improved cluster munition (DPICM) artillery rounds to Ukraine illustrates everything that is wrong with the Biden administration’s policy regarding the war in Ukraine: It’s the right decision, but made far too late.
DPICM rounds, which include a mix of anti-personnel and anti-armor bomblets that are released over a broad area, will help to offset Russian artillery advantages over the Ukrainians.The original point of cluster munitions was to slow mass enemy attacks, first in Vietnam and then later against a prospective Red Army onslaught in the Cold War. They were employed to some effect against Iraqi trench lines in Desert Storm, becoming lionized as “Steel Rain,” and would be useful against the fortifications the Russians have constructed across southern Ukraine. But they would be even more effective if employed against deeper-lying Russian ammo and fuel depots, headquarters and airfields—that is, if the Ukrainians had longer-range artillery to reach those targets. Biden deserves approbation for offering a controversial munition, yet opprobrium for withholding the means to make them most effective. He’s paying a large diplomatic price for a marginal—yet desperately needed—battlefield reward. Had the Ukrainians had DPICMs earlier in the war, they may have suffered fewer casualties in and around Bakhmut, and the current counteroffensive may have achieved quicker success.
While it is way too early to pronounce a verdict on Ukraine’s counteroffensive as a campaign, the shortcomings of the armaments provided by the United States and many of its Western European allies are already painfully apparent. Indeed, the scope and extent of the deficiencies are so great that one begins to suspect some malicious design.
While most of the attention has focused on weapons that have not been transferred, such as F-16 fighters and longer-range rocket artillery, there is much to lament about the suitability of some of the equipment that has been given. Just this past week, a battalion commander in the Ukrainian 37th Naval Infantry Brigade, writing under the nom de guerre “Major Spartanets,” confessed that the French-supplied AMX-10RC reconnaissance vehicles were “unsuitable” for front-line, close-combat duty. This really comes as no surprise. The AMX-10 is a thinly armored, six-wheel, 20-ton “light tank.” It has a 105mm main gun, similar in size to older NATO main battle tanks, but lacking the punch needed to penetrate modern tanks with one-shot certainty. The French included them in the forces sent to support Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but they were relegated to a screening mission at the extreme western flank of the powerful “Left Hook” aimed at the Republican Guard; in other words, they were kept out of harm’s way. They fought the desert, not Saddam’s troops.
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Yet the Ukrainian marines, from necessity and because of the large-caliber main gun, have been forced to try to integrate the AMX-10s into the ongoing, early probing phase of the counteroffensive. Major Spartanets deemed even that “impractical.” Fatally so: “Unfortunately, there was one case when the crew died in the vehicle. There was artillery shelling and a shell exploded near the vehicle, the fragments pierced the armor and the ammunition set detonated.”
That account is damning in two ways. First to the Ukrainians for employing the vehicles so riskily. But after all, they have few alternative choices. Second, that a piece of artillery shrapnel could penetrate the AMX-10s armor and cook off the stored ammunition is a fundamental flaw of design and diplomacy. The French defense ministry can have had no misconception about the nature of combat in Ukraine—the toughest kind of close-in land engagement with lots of short-range artillery but little long-range strike and contested airspace above. Knowing this, and also surely knowing that their “light tank” had paper skin, they chose to donate a weapon ill-suited to Ukraine’s needs. The French army is equipped with a modern main battle tank, the Leclerc, but its total active inventory of them has fallen to about 200.
Alas, French President Emmanuel Macron is only maintaining the perverse tip-toeing form of alliance solidarity defined by President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, giving the Ukrainians the tools to stave off further Russian attacks but limiting Kyiv’s counteroffensive options. Only grudgingly did Washington and Berlin cough up a few dozen tanks each. American Bradleys and German Marders are superb infantry fighting vehicles, but they are the shaft of the spear, not its tip. Likewise, the United States would never commit large-scale land forces without assured air dominance and the ability to strike rapidly, accurately and repeatedly throughout the depth of the battlefield. Yet Ukrainian requests for old-model fighter jets have been consistently rebuffed.
America and its allies are choosing stalemate in Ukraine.
And to be sure, it is a choice: At this point in the war, the courage, creativity, and competence of the Ukrainian war effort has been demonstrated beyond question. Questions about troop training and logistics were valid, but the Ukrainian military has answered them. It has used the tools at its service with both patience and panache. The case of the AMX-10s shows both their willingness to assume risk and their ability to recognize when the risk is too great.
The folly of transferring weaponry to Ukraine in penny-packets is apparent. As the AMX-10 case also suggests, it deprives the Ukrainians of the tactical and technological advantages of top-shelf Western systems, which it needs to win despite being outnumbered. (Indeed, many of the Reagan-era weapons Ukraine is requesting, like M1 tanks and F-16 jets, were designed specifically to defeat the Russian army even with a numerically smaller force.) Operationally, it has allowed the Russians to recover from their battlefield blunders. Strategically, it has complicated the process of NATO’s revitalization and exacerbated the alliance’s tendency to self-deterrence. And, as a matter of American domestic politics, it gives would-be isolationists repeated opportunities to make mischief.
By withholding the armaments Ukraine needs, we are driving up the cost of their liberty in lives, time and treasure. Even when the Russians are driven back, they leave a wasteland behind.
The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11 and 12 was intended to be a celebration of alliance revival, with new members and updated defense plans. But the difficulty of ensuring Sweden’s accession and anxiety over the pace of progress in Ukraine threaten to make the affair much more sober and somber. That, finally, is the type of mentality necessary for victory.