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Cluster Warheads Enter the Russia-Ukraine War

On 07 July, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced that it will release additional military aid to Ukraine. The latest assistance package will comprise of ammunition for Ukraine’s artillery platforms, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), missiles for air defence systems, drones, and other support equipment. However, the focal point of this program – and a point of debate both domestically in the U.S. and overseas – is the transfer of Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM).

The DPICM is a type of warhead encasing submunitions, specifically shaped charges for anti-armour roles and fragmentation pieces for anti-personnel. In effect, a single DPICM unit can be used for a composite or mixed of sorts against both vehicles and infantry. When it comes to deployment, the end-user can launch a DPICM with either an artillery shell or surface-to-surface missile (SSM). The concept is also at play in the air-to-surface role, but through cluster bombs as well as more sophisticated submunition dispensers, such as the CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, for example.

Currently, Ukraine is slated to receive DPICM-equipped 155 mm rounds, which it can deploy from its towed and self-propelled howitzers. However, DPICMs can also be fitted onto 105 mm and 203 mm shells, should the U.S. opt to provide those to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the future. Likewise, DPICMs could also be equipped onto the guided rockets in use by the HIMARS.

Analysts observed that Ukraine could use the DPICM in a number of scenarios, notably against established Russian trenches, for example. One outcome of using the DPICM could be that Ukraine will maintain more of its unitary warhead stores by relying on the area-wide attack capability of submunitions. Basically, as a single DPICM-fitted round traverses towards its target, it releases its submunitions along the way. Thus, a single DPICM-fitted round could cause area-wide damage against infantry and/or vehicles. Not only can Ukraine inflict more damage through fewer rounds, but it can preserve its unitary rounds and, in turn, use them to reinforce its counteroffensive or for future operations.

Overall, as with many aspects of the Russia-Ukraine War, the conflict has become a real-world case study to assess the impacts of a modern weapon system. Specifically, it is a test case to see how the DPICM fares and affects the course of a conventional, inter-state war (and a protracted one no less). Thus, it could set a lesson for other militaries, especially those that could potentially engage across both situations – i.e., as a means to break fixed enemy positions while also withstanding enemy offensives.

However, the use of these weapons come at a significant cost. They create severe risks for civilians as the munitions have a failure or “dud” rate (however minimal) that can result in post-war/conflict disasters. In addition, those some “dud” munitions could also pose a risk to friendly units trying to capture or hold the affected areas. It would basically necessitate a form of mine-removal work to clear. Currently, the U.S. and Ukraine’s rationale for using these weapons is that they will be used within Ukrainian territory as a means to remove Russia’s continued occupation (i.e., defensive in nature, strategically speaking).

Lessons for Pakistan

Today, Pakistan faces an acute submunitions threat, most notably from the air through the CBU-105, which is a precision-guided, stand-off range variant of the CBU-97. In other words, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has a dedicated anti-armour element via its Jaguar strike aircraft, which are the primary deployment platforms for the CBU-105. Each CBU-105 can deploy 10 BLU-108 submunitions which, in turn, contains four “Skeets” that are essentially small guided munitions. Once these munitions identify a target (e.g., a tank), they fire off their warheads to attack the target from the top (i.e., a top-attack weapon), which can often be the least protected side of an armoured vehicle, including a tank.

Clearly, the challenge the CBU-105 poses is that it could inflict significant damage on a Pakistan Army (PA) armoured formation. It could also put mechanized assets and infantry at risk to area-wide attacks as well. This can both soften the PA’s ability to withstand an Indian offensive as well as blunt its own offensive edge should it try to capture territory across the border and/or Line-of-Control. However, from a wider vantage point, one can also see India investing in a DPICM-type solution for its artillery. Thus, India’s submunitions threat could readily cut across both air and land.

Pakistan does not yet have its own analogous solution to the CBU-105. However, the growing investment in air defence, including longer-ranged surface-to-air missiles (SAM), could indicate a focus on trying to at least deny the IAF Jaguars some space to deploy their CBU-105s. Likewise, the PA has been seeking a short-range air defence system (SHORAD) that it can rapidly deploy, potentially paired with 35 mm cannons. The SHORAD investment may not neutralize the specific submunitions once they’re deployed, but it could be a threat to the Jaguar and/or the CBU-105 guided munition (before it starts dispensing the BLU-108s).

Pakistan will likely pursue an analogous solution, though it may need to leverage different technologies to achieve its goals. One strategy could be to invest in miniature loitering munitions. For example, one could use a stand-off weapon (SOW) that can dispense small loitering munitions that, in turn, would specifically target and engage armoured vehicles. However, this idea is specific to emulating the CBU-105; in terms of DPICM-type weapons, Pakistan can readily lean on its industry to supply such munitions. If Ukraine sees a level of success, then one can expect Pakistan to follow suit with its own investment.

Overall, one can see a picture of the systems that are becoming key to Ukraine’s continued resilience (but with continued U.S. and Western financial and supply support). Thus far, these center on a large inventory of artillery systems with both unguided and guided shells; modular/multi-caliber rocket systems; a wide-spread, integrated and rapidly deployable air defence environment; main battle tanks; and combat aircraft.

Though it seems the U.S. is building a roadmap for transferring combat aircraft, that is currently the sole gap in Ukraine’s defence needs at this moment. However, the scope of the aid has continually evolved and grown from a complexity and capability standpoint.

Editor’s Note: Quwa did not publish an article on the week of July 03, 2023 due to the celebration of Eid al-Adha. It will return to its regular publishing schedule from this point on.

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