Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

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The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

Turkey began sending Ukraine a form of U.S.-designed, artillery-fired cluster bomb in late 2022 after months of Kyiv pleading with the Biden administration for the munitions, current and former U.S. and European officials familiar with the decision told Foreign Policy, giving Kyiv a powerful—but controversial—weapon to destroy Russian tanks and kill troops on the battlefield.

The NATO ally began sending the first batches of so-called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs) in November 2022, which were made during the Cold War era under a co-production agreement with the United States. The weapons are designed to destroy tanks by bursting into smaller submunitions, which can linger on the battlefield for years if they do not immediately explode. Each round scatters about 88 bomblets. The United States is barred from exporting DPICMs under U.S. law because of its high dud rate.

The move, which Turkey has sought to keep quiet for months, also highlights the high-wire act that Ankara has played throughout the conflict: supporting Ukraine with armed Bayraktar TB2 drones that helped break Russia’s advance on Kyiv and playing diplomatic middleman for the United Nations-brokered deal to export grain from the Ukrainian port of Odesa, all while purchasing Russian weapons for itself and angering NATO in the process. It was not immediately clear if the Turkish surface-to-surface weapons had been used in combat.

“After the U.S. denied [Ukraine] access to cluster munitions, Turkey was the only place they could get them,” said one source briefed on the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It just shows how even as Turkey cozies up to Russia in some respects, it’s become a really important supporter for Ukraine militarily.”

Neither the Turkish Embassy in Washington nor the Ukrainian defense ministry responded to Foreign Policy’s request for comment. But Turkey’s delivery of DPICMs showcases how Ankara has played an outsized role in supplying weapons to Ukraine to break Russia’s full-scale invasion at critical moments in the war since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the assault in February 2022.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones helped halt Russian armored convoys converging on Kyiv in the early days of the war, and they reportedly had a role in assisting Ukraine’s sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, then the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. Turkish analysts also believe that Turkey is quietly running a drone bridge from Corlu air base near the Bayraktar TB2 factory, where weapons are shipped to Poland and moved to Ukraine. And Turkey has walked a tight line on weapons deliveries: Even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his brass in Ankara have tried to keep them quiet, some of their close confidantes—including the president’s son-in-law, who is chair of the board of the company that manufactures Bayraktar TB2s—have openly championed the drone’s prowess on the battlefield.

Although Turkey has not shared information on the quantities of cluster munitions in its stockpile, the Ankara-based Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation has produced an extended-range artillery projectile in the past that can be fired out of 155 mm cannons with self-destructing DPICM submunitions as well as similar projectiles that are under license from the United States. Roketsan, another major Turkish weapons producer, once made TRK-122 rockets for 122 mm artillery systems that also scatter DPICM submunitions. Slovakia, Chile, and the United States have transferred cluster munitions to Turkey in the past.

But the move still is a reversal of sorts for Turkey, after it made pledges to the international disarmament community that it would not use cluster munitions. In a letter sent to the president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a Geneva-based international organization, in October 2021 and obtained by Foreign Policy, Turkey insisted that it had not used, produced, imported, or transferred cluster munitions since 2005—when the convention was implemented—and did not intend to do so in the future.

“Turkey, indeed, shares the humanitarian considerations that guide the efforts to limit the indiscriminate use of weapons, including cluster munitions,” Sadik Arslan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, wrote in the letter to the convention.

Yet people who have advocated for the United States to send DPICMs have insisted that it would be the most effective way to root out Russian trench lines, which are not reinforced or covered, in the open terrain of the Donbas. And the need is compounded, those advocates said, by U.S. stockpiles already running low on high explosive artillery rounds. (U.S. officials also believe Russian artillery fire may have declined as much as 75 percent from its wartime high.)

“For every fourth [artillery] round, you’re killing somebody. I think DPICM is going to show probably 20 times that,” said Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leadership, an executive leadership development organization, who is also serving as an advisor to Ukraine’s military chief. “So for each round you fire, you’ll have 10 dead Russians. You’re going to see the efficiency of DPICM and effectiveness, which will also affect Russian morale.”

But in Ankara, even as Erdogan faces a contentious reelection fight this year with the economy beset by inflation woes, he has kept a consistent policy during Russia’s war in Ukraine, experts said. He has acted as an economic friend to the Kremlin while allying with other Black Sea states and fellow NATO members militarily against Russia. Although the Kremlin has been frustrated with Turkish military deliveries to Ukraine, Turkey has simultaneously expanded its economic ties with Russia, bucking efforts by the United States and other NATO allies to isolate Russia’s economy from world markets. Turkey has pumped the brakes on Finland and Sweden’s efforts to join the NATO alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much to the frustration of other NATO allies.

“Putin is upset. But while Turkey’s place is not ideal, it’s also not bad because there’s economic access to global markets [and] breathing room. It’s quite significant for him,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. “That is a sustainable status quo for Putin.”

Some within the U.S. Defense Department and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff have advocated for the move after intense lobbying from Congress and top Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian military chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, dating back to the late summer. But sending the weapons has been a bridge too far after U.S. President Joe Biden announced last year that the United States would no longer produce, acquire, or replace antipersonnel mines or use them anywhere outside of the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. military has not used cluster munitions in combat since its invasion of Iraq in 2003, except for a single instance in Yemen more than a decade ago, and it has not exported the weapons since 2015. Russia, which is also not a signatory to the United Nations cluster munitions convention, has been a prolific user of the weapons since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February: Preliminary data cited by Human Rights Watch showed at least 689 civilian casualties from cluster munition attacks in Ukraine from February to July 2022. Ukrainian forces have used cluster munition rockets on at least two occasions.

Biden has been under pressure from progressive Democrats in Congress to take further steps to prohibit their use. In a letter to the White House in December 2022, spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Bill Keating, 10 House and Senate lawmakers urged Biden to begin destroying U.S. stockpiles of cluster munitions. “If the United States used cluster munitions today we would be criticized as we have condemned the Russians for using them in Ukraine,” Keating and congressional allies wrote to Biden. “We should be leading the global effort to rid the world of these weapons, not continuing to stockpile them.”

The DPICM round also has a checkered history in the U.S. military and around the world. In a briefing of lessons learned from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division called the DPICM a “loser” in the conflict, saying the weapon could not be trusted in urban areas and that maneuver commanders were hesitant to use it.

“Is DPICM Munition a Cold War Relic?” one slide indicated. Since then, the Pentagon has worked to develop a so-called alternate warhead round for light multiple rocket launchers that fire tungsten fragments instead of explosive submunitions.

“That submunition is notorious for its unreliability and its inaccuracy,” said Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher in the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch. “So you’re creating a fratricide situation and a long-term, post-conflict recovery liability.”

But Ukrainian lobbying has intensified as fierce artillery combat with Russian troops has already begun to wear out some of the barrels of American and NATO-provided 155 mm Howitzer guns. The DPICM, which can be fired from standard artillery pieces, is about five to 10 times more lethal than the standard high-explosive rounds that the United States has already sent to Ukraine. Citing wear and tear on artillery batteries, Ukraine has also asked for so-called BONUS cluster rounds from Sweden and small diameter bombs that can be launched by HIMARS, which the United States has agreed to send but has not yet provided.

The U.S. Defense Department has about 3 million DPICM rounds in its stocks, dating back to the end of the Cold War, when American war planners envisaged using antipersonnel mines to stop a Soviet tank advance into mainland Europe. Under plans envisioned by Ukrainian military advisors, DPICMs would be used against known Russian military targets, confirmed by drones, and cleaned up by unexploded ordnance teams after they are fired but before any areas are reopened to civilians.

Turkey, like the United States, is not a member of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Yet experts fear that the cleanup headache that DPICMs could cause might exacerbate the generational mine and cluster bomb mess that the Russian military has already left nearly a year after the Kremlin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Unlike traditional landmines, cluster munitions aren’t often neatly planted in rows that can be easily surveyed and cleared. Rather, they scatter more randomly when fired and have a high dud rate. Experts worry that because of its small size, akin to a D-cell battery, they are too unsafe to destroy en masse, and innocent civilians could mistakenly pick them up, something that happened during the 2006 Lebanon War.

“Ukraine already has a massive problem on its hands, and it’s only magnifying it by introducing this weapon,” Hiznay said. “They’re going to end up with a situation where the contamination is like lasagna: It’s layered upon each other over time.”

ttps://foreignpolicy.com/2023/01/10/turkey-cold-war-cluster-bombs-ukraine/?utm_source

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