War in Ukraine: cluster munitions - that's how cluster bombs work and that's why they are outlawed

What does cluster ammunition mean? Or cluster munitions – that's the German term.

War in Ukraine: cluster munitions - that's how cluster bombs work and that's why they are outlawed

What does cluster ammunition mean? Or cluster munitions – that's the German term. All of the weapons that fall under this term have one thing in common: the warhead does not detonate in a single explosion, as is the case with bombs and grenades. Shortly before impact, it disassembles and releases the actual weaponry. The bomb or rocket is just a kind of collection container. This canister then contains numerous mini bombs (bomblets). They spread like a fishing net over the target area and then detonate away from each other.

Depending on the type of ammo, these can be smaller or larger bomblets, and they can be smarter or simpler in design. Such cluster munitions are not new, they have been around since the 17th century. Cluster ammunition as we know it today was first used in World War II as an aerial bomb. The content that is expelled has changed. The canister can release simple explosive bombs, mines or even intelligent warheads that are aimed at tanks and vehicles.

Against many targets, the destructive effect is greater if the explosion is not centered but spread out. In this way a larger area is reached. Roughly speaking, cluster ammunition is mostly used against surface targets and has little effect against bunkers.

In Ukraine, simple cluster ammunition was already used by Grad and Smerch launchers. Both are volley guns like the Katushya rocket launcher from World War II, the so-called Stalin organ. A battery of these weapons sends a whole swarm of missiles to the target in a short time, and then the dozens of warheads each disintegrate into countless small bombs. These weapons are particularly effective against unprotected positions, in open fields they destroy everything that is within their radius of destruction. Convoys and accumulations of vehicles are particularly at risk.

In addition to the large area covered by a salvo, there are other peculiarities. The explosions happen almost simultaneously. Persons in target cannot take cover after an initial impact warns them. The guns fire their deadly cargo very quickly and can then immediately relocate and thus escape an opponent's counterstrike.

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive, a variant of canister ammunition has come to the fore. It can also be used to move and clear anti-tank mines. Special rocket launchers distribute the mines over an area that is closed to the enemy. The heavy anti-tank mines in particular are then not laid as cunningly as if they had been deployed by engineers. They just lie on the field and are easier to clear, but that's hardly possible in combat.

In this way, the Russians remotely mined fields again behind the Ukrainian troops, which the Ukrainians had just cleared as they advanced. In this way, supply routes behind the Russian positions can be blocked. The same works with anti-personnel mines. However, since these are much smaller and lighter, no special launchers are required for this.

Minefields can also be cleared from afar. Figuratively speaking, a cloud of bomblets descends over a field and the explosion releases pressure everywhere. This pressure acts like a minesweeper's flail on the ground, triggering the mines detonator. The advantage of the method: The entire field can be cleared. Your own troops do not have to follow the minesweeper in single file and at walking speed. With mine gardens created by specialists, both methods reach their limits. For example, when mines are mixed in with other triggers.

According to the US Army's eArmor website, Kiev will receive cluster ammunition fired from 155mm howitzers. Kiev has already received large quantities of howitzers of this caliber.

The Army and Marine Corps have very large stocks of obsolete M483/M483A1 and M864 155mm artillery shells. Each grenade contains 88 bomblets. As a HE fragment bomblet, a small explosive head reaches a lethal zone of around 10 square meters, and a single canister can cover an area of ​​up to 30,000 square meters.

Modern howitzers can fire several shells in a row so that they hit the target at the same time. If four howitzers then fire four canisters each, large areas are attacked at once. However, the effect only occurs against unprotected targets in the open field.

These canisters can also be loaded with bomblets, which have an armor-piercing effect. Because of their low weight, they do not completely destroy a main battle tank, but instead damage it or immobilize it.

On the one hand, the delivery would be practical for the USA, since the older stocks would be given away, which would otherwise have to be either decommissioned or refurbished. Legally, however, a law blocks the export of this type of cluster ammunition. The US President must lift this restriction himself.

In itself, cluster ammunition is not a game changer for howitzers, nor will it be more important than precision ammunition, which howitzers can use to target and destroy a tank. But Kiev suffers from a shortage of artillery ammunition, which is being alleviated by the supply. Kiev will run out of cluster ammunition for Soviet-era weapons.

In addition, there are the special features of cluster ammunition. It is also effective when used "blindly" against a zone without closely observing the individual target. With the surface effect of the bomblets, Kiev gets a counterweight to the corresponding Russian systems.

Cluster munitions are not prohibited under international law. Similar to landmines, there are international efforts to outlaw cluster munitions. Over 100 countries - including Germany - have already declared that they want to do without these weapons. A ban is not a ban. The real reason for outlawing cluster munitions has little to do with their actual effect, but rather with what is left behind. The bomblets are produced cheaply in large quantities, they do not all explode, but remain in the area like mines and can kill civilians for years to come. For US artillery ammunition, the figures for the proportion of these "duds" vary between 3 and 14 percent.