Ukraine Says It Needs More Guns, Shells, and Firepower

“We are requesting new rounds all the time that have longer range and more explosiveness,” said one Ukrainian military official.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers check their weapons at a position on the front line in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region on Oct. 24, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers check their weapons at a position on the front line in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region on Oct. 24, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers check their weapons at a position on the front line in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region on Oct. 24, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine is pushing the United States to send artillery-launched mines and short-range air defenses that can intercept Iranian-made drones, as ammunition supplies coming from the West continue to dwindle, according to three congressional aides and two Ukrainian officials familiar with the matter.

As Russia’s eastern and southern offensives stalled, and then went into reverse, Iranian-supplied drones have given Russia a temporary leg up in the battle of munitions by providing a cheap way to chip away at encroaching Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian officials have been pushing for so-called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs, for the past month—a form of cluster munitions that are designed to burst into scores of smaller submunitions to destroy mobile targets such as tanks or unsuspecting troops—as well as European-made equivalents. The United States is currently barred from exporting these systems.

Ukraine is pushing the United States to send artillery-launched mines and short-range air defenses that can intercept Iranian-made drones, as ammunition supplies coming from the West continue to dwindle, according to three congressional aides and two Ukrainian officials familiar with the matter.

As Russia’s eastern and southern offensives stalled, and then went into reverse, Iranian-supplied drones have given Russia a temporary leg up in the battle of munitions by providing a cheap way to chip away at encroaching Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian officials have been pushing for so-called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs, for the past month—a form of cluster munitions that are designed to burst into scores of smaller submunitions to destroy mobile targets such as tanks or unsuspecting troops—as well as European-made equivalents. The United States is currently barred from exporting these systems.

Ukrainian officials are keen to acquire the explosive weapons to reduce wear and tear to NATO-standard artillery cannons, one of a handful of new requests for U.S. and European shells and air defense systems in recent weeks. Ukraine is also pushing for the United States to send the truck-launched Avenger air defense system used by the U.S. Army to handle the surge of Iranian Shahed-136 drones, according to two congressional aides and a Ukrainian military official, among a handful of new requests.

“We are requesting new rounds all the time that have longer range and more explosiveness,” said one Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about ongoing requests. “We need them to destroy Russian fortifications on our territory.”

The requests, which Ukrainian officials began making to their U.S. counterparts a month ago, have become more urgent as NATO stocks of Soviet-era 152 mm artillery have dwindled to almost zero, leaving Ukrainian troops more dependent on alliance-standard 155 mm howitzer artillery pieces to fight off the Russian advance. But only 30 percent of Ukraine’s artillery inventory is NATO-standard, and the intensity of recent artillery exchanges with Russian soldiers has raised concerns from Ukrainian officials about the lifespan of the new 155 mm cannons, which are already seeing increased wear and tear. That’s why they want the shells they fire to hit harder; the explosive rounds can be up to five times more powerful than a normal round.

Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, said Ukrainian officials had also requested BONUS cluster rounds, made by Sweden’s Bofors and France’s Nexter, which can be fired from NATO-standard artillery pieces to take out armored vehicles, and the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, developed by Boeing and the automaker Saab. Ukraine has also been asking for the Swedish-made Archer artillery system, another 155 mm howitzer gun that is mounted on the frame of a Volvo all-terrain vehicle. Neither the U.S. National Security Council nor the U.S. State Department immediately responded to Foreign Policy’s requests for comment. The Swedish Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Ukraine’s specific weapons requests.

“Sweden appears to have tons of the weapons that we need,” Ustinova said.

The holdup on cluster munitions is causing headaches on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers and aides are worried that the Biden administration still isn’t giving Ukraine the right weapons to finish the job as the conflict heads toward the nine-month mark. “These cluster munitions were literally designed specifically with Soviet advantages in artillery tubes in mind,” said one congressional aide familiar with the request. “The Ukrainians are saying, ‘You have these weapons purpose-built for the type of threat we’re facing—why can’t we have them?’”

U.S. Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Garron Garn said the agency would not comment on specific Ukrainian weapons requests but said U.S. support “focuses on equipment that is relevant for the current fight.”

More than a decade ago, the U.S. military began to turn away from munitions—including artillery shells—that had a failure rate of more than 1 percent, in an effort not to cause unintended battlefield harm to civilians, focusing more on GPS-guided weapons. That left large quantities of DPICMs—which typically have a failure rate of 3 percent or higher—and similar munitions purchased during the Cold War in stockpiles. Then the Trump administration abandoned a George W. Bush-era requirement to shelve cluster munitions with more than a 1 percent failure rate.

Just months ago, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to stop producing, acquiring, and exporting anti-personnel land mines after a monthslong review, reversing a Trump-era policy because of the harm the weapons can cause to civilians. Though under U.S. policy DPICMs, fired by rocket and artillery, do not constitute banned land mines, any move to transfer the explosives would represent a controversial change in policy. Annual U.S. appropriations laws ban the United States from transferring cluster weapons that have a 1 percent or higher failure rate.

Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker, said the U.S.-made cluster munitions can be set up with a timer to explode within 24 to 48 hours and would not be fired near civilian areas. Russia has flagrantly used cluster munitions against Ukrainian civilians since the beginning of the conflict. Along with the United States, Russia is one of the few nations that has not signed up to the 110 country U.N. Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bars nations from using or producing the weapons.

Some worry that adding U.S.- and European-made mines to the battlefield could complicate the already extensive mine cleanup underway in the war-torn country, as Russia has extensively used mines and booby traps to prevent displaced Ukrainians from returning home, and would fly in the face of the Biden administration’s pledges to rid U.S. arsenals of failure-prone land mines and to provide $89 million to Ukraine to help remove land mines.

“The United States should be thoughtful about providing systems that are controversial and have the chance to negatively impact civilians,” said Rachel Stohl, a vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center and director of its conventional defense program.

But meanwhile, as Kyiv and other cities continue to be pummeled from the air, Ukrainian officials have had air defenses at the top of their list for more than a month, with Russian forces turning Iranian-made Shahed drones on civilian targets in Kyiv and elsewhere. In letters to U.S. congressional leaders after Russian drone and missile strikes against Kyiv killed at least 11 people in early October, Ukraine’s top parliamentarian, Ruslan Stefanchuk, called for short-range air defenses to help intercept rockets, mortars, and artillery, as well as asking for U.S. fighter jets. A senior U.S. defense official said on Monday that NASAMS air defense systems pledged by the Pentagon aren’t set to arrive for another couple of weeks—but Ukraine insists the need is more urgent.

“One of the key problems for us is the Shaheds,” said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker. “We are putting down probably 50 to 60 percent of all of the missiles and ballistic missiles [fired by Russia]. We’re still waiting for the NASAMS. We’ve got some [German-made IRIS-T air defense systems], but the problem is we don’t have any solution for the Shaheds. For example, we have to run our jets, which are very limited and very expensive, against the Shaheds. They are literally chasing them.”

Congressional aides said limited U.S. availability of counter-mortar systems could be hampering the Biden administration from sending a system such as the Avenger, although the United States does have multiple variants of the M163 Vulcan air defense system in stock. Ustinova said Ukraine had also asked for the Swedish-made RBS 70 missile to help shoot down more of the pesky Iranian drones. But some are complaining, as usual, that the Biden team isn’t moving fast enough.

“There’s nothing but frustration with the administration,” a second congressional aide told Foreign Policy. “The administration has just been moving extremely slow, and it’s confusing as to why.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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