Setup: Cluster munition shells made the latest round of U.S. military support to help Ukrainian Armed Forces replenish dwindling artillery shell supplies. For that stopgap purpose, it may be the only substitute the U.S. can now give. To date, Russia has aggressed with cluster and incendiary weapons against Ukrainian defenders and civilians, and Ukraine has defended with some Turkish cluster munitions.
Problems, Pros, & Cons: Debate has picked-up over how the U.S. supply of dated, unused cluster munitions will pose risks to civilians versus help Ukraine liberate its territory sooner, shortening the war. Cluster Cons: So far, 123 nations (including U.S. allies but not the U.S., Ukraine, or Russia) are party to the The Convention on Cluster Munitions banning the use of cluster munitions for the inherent risks to unintended targets of dispersive bomblets modified by weather, miscalculations, erroneous intelligence, confusing battlefield conditions, ‘friendly’ fire, dormancy, and secondary effects (shrapnel, burns, and blast waves). The risk to civilians can be persistent for months, years, or decades for unexploded bombs and bomblets. Cluster Pros: The currently accepted advantage of cluster munitions for Ukraine’s liberation is that their particulate numbers and dispersed delivery can hit dispersing targets and infiltrate trench networks more effectively than unitary warheads, helping Ukraine sooner drive Russian troops from Ukraine and end the war.
Strategic Point: There are broader and deeper issues in lethal weapon choices, including cluster munitions relating to entrenched, trapped, and poorly led enemy troops. Civilians and future civilian life among neighboring countries will be affected as implied by the argument of this paper and following discussion.
Argument: In future scenarios akin to Russia’s current entrenchment in Eastern Ukraine free nations should innovate, develop, and have as added options proven non-lethal (NL) clustered payloads and other larger scale conventional NL weapon solutions. Free nations should add NL solutions to their arsenals and military support aid that, under warranted circumstances, help destroy or obstruct the effective use of aggressor forces’ weapons, war machinery, vehicles, materiel, cover, and ability to defend their supply lines.
NL Alternatives: What non-lethal payloads could do that? That is the innovation challenge for private, secure invention and development, not for public announcement. For this paper’s purposes, we will assume we have non-lethal solutions that can neutralize aggressor forces’ weapons, war machinery, vehicles, materiel, cover, and ability to defend their supply lines.
This could reduce the unnecessary killing and maiming of at-risk civilians, opposing troops, and the toxic pollution of the landscape by attrition warfare per Sun Tzu’s admonition:
Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.
Minus effective use their weapons adversaries cannot defend their supply lines from armed interdiction. Once isolated from supply, options available to trapped forces narrow to retreat, escape, surrender, or capture.
Value of Capture: The ethos of sparing outmatched men from slaughter and treating them humanely in captivity is an opportunity to contrast freedom nation conduct with that of dictatorships. In Ukraine, it would be a permissive opportunity for spared enemy troops to think over the sort of future they want for Russia. In this, it pays to know the enemy: many or most Russian troops in Ukraine did not volunteer for Putin’s war but followed a mobilization mandate or were deceived into volunteering, a form of coercion.
Still, among the captured there will be die-hard loyalists or extremists within the dictator’s cult of personality. This requires improvable methods for discerning and handling such prisoners.
Assuming NL weapons lead to more captured enemy troops, those running the prison must exemplify humane principles, fairness, and humanity in how captured POWs are treated. This requires, experienced, observant, empathetic, canny, professional, intelligent, and no-nonsense staffing of POW programs. The more humane the POW programs, the more leverage for getting enemy troops to surrender.
Under Putin and the siloviki Russia has become a state with a superpower’s nuclear arsenal subject to a backwards governing model wasting the scarce resource of Russian men’s lives for a dictator’s political legacy. Putin’s silovki regime is depopulating Russia’s future defense and economic base each day it persists its war of hubris over Ukraine.
Free nations should also use information spaces to respectfully demonstrate that free nations do what Putin does not care enough to do for his people: look after his troops, even in captivity.
Where possible and protective of one’s own troops, capturing and preserving enemy combat veterans’ lives and treating them honorably will model for them the sort of future leadership that dictatorships do not allow. With such men and women returning to Russia, this could help usher in the end of dictatorship, reversal of the population drain, and prevent repeat leadership meltdowns dictators impose.
The experience of surviving Russian troops would also tend to inject a future reality-check demographic inside Russia to help stabilize, inform, and secure Russia from ideologies of unsustainable expansionism. Free trade, travel, mutual benefits, and diplomacy would be the logical, humble, yet enriching alternative to conquest and control.
Ukraine and Supporters, Short Term: For Ukrainian Armed Forces and supporters, rapidly developing and using custom-rigged and predesigned anti-materiel, anti-weapon, anti-capacity, and anti-supply NL weapons could help realize similar objectives to lethal cluster munitions in taking the fight out of the enemy while accomplishing influence, mitigating trauma, and establishing a lasting unifying moral principle (morale) in one’s own troops. Captured, enemy troops released post-war will be the people who return to Russia. In that light, much thought and work should go into an authentic, honest, effective prisoner of war experience for those people.
To utterly destroy a nation’s defensive potential by focusing only on exterminating their military forces or because their dictator uses his people as mass cannon fodder invites a failed state next door tomorrow, or a massive nation building challenge in lands not suited for it. Failed state status is not a good outcome for a nation stocked with nuclear weapons and WMD stockpiles.
Free Nations, Mid to Long Term: In 1835, British clergymen Andrew Reed and James Matheson wrote, “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.” Taken in the spirit with which President Eisenhower paraphrased this (and may have erred in its attribution to de Tocqueville) this would be true of all free nations, alliances and friendships.
Yet for the U.S., being known for goodness changed to being known as most feared somewhere deep within the Cold War, and in part because of it. Other freedom nations on the rise in prosperity and good government will face similar challenges at some point.
Using NL weapons to stop aggressor warfare and neutralize terrorist weapons is one way to help win battles while reducing fear of the United States, NATO, and other freedom nations. It can also help render ineffective anti-freedom information warfare. Over time, remaining consistent in using NL weapons only when warranted and safe to do so should improve U.S. international relations, trust, and influence.
NL weapons could be categorized according to what they accomplish, how, and under what conditions. We will not get into specifics of NL weapons and solutions, just that NL weapons should become an innovation focus for winning battles, saving lives, leaving civilization intact, influence, and goodwill.
Note: What conventional scale NL weapons are not for in the context of freedom nations: (1) aggressor weapons; (2) domestic law enforcement weapons; (3) political, social, or terrorist oppression tools; (4) supplies to nations who use them as (1), (2), or (3) or other nefarious purposes.