Edited by Althea May Atherton
Military technology isn’t just a thing people make, it’s a thing people plan to do to each other at some point in the future.
Two weeks ago, I had never heard of Husarivka, Ukraine. The village sits just south of the border with Belarus, northwest of Kyiv and roughly east of both Cerhnobyl and Pripyat. It’s at the center of “To Push Back Russians, Ukrainians Hit a Village With Cluster Munitions,” a New York Times story published April 18.
“To Push Back” is a story about artillery, doctrine, and the second month of war since Russia invaded Ukraine. I spent all of March working on, among other projects, an ambitious 10-part series commissioned by the Center for Public Integrity (and run concurrently at Popular Science) about the technology of war as both adapted and designed and was my attempt at covering the first month of the invasion remotely.
One of the more prominent technologies of the Russian invasion are cluster munitions, a kind of artillery payload that scatters small explosive bomblets. It’s the use of cluster munitions that made Husarivka a dateline.
“As the war approaches its eighth week, both sides have relied heavily on artillery and rockets to dislodge each other,” write Thomas Gibbons-Neff and John Ismay. “But the Ukrainians’ decision to saturate their own village with a cluster munition that has the capacity to haphazardly kill innocent people underscores their strategic calculation: This is what they needed to do to retake their country, no matter the cost.”
I’ll get to my quibble about the necessity of the weapon use later. What is absolutely clear is that Ukraine, like Russia and the United States, has cluster munitions in its inventory, and found a situation in which using an existing weapon matched the expected battlefield need.
There is, in the rational world of defense intellectuals, this idea that all these calculations are made on a spreadsheet or calibrated using a video game display of costs, harm, and damage. What happens, more generally, is that a handful of late teens and 20-somethings, under the guidance of usually an older 20 something or sometimes even an officer in their 30s, make a split-second decision about how to use a weapon that predated their entry into the military and will likely post-date it.
In this instance, the rockets were part of a Uragan multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS. MLRS is essentially a special truck that can carry and angle several missile tubes, allowing it to launch a massive attack and then drive away before it gets hit in return fire. The Uragan is Soviet in origin, dating to the 1970s, where it was designed for the big problem to which most Soviet and US weapons were designed at the time: how to fight a massive conventional war in Europe, just in case the other side tried to do it first.
In my series at the Center for Public Integrity, I wrote about cluster munitions as a kind of inherited weapon. The news prompting my story was an expected depletion of Russia’s precision-guided munitions, so in telling the story of cluster munitions I got to also talk about how the same imagined future battle lead the US to invest heavily in smart bombs.
“A 1986 CIA report on Soviet precision weapons, declassified in 2000, expected the weapons to be primarily useful against tanks or “high-value soft targets,” like soldiers with anti-tank weapons,” I wrote. “Instead of the U.S. approach of hitting all targets with precision weapons, the USSR reserved precision weapons for the targets it wanted to assure were destroyed, while trusting the scale of unguided artillery fire to deal with the rest.”
Both Russian and Ukrainian armies use weapons built for whenever the Cold War turned hot. That moment never came, though preparing, planning, and theorizing for it determined everything from, arguably, nuclear weapons stockpiles to the prominent role of Silicon Valley in computing technologies.
Precision guided weapons require sensors, navigational controls, and the relative certainty that a target can be found and hit. This makes a weapon more expensive, with guidance kits turning a $4,000 unguided bomb into a $21,000 guided bomb. Instead of identifying a specific target and hitting it, cluster munitions spread explosives throughout an area. One Russian-made rocket launcher can fire 12 rockets to cover an area of 60 hectares, or “roughly 150 football fields.”
These weapons were designed for war in Europe, which was expected to come as a massive tank battle supported by artillery, air forces, infantry, and if it got bad enough, possibly battlefield nuclear weapons. In light of that, the unexploded bomblets from cluster munition salvos were hardly a pressing concern. This is the kind of world-apocalyptic war the Uragan was built for, but it’s not the kind of war the Uragan has ended up fighting.
Instead, Russia and Ukraine have used the artillery for an offensive and counter-offensive in the country. When Russia invaded on February 24, it did so with what was assumed to be enough forces to try and encircle Kyiv. The western prong of that invasion, which never completed an encirclement, had occupied Husarivka and villages like it. As Ukrainian forces began a counter-offensive push, that meant using the weapons on hand to hit Russian forces where they were, even if that meant an occupied village.
“Throughout the occupation, Ukrainian forces incessantly shelled the Russian troops [in Husarivka], and at least two of the same type of cluster munition were lodged in a field by Mr. Doroshenko’s home, just a few hundred yards away from the Russians’ headquarters.”
Bomblets, along with other explosive remains and unexploded bombs, remain a durable problem for years after a war. Reconstruction and rehabilitation of battlefields is ongoing and dangerous work. It’s this long tail of danger that makes cluster munitions a widely banned weapon, though neither party to the war in Ukraine has signed the ban treaty. (Nor has, for that matter, the United States).
The modern militaries built out of Cold War leftovers, together with newer upgrades, serves as a reminder that even imagined futures of war, if imagined by people making purchasing decisions, can shape how wars will be fought decades later.
My default approach, when trying to explain a weapon on deadline, is to look for the history of that weapon’s creation, the expressed intent behind its start. This is, in part, a necessity (fewer sources are available at 1am mountain time), but it’s also a way to pull past coverage into the present, to see the story of weapons as one evolving with their use. The Cold War history of precision guided weapons for war in Europe is a useful corrective to more modern narratives about precise weapons existing to mitigate casualties.
Sometimes, a weapon may be expressly designed to reduce harm, like the “sword missile” built for US drone strikes. Even then, the fuller story is that presidents and generals wanted a way to keep launching drone strikes despite public outcry. While the weapon is sold as reducing civilian casualties, the surest way to avoid such tragedies is to stop launching airstrikes, instead of toggling down how deadly those airstrikes are.
All of which brings this back to the doctrines developed for cluster munition warfare. Regardless of how the war ends, the work of clearing bomblets will be long and arduous, and people will die in the work or in the field before the work is done. As the soldiers and officers responsible for using these weapons advance in military careers, or return to civil society, that trade-off in immediate battlefield utility to long-term cost might shift, and the planners of the next war could look to alternative weapons. Or, as is always the case, they could decide the action was worth it, the type of weapon is good, and work towards a future where it’s more common.
The old adage is that generals are always trying to fight the last war, and given the weapon on hand, that’s often the tools they have. Yet it’s the development between wars, that imagining future conflict, that I think will remain part of my focus as I continue to document and observe from afar.
Thank you all for reading, and my apologies for the overlong delay in writing for you here. I filed 17 stories and 8 newsletters in March, a schedule that had me working to 2 am most Saturdays and that meant something had to give. That something was this newsletter, but I should have still been more proactive in letting y’all know what was up.
I’m really proud of that March writing, and it will likely inform all my work going forward. As mentioned above, ten of those stories were for the Center for Public Integrity. Since the stories were syndicated to run at Popular Science at the same time, covering the war for both meant taking a special interest in the exact intersection of military tech and public interest.
Since the start of March, I have been writing the Critical State newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. I loved reading the newsletter in its original form by my fellow Fellow Travelers Blog cofounder Sam Ratner, and I hope to bring the same sensitives to world news writing in the weeks ahead. At the center of each of those newsletter, I take a dive into recent academic work related, broadly, to foreign policy, and the archive of those newsletter essays can be found here.
With the business of March and the travel and recovery of April behind us, Althea and I are discussing how we will work this newsletter back into our schedules. With our sleep schedules back on track, I’m bristling with ideas for stories that fit here and nowhere else, and I cannot tell you all how excited I am to add this sort of personal writing back into my life. Thanks for sticking with Wars of Future Past, and I look forward to writing many more stories for y’all. As always, if you have any feedback, feel free to reach out to Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org and Althea at email@example.com.