Ukrainians Are Cutting Open U.S. Cluster Shells To Make Drone Munitions

Cluster shells offers a source of ideal ammunition for Ukrainian drones, but they are also badly needed for their traditional application.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Ukrainian forces are disassembling controversial cluster munition artillery shells to repurpose their submunitions as weapons for drones.
Capture via Twitter


Ukrainians are now breaking down some of the U.S.-made cluster munition artillery shells they've recently received to repurpose the submunition bomblets they carry as improvised weapons to be air-dropped from small drones.

Ukraine had been trying to acquire and repurpose air-dropped U.S. cluster munitions to bolster and increase the effectiveness of their stocks of small munitions for drones. Dropping improvised bomblets from often off-the-shelf drones has been a hugely successful tactic for Ukrainian forces. At the same time, 155mm artillery rounds are in extremely high demand in Ukraine for use as designed.

Video footage of Ukrainian forces cutting apart an M483A1 155mm artillery shell, which is loaded with so-called Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) submunitions, recently emerged on social media. It is unclear where or when it was shot, but some of the watermarks indicate that it shows personnel from a relatively well-known drone unit, nicknamed "Achilles," assigned to the Ukrainain Army's 92nd Mechanized Brigade.

Ukraine's military began receiving M483A1 and M864 155mm DPICM artillery rounds from the United States in July. You can read more about these munitions in detail and why Ukrainian officials had been asking repeatedly for them here.

There are multiple different types of DPICM submunitions, also referred to officially as grenades, but they are all similar in form and function. Each one consists of a main body that contains a shaped charge intended to defeat armor – up to 2.75 inches of penetration against homogenous steel armor plate in the case of the grenades in the M483A1 – surrounded by a casing that is designed to send lethal fragments flying out in all directions. This combination of armor-piercing capability and the effects the fragments can have on unarmored targets is why the submunitions are referred to as dual-purpose.

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The video from Ukraine shows individuals using an angle grinder to first saw off the front of the M483A1, before extracting the individual M42 and M46 submunitions inside. Each one of these shells contains 64 M42s and 24 M46s, or 88 in total. The main difference between the M42s and M46s is that the latter ones, which are found in the bottom rows in the shell, have a slightly heavier construction because of the increased force they experience during firing.

A graphic offering a general breakdown of the 155mm M483A1 DPICM shell. via
An M42/M46 submunition. CAT-UXO

The footage from Ukraine showing the process of converting the M42/M46s into bomblets that drones can drop then shows personnel manually arming the fuzes on the submunitions by twisting a tassel-like piece of cloth on top of each one. When employed in the typical manner, this component would both arm the submunition and help stabilize it. When armed, the fuze just relies on momentum to send a firing pin into a detonator, which sets off the main charge.

A screen capture showing an M42/M46 submunition being armed as part of the process of turning it into an improvised munition that can be dropped from a drone. capture via Twitter
A graphic showing various features of M42/M46 submunitions in their unarmed state. DOD

After arming the DPICM submunitions, the Ukrainians insert a small piece of metal to prevent them from detonating accidentally while they are being loaded onto a drone. This tab is then removed, making the grenades live once again. In principle, they should function as they would otherwise when dropped in this manner from a sufficient height.

A screen capture showing M42/M46 submunitions loaded onto a drone. The temporary safety tab used in this conversion process is being removed from the one on the right, but is still visible in place on the one on the left. capture via Twitter

It is worth noting immediately that this process raises a number of safety concerns throughout, starting just with the act of disassembling a live artillery shell lying on the ground with a hand-held commercial power tool. In addition, the fuzes on DPICM submunitions are notoriously finicky and can be dangerously liable to go off if they are mishandled while armed. This is one of the key issues that critics of these munitions cite in their opposition to their use.

There is also a question about whether this is a good use of resources. It is true that reports emerged earlier this year that Ukrainian officials had been asking their American counterparts about the possibility of acquiring old Rockeye II cluster bombs for the purpose of pulling them apart to turn the bomblets inside into munitions for drones. You can read more about this here.

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However, the Rockeyes would not be of interest to Ukrainian forces for use in their intended fashion. Unguided cluster bombs like these are designed to be dropped by aircraft flying more or less close to or directly over a target area, something Ukrainian pilots have been largely avoiding doing due to concerns about Russian air defenses.

This all cannot be said about artillery shells, and 155mm ones in particular, which are in such high demand in Ukraine that they are often rationed to units. In April, Oleksandra Ustinova, a member of Ukraine's parliament, told the AP that the country's armed forces were firing between 6,000 and 8,000 155mm shells every day.

Before U.S. officials announced they would be sending DIPCM shells to Ukraine in July, Ukrainian authorities and their advocates had been pushing to get them for months. This was because of the capabilities they offer and just to give Ukrainian forces another source of badly needed artillery ammunition. DIPCM rounds can provide particularly useful effects against dug-in enemies in trench networks and against large formations, including ones with armored vehicles, in the open, things that Ukrainian forces are regularly encountering as part of their ongoing counteroffensive.

There is the possibility that there was something wrong with the specific M483A1 shell seen in the recent video, which would have made it less of an issue to turn it into a source of drone munitions. Depending on the nature of any such issue with the round, this could add to the aforementioned safety concerns.

On the other hand, the total number of submunitions in just one DPICM round could make this a worthwhile repurposing these artillery shells, even if drone units are only getting a few shells. As already noted, a single M483A1 contains 88 M42/M46 submunitions. That's potentially up to 88 individual targets that drones can now engage, and more effectively, thanks to the contents of just one shell.

DPICM submunitions are already purpose-built to free-fall onto their targets and have built-in stabilization. As can be seen in the recent video, the M42/M46s require no real modification to turn them into weapons for drones. More work is necessary to allow other ammunition Ukrainian forces have been repurposing in this way, including 40mm grenades, to be effectively used as improvised air-dropped munitions.

The dual-purpose nature of DPICM submunitions gives them useful capabilities against exactly the kind of targets that Ukraine's drone units are going after, including armored vehicles and groups of Russian troops under limited cover or out in the open. That translates to added flexibility in the course of a single mission where different kinds of targets may suddenly emerge.

Ukrainian forces have been already making good use of a variety of weaponized commercial uncrewed aerial systems modified to drop improvised munitions or simply act as ad hoc kamikaze drones and smash directly into their targets. Even a relatively small payload, such as a repurposed DIPCM submunition, can be very effective against a variety of targets if employed precisely. So, there is certainly a need to make sure there is a steady supply of suitable munitions.

Altogether, whether DIPCM artillery shells become a more common improvised drone munition, or if demands will prevent this from becoming a more widespread occurrence, remains to be seen. How the U.S. will respond to this 'off label' use is also unknown at this time. What we do know is that these weapons are now being used in unconventional, albeit predictable ways.

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