Ukraine is eyeing a “two-bridge attack” to collapse Russian forces still occupying the south of the country, a former special adviser to Kyiv’s commander-in-chief has told Newsweek, but needs an expanded arsenal of long-range cluster munitions to push Moscow’s troops to their breaking point.
Dan Rice, a former U.S. Army officer and a West Point graduate was influential in the White House’s July decision to send 155mm, tube-fired dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM) to Ukraine while serving as a special adviser to Ukraine’s top commander, General Valery Zaluzhnyi.
Rice—who is now the president of the American University Kyiv—is among those pushing for DCIPM rockets that can be fired from Ukraine’s High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. Such munitions, Rice believes, would be a “game changer” in Kyiv’s efforts to shut down the “land corridor” of occupied land linking Crimea to western Russia.
Ukrainian forces are currently driving into Russian defensive lines in southeastern Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts, contenting with expansive minefields, trenches, and fortifications many months in the making. Kyiv’s ultimate goal is to penetrate and sever the Crimea land corridor—also known as the “land bridge”—isolating the Russian grouping on the peninsula.
If combined with the full destruction of the Kerch Strait Bridge, such success might make the occupation of southern Ukraine and Crimea untenable.”It’s a tale of two bridges,” Rice told Newsweek.
Rice’s primary focus is now on DCIPM-armed M26 and M39 variant rockets, with respective ranges of around 20 and 100 miles. The M39 munition is better known as the Army Tactical Missile System, colloquially referred to as the ATACMS.The rocket has been at the top of Kyiv’s shopping list for a year or more but has repeatedly been denied Ukraine by a White House fearing Russian escalation. Both the M26 and M39 would greatly outrange the 15-mile 155mm DCIPM in use by Ukraine since July.
Foreign cluster munitions have already been influential on the battlefield. Drone footage shot during Ukraine’s recent seizure of the Donetsk village of Urozhaine showed Russian soldiers being mowed down by cluster bomblets as they fled the settlement. For Rice, this video is a preview of what longer-range cluster munitions could do all across Russia’s land corridor.
A Pentagon spokesperson told Newsweek that the Defense Department does not comment on Ukrainian requests for specific weapons systems.
“Our support focuses on equipment that is relevant for the current fight,” they said in a statement.”
The whole corridor all the way to the Sea of Azov coast would be within range of the M39,” Rice said. “They’d be able to hit all the major transportation nodes and essentially shut down the land bridge. It would just be a turkey shoot. So, you don’t have to take the land. You can just use drones for surveillance and target any key movements of personnel, or trains, or large units. I would see every frontline battalion and every rear echelon battalion coming under fire from the M26s. I would save the M39s for long-distance shots into key transportation nodes. That would shut down that bridge, but you would also be able to go after supply and ammunition dumps, and fuel depots outside the range of the current munitions,” he said.
“This would effectively shut down the land corridor. Then, Russia—once [it gets] the Kerch Strait Bridge—has no way to supply its troops in Crimea. And then you’ve got a much better position at the negotiation table or a forced full withdrawal from Crimea.”
Russian forces have proven largely unable to intercept HIMARS and M270 munitions and have also failed to destroy a single launcher despite making them a priority target.
“They come in at about Mach 3, they’re coming in so fast that they can’t be shot down, and they’re not doing a good job with jamming them,” Rice said. “These are incredibly effective weapons. The only thing they can do is target the HIMARS launchers, which they have been doing unsuccessfully.”
It is a high-priority target, and it does leave a very, very distinct signature when the rockets go flying out. You do have a temporary time where they’re vulnerable. But they’ve already been a prime target since last summer. The Russians have proven very ineffective at getting them,” he said.
“Ukraine has done a phenomenal job in hiding them, using very effective camouflage strategy tactics, ‘shooting and scooting,’ meaning they fire and then they move, and they have cover and concealment. They’ve really gotten very, very good. These are national assets for Ukraine, and they’ve protected them as national assets.”
The Home Front
Rice’s cluster push is winning powerful supporters in the United States. This week retired General David Petraeus wrote in The Washington Post that America and its allies need “a greater sense of urgency” in supporting Ukraine’s ongoing offensive.
“Ukraine needs long-range precision-strike capabilities such as the U.S. Army’s Tactical Missile System,” Petraeus wrote. “It needs cluster munitions for its rockets, not just its artillery rounds. It needs more ammunition to sustain the offensive. And it needs the accelerated delivery of F-16s. In truth, Ukraine needed these capabilities months ago.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed ATACMS at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, but a decision is still not forthcoming. Continued U.S. refusal to provide the weapon is one of the biggest frustrations among Ukrainian officials, who have repeatedly warned that Western hesitation on and delays to weapon deliveries have undermined their counteroffensives.
Ukraine has spent years transitioning from a Soviet-style military to a modern force aligned with NATO standards. Russia’s full-scale invasion has made that journey more necessary but more difficult.
Kyiv has sent tens of thousands of soldiers west to be trained by NATO partners while their comrades hold the 800-mile front line. Certain Ukrainian units are now armed with advanced Western technology and heavy armor, while pilots eagerly await training on Western jets.
But Ukraine does not have enough Western material—especially aircraft—to launch a NATO-style war. Kyiv’s generals are considering how best to leverage what they do have even while some Western partners reportedly criticize Ukrainian operations.
“They’re more Western, they value life more than the Russians,” Rice said of the Ukrainians. “They have American values. That’s why these weapons were developed—to save lives while taking enemy lives. It’s really more of an American approach.”
“The way we designed the fight was to have cluster munitions for the close-in fight and the long-range fight. All we’d be doing is finally giving them the right weapons,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies have spent years destroying their M26 rockets. There were once hundreds of thousands of such munitions on hand. How many are left is not clear, though Rice said there are “tens of thousands of M26 rockets.”
“The M26 rockets that are scheduled to be destroyed could be put to good use. And that’s why I think those Republicans who don’t want to fund Ukraine should be the ones leading this charge, saying that these are wonderful weapons that are going to be destroyed and wasted. And the Ukrainians can put them to very good use,” Rice said.
“We gave them the platform and only some of the ammunition. Now we need to give them the right ammunition to win the war.”