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Arming Ukraine, Deterring China, and the Enduring Dilemma of Ammunition Supply
Can humans invent their way out of this trap?
Running out of ammo sucks. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reportedly told American officials when they offered to evacuate him from Kyiv. His wisdom cannot be discounted. To fight a war, let alone win, requires far more ammunition of all types than combatants ever anticipate before the war. And running out of ammo sucks.
‘The arsenal of democracy’ did respond to his call. By the end of March 2023, thirteen months into the war in Ukraine, the United States had committed “more than 4.4 million artillery shells, tank rounds, rockets and mortars, plus another 200 million rounds of small arms ammunition to Ukraine,” with plans to increase production “more than sixfold to 85,000 a month by fiscal 2028.” Those figures do not include several classes of ammunition, such as GMLRS rockets.
This year, the US Army will spend $1.45 billion on new ammunition production capacity. Altogether, American taxpayers will spend $18 billion over the next 15 years to expand the ammo supply of democracy’s arsenal.
Problems remain in ramping up production, however. Consider the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant and the Wilkes-Barre facility, both operated by General Dynamics. The “buildings are on the National Historic Registry of Historic Places, limiting how the Army can alter the structures,” Marc Levy wrote for the Associated Press in April. At present, they are the only “two sites in the U.S. that make the steel bodies for the critical 155 mm howitzer rounds that the U.S. is rushing to Ukraine to help in its grinding fight to repel the Russian invasion in the largest-scale war in Europe since World War II.”
Systematic effort has increased production at both locations. Yet “even with higher near-term production rates, the U.S. cannot replenish its stockpile or catch up to the usage pace in Ukraine, where officials estimate that the Ukrainian military is firing 6,000 to 8,000 shells per day,” Levy explains. “In other words, two days' worth of shells fired by Ukraine equates to the United States' monthly pre-war production figure.”
Western governments cannot continue to imagine “that industry can be turned on and off at will” when they see such high consumption rates, retired British officer Alex Vershinin, analyst for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said in a report last year. Vershinin identifies the problem in the peacetime impulse to rationalize stockpiling programs. “This mode of thinking was imported from the business sector and has spread through US government culture,” he writes.
In the civilian sector, customers can increase or decrease their orders. The producer may be hurt by a drop in orders but rarely is that drop catastrophic because usually there are multiple consumers and losses can be spread among consumers. Unfortunately, this does not work for military purchases. There is only one customer in the US for artillery shells – the military. Once the orders drop off, the manufacturer must close production lines to cut costs to stay in business. Small businesses may close entirely. Generating new capacity is very challenging, especially as there is so little manufacturing capacity left to draw skilled workers from. This is especially challenging because many older armament production systems are labour intensive to the point where they are practically built by hand, and it takes a long time to train a new workforce. The supply chain issues are also problematic because subcomponents may be produced by a subcontractor who either goes out of business, with loss of orders or retools for other customers or who relies on parts from overseas, possibly from a hostile country.
Underlining the problem, Vershinin pointed to a recent war game exercise that had just used up the British Army’s entire ammunition supply in eight days. Not only was the west woefully underprepared to supply Ukraine for a long fight, their decades of penny-pinching had left them unable to supply themselves for longer than a week.
America could not provide the depth of magazine that they needed, at least not immediately. Casting about for other solutions, the Europeans looked to spend a fair bit of their own cash on increased ammunition flows. As usual in European politics, protectionist impulses have shaped the new policy to keep the money spent in Europe, somewhat complicating implementation. However, in the new strategic environment of supply chain ‘decoupling’ from China, this is likely to be a solid long-term bet.
Everyone is watching Xi Jinping and the Taiwan Strait. Rumors of imminent war, as well as aggressive territorial incursions by Chinese ships and jets, have military obervers worried that the US Navy lacks enough stocks of Tomahawk missiles, or the logistical hardware to reload magazines and return empty ships to the fight, should Beijing attack. Wake Island, the primary US Navy ammunition hub in the Pacific, is supremely immobile against long-range Chinese fires causing ‘Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites’ (UEMS) that remain unhardened.
Mobile docks, floating repair facilities, small craft for amphibious operations — all the things that won America’s logistical war in the Pacific by supplying the ammunition to the fighting platforms — have been neglected in budgets for decades. New experimental ship types, most notably the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) supposedly designed for just such an occasion as a war in the South China Sea, but more famously the Zumwalt-class destroyers, have led observers to despair that the United States can prosecute the next major naval war at all, but they are more notable here for being relatively few in construction, and yet still more numerous than ammunition infrastructure improvements.
The last major naval conflict ended in 1945. Lack of high-intensity competition since then has stunted innovation and development. Strategic inattention to magazine capacity for land warfare returned with the end of the Cold War and the long diversion of resources to fighting ‘terrorism’ since 2001. Since last February, however, the defense industrial base (DIB) is suddenly relevant again, and decisions that made sense years ago seem short-sighted.
ATACMS are a good example of the phenomenon. A late-1980s design that recieved upgrades over the years, less than four thousand were ever constructed before they were discontinued. The machine tools and workers who knew how to build older models no longer exist in place, so that it is impossible to simply re-start the production line. Newer models are still made, but in small quantities. Least-discussed, but most likely of all explanations for the Biden administration slow-walking the delivery of ATACMS is that the United States Army and NATO never made enough of them to share any.
Patriot batteries have also proven their worth in Ukrainian hands. However, the DIB for these systems and the missiles has never been scaled up. The United States only ever built enough of them until the war in Ukraine. As a result, Ukraine does not have enough Patriots to blanket the country in coverage. At any given time, they must choose to have weak air defense somewhere.
The Ukraine supply mission also demonstrates the drawbacks of staggered delivery. Because the Biden administration has chosen to parcel out new weapon systems one at a time rather than deliver a coherent combined arms package all at once, Russians have received abundant time to adapt to each new threat before the next one arrives. Michael McFaul noted this problem before a series of meetings and announcements in February related to provisioning Ukraine with arms.
The way this new military assistance is announced also matters. Rather than providing ATACMs in March, Reapers in June, and jets in September, NATO should go for a Big Bang. Plans to provide all these systems should be announced on February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Putin’s invasion. An announcement of this size will produce an important psychological effect inside the Kremlin and Russian society, signaling that the West is committed to Ukraine’s ambition to liberate all occupied territories. Already Kremlin propagandists on television lament that they are fighting a well-armed and rich NATO, which has greater resources than Russia. On February 24, Biden and NATO allies could fuel this perception that it would be futile for Russia to continue its fight.
McFaul did not get what he wanted. We are of course still waiting for the F-16s to get delivered to Ukraine because the Biden administrtion priority, in concert with Europeans, has been to avoid retaliatory escalation from Russia. This approach has proven short-sighted and disabling.
More to the point, however, the decision to provide controversial ‘cluster’ munitions, which are more efficient than regular explosive shells or rockets, was a way of coping with Ukrainian ammunition requirements for their counteroffensive when the US has already sent them a decade’s worth of 155mm howitzer shell production. Results so far suggest that American policymakers should forget about idealistic international treaties to which the US is not even signatory and resume making these weapons in quantity. If the hippies want to fuss about it, let them.
Despite ramping up production in Europe and North America, ossified western war machinery is still straining to meet demand in Ukraine in a tight market. South Korea could supply Ukraine’s needs, but they prefer to remain neutral in faraway wars, so they supply ‘Poland’ or ‘the Americans’ with ammunition that both countries then supply to Ukraine. But not all paths are so complicated. Bulgaria, Japan, and Portugal all stand to gain in the short term from selling ammunition directly to Ukraine. Mirroring this proliferation of production, Russia increasingly depends on Iran for assistance with the shortfalls in their own DIB, most notably with Shahed drones.
Altogether, “this sudden spike in demand has the added benefit of breaking the Pentagon and U.S. defense industry out of their post–Cold War torpor and jump-starting efforts to expand American weapons production capacity for weapons that are relevant to both challenges” in Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait, a recent report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) notes. But history suggests this will be a temporary state. The war will end someday, and then all of that ramped-up production will decline again for lack of demand, the workforce will be scattered, and the machine tools will gather dust.
Then the next war will catch everyone off guard again, wondering why they were unprepared.
“I personally sit in my office every morning and spend 30 minutes on 155[mm] ammunition,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Aspen Security Forum this summer. “We are actively working as rapidly as possible to build out the production lines for 155…We do not want to lose a day and there is not a tool, authority or dollar that we’re going to set on the sidelines to not being able to do that.”
Until the war ends, and everyone forgets what they learned, just like last time.
“We did not anticipate or prepare for a long war and the industrial base was constrained for efficiency,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Financial Times.
No fallacy in human history has been as pernicious as the faith in the next conflict being a short, victorious war. This error always runs up against the hard math of ammunition stockpiles. You think that people would learn by now.
In their report, CNAS suggests that Multiyear Procurement (MYP) contracts, which are frequently used for ships and planes but not ammunition, should be applied to the armory for these platforms as well.
“MYP sends a strong signal to industry that the Pentagon is committed to procuring more of a specific [munition], which incentivizes the contractor to invest in increased production capacity. It attracts subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers. Ultimately, this results in a stronger industrial base that can produce more weapons at typical rates, while retaining an enhanced ability to surge production when needed.”
Such a move would also send a signal to the Kremlin that the United States and Europe are not backing down or giving up on Ukraine. That might or might not convince the Kremlin to negotiate, and it might or might not deter Chinese aggression, but it will certainly not guarantee the DIB is ready when needed again.
Everyone ran out of artillery shell ammunition at about the same time in 1914. The words ‘per diem’ became the bane of artillerists as they were rationed as few as six shells a day, depending on type, around the end of October. Every combatant nation had its own separate struggle to supply the basic weapon of the modern battlefield.
In Britain, the political crisis over shell supply ultimately resulted in the Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, replacing Herbert Henry Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916. Lloyd George was the original technocrat, the sort of politician who can wrangle both unions and capitalists to bring their disharmonious interests into alignment with the needs of the state in time of war.
Likewise, Lloyd George had a French counterpart, Albert Thomas. He was a socialist who could talk to the radicals running the French unions. While they directed separate ministries, as a practical matter the two men were forced to cooperate on many things, for example by sharing access to supply streams of picric acid. Their Russian ally further complicated the problem and increased demand on key resources in the global market.
These examples illustrate that the solutions to ammunition crises are inherently political. Clausewitz observed that strategy must serve policy, because war is policy. No polity of any kind will long survive if it runs out of ammunition. Polities in alliance must always quibble over their conflicting policies. Skilled labor for making munitions is always in high demand. In short, this is a state-centric phenomenon that cannot be resolved without some measure of centralization.
Ukraine has not been idle. A new Minister for Strategic Industries, Oleksandr Kamyshin, fills the same role that Lloyd George and Thomas did for their countries, as Kyiv is in fact making a lot of its own ammunition. Once again, a single ministerial department must direct the procurement process for industries that are suddenly operating at new scales. Anathema to anti-statists and faith in free markets, the wartime DIB absolutely requires a state to impose some measure of centralization.
Ammunition needs are discounted in peacetime, but then they become paramount in wartime. The emergency in Ukraine has allowed some bad actors to resume their trades, undercutting reform efforts. For example, arms merchant Serhiy Pashinsky was synonymous with corruption before the war, but a New York Times report last week says that Pashinsky has since become “the biggest private arms supplier to Ukraine” through a European network of middlemen.
Forced to look the other way in the emergency of Russian invasion, Ukrainian officials turned to Pashinsky. His company, Ukrainian Armored Technology, has seen profits rise from $2.8 million before the war to $350 million in 2022. Now under investigation once more for price-gouging, Pashinsky and his like are “one reason the United States and Britain are buying ammunition for Ukraine rather than simply handing over money,” the Times reports.
Running out of ammo sucks. Governments at war will do anything, and work with anybody, to avoid running out of ammunition. In peacetime, the same politicians will do anything to avoid responsibility for the price of future ammunition needs, and they become much more finicky about the sources of their supply. So far, humans have not invented a way to avoid this trap. We always reinvent this wheel. Every single time.
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