Ukraine has an insatiable need for ammunition, but the US doesn’t have an endless supply

Why the world’s weapons stockpiles weren’t ready for this kind of war.

Shell games

Bauer also urged countries to dig deep and get creative in their efforts. “If nations start looking around in their ammunition warehouses, you might be surprised that you find ammunition for weapons systems you don’t have any longer but that are now being used in Ukraine,” he said. “So you can give away something that is not hurtful to yourself.”

Why weren’t we ready for this?

European countries might reasonably blame low post-Cold War military budgets for this state of affairs, but it’s harder to account for how the U.S. — with a defense budget larger than the next nine countries combined, and closing in on $1 trillion — is having trouble putting out items like 155-milimeter shells, one of the most basic tools in the modern military arsenal.

Experts say the issue is a matter of planning and priorities.

“Very often, munitions production is kept at a ‘minimum sustaining rate,’” Bradley Martin, director of the Rand Corporation’s National Security Supply Chain Institute, told Grid. “Nations say, ‘We know we need a certain amount to fight, but we’re confident that if we had a war, we could expand [production.]’”

Martin said getting industry to ramp up production will require a long-term policy shift away from a just-in-time model. “If we’re just paying for enough weapons to keep the factory open, that’s all they’re going to make,” he said. “If we expect them to beyond that, we need to not only buy more weapons but also probably negotiate long-term, five-year type of contracts so they can be confident in expanding their production capability.”

Industry watchdogs also argue that defense contractors and their lobbying efforts deserve some portion of the blame for the recent de-emphasis on maintaining stockpiles.

“Ever since I’ve been working on defense policy, all I’ve been hearing about is transformation of warfare, revolution in military affairs, the need to invest in AI. Then a big war kicks off and we’re taking about artillery rounds,” Dan Grazier, a defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, told Grid. “Look, 155-milimeter artillery rounds aren’t sexy. The money is in developing the next new thing.”

Stocking for the next war

The good news for Ukraine and its allies is that Russia’s difficulties on this front may be even more serious. Despite prewar assessments that Russia’s Soviet-era munitions stockpiles were virtually limitless, Western officials believe that the country is running out of long-range missiles, and the Kremlin has recently been shopping around for artillery ammunition from North Korea and drones from Iran, to name just two examples. Export controls slapped on Russia’s defense industry at the beginning of the war may hamper its ability to ramp up production.

Most experts believe that by making some new investments and digging deeply in their warehouses, the U.S. and its allies will be able to continue supplying Ukraine for the foreseeable future without harming their own readiness. Virtually no Western officials are arguing that preparedness problems at home are a reason to scale back support for Ukraine. But the fact that this is even an issue raises some uncomfortable questions about readiness for future conflicts.

“A good portion of what we might need for a higher-end fight is not necessarily what’s being provided to Ukraine right now,” Rand’s Martin said.

Trench warfare and protracted artillery duels against a superpower military were clearly not what most U.S. and European commanders envisioned as recently as a year ago. But as former secretary of defense Robert Gates once put it, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”

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