Who will win the ammunition war in Ukraine? Russia is buying shells from North Korea; the U.S. is burning through its stockpile of weapons.

In a war of attrition, victory could come down to supplies.

With no end in sight in the overall conflict, what will it take to win the ammunition war?

Russia’s stockpiles of weapons: smaller and dumber

All of which would suggest that Russian ammo supplies are feeling the strain of a longer-than-expected conflict.

Why can’t Russia just build more?

Experts are divided as to what this all means. Some analysts suggest that Russia is scouring the globe for ammunition because it’s unable to mobilize its industrial base to build its own. “The only reason the Kremlin should have to buy artillery shells or rockets from North Korea or anyone is because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been unwilling or unable to mobilize the Russian economy for war at even the most basic level,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan told the New York Times.

Matthew Cancian, a military operations analyst and contractor at the U.S. Naval War College, said it’s too soon to reach that conclusion. The North Korea purchase may be a means of shoring up short-term supplies while Russia settles in for a longer struggle. “The Russians need these shells now, and it takes years to set up production lines,” Cancian told Grid. He pointed to a quote from then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill about Britain’s industrial difficulties during World War II: “Here is the history of munitions production: first year, very little; second year, not much, but something; third year, almost all you want; fourth year, more than you need.”

In this line of thinking, a big buy of North Korean ammunition might be a way to shore up supplies until more domestic shells can be produced.

But Pavel Luzin, a Russian defense analyst who is currently a visiting scholar at Tufts University, told Grid he’s skeptical Russian industry has the capability to vastly increase production given a number of factors — including a shortage of skilled workers, deteriorating equipment, reliance on foreign-supplied parts and an overly centralized organization structure.

“How can Russia increase productivity? To me, it seems just impossible to do,” he said. Based on his own calculations of current defense spending and rate of fire in Ukraine, Luzin projects that Russian forces will have to reduce their rate of artillery use in order to conserve ammunition by the end of 2022, if not sooner.

Ukraine’s pipeline problem

Ukraine has been dealing with ammunition shortages throughout the war, which have hurt the country’s ability to respond to the Russian barrage, particularly during the fierce artillery fighting in the Donbas in early summer. According to the RUSI report, Ukraine was firing only 6,000 artillery rounds per day to Russia’s 20,000.

No farewell to arms

As for the Russians, Luzin said we will soon see the end of Russia’s reliance on its overwhelming artillery advantage to gobble up Ukrainian cities and territory. “[Russia] may be trying to reduce the intensity of the conflict into, not a full-scale war, but an irregular war. That way, they could continue the campaign for the next several years,” he said.

Beyond this war, the artillery duel in Ukraine could also change some assumptions about the future of warfare and just how much ammunition will be needed to fight those wars. Even as U.S. defense budgets overall have steadily increased in recent years, artillery stockpiles have been rapidly decreasing. Another recent RUSI analysis found that current U.S. annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. In a recent war game, British forces ran out of artillery in eight days of fighting.

Johnson told Grid, “We’ve taken our experience of the last 30 years as the future. We think war is going to be quick, fast, decisive and low-casualty. What this war is showing is that this may be partially true, but when you show up with a million artillery rounds and start pounding something, your presence is noted.”

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