Ukraine’s Appetite for Weapons Is Straining Western Stockpiles

“I think everyone now is sufficiently worried,” a NATO official said.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian soldier fires at Russian positions.
A Ukrainian soldier fires at Russian positions.
A Ukrainian soldier of an artillery unit fires at Russian positions outside Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Nov. 8. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine shows little sign of abating, Kyiv’s Western partners are grappling with how to maintain a supply of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, which have proven decisive on the battlefield, without letting their stockpiles dwindle to the point that it could jeopardize their own readiness levels.

“I think everyone is now sufficiently worried,'” said a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that allies had called on Western defense contractors to ramp up production in the wake of the war. “The relevance of stockpiling is back.”

NATO is now discussing how to support members if their stockpiles fall below the levels needed to meet their defense obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty, the official said. Although decisions around military aid to Ukraine fall to individual members of the alliance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly spoken out about the need for continued assistance to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin made several “strategic mistakes” ahead of the invasion, including “underestimat[ing] NATO allies [and] partners in our commitment to support Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said in remarks on Monday.

As the war in Ukraine shows little sign of abating, Kyiv’s Western partners are grappling with how to maintain a supply of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, which have proven decisive on the battlefield, without letting their stockpiles dwindle to the point that it could jeopardize their own readiness levels.

“I think everyone is now sufficiently worried,’” said a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that allies had called on Western defense contractors to ramp up production in the wake of the war. “The relevance of stockpiling is back.”

NATO is now discussing how to support members if their stockpiles fall below the levels needed to meet their defense obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty, the official said. Although decisions around military aid to Ukraine fall to individual members of the alliance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly spoken out about the need for continued assistance to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin made several “strategic mistakes” ahead of the invasion, including “underestimat[ing] NATO allies [and] partners in our commitment to support Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said in remarks on Monday.

But back in Washington, some former officials are wishing that the Biden administration and NATO allies had gotten the message sooner, and they want defense spending, which has boomed since Russia’s full-scale invasion, to continue to spike for the foreseeable future. “Even if there wasn’t the Ukrainian fight, our stockpiles are still too low,” said Jeb Nadaner, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy during the Trump administration. “You don’t have to invent the weapons of the 22nd century to do this, but the industry will need a stable demand signal.”

During the Cold War, the United States kept large stockpiles of weapons, rare earths, and other materials to quickly ramp up production if it ever ended up in a shooting war with the Soviet Union. But the United States and European allies began to draw down those stockpiles after the fall of the Soviet Union and as Washington pivoted to the war on terrorism as well as a greater reliance on precision munitions and new technologies.

“NATO doesn’t really plan to fight wars like this, and by that I mean wars with a super intensive use of artillery systems and lots of tank and gun rounds,” said Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. “We were never stocked for this kind of war to begin with.”

That has had a compounding effect on already dwindling weapons reserves. Nadaner said Pentagon stockpiles are low on sea-launched missiles, such as Harpoons and Tomahawks; joint direct attack munitions; and the munitions heavily used by the Ukrainians, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Ukraine has received 20 of the rocket launchers and has about 18 more on the way.

“The idea that the United States, in some cases, has just a few weeks of stores for the magazine and they’re going to empty out, it really harms deterrence,” Nadaner said.

Behind the scenes, the United States and other NATO powers have urged Western defense companies to bump up production, calling back to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. However, current and former officials and analysts said defense contractors have been slow to respond as they wait for assurances that the era of an increased arms appetite is here to stay.

“What they say is essentially show me the money,” said Mark Cancian, who served as chief of the Pentagon’s force structure and investment division until 2015. “Their fear is that the war will end and the orders will end and they will end up with these expanded factories that don’t have any orders to fill them.” Contributing to bottlenecks in production are rising prices of critical raw materials and a shortage of skilled labor.

In mainland Europe, where military aid to Ukraine is being dwarfed by the United States and some countries, such as Germany, are still reluctant to dust off old tanks to send to Ukraine, leaders do not want a mobilization that would put the defense industry back on a seeming war footing. And skilled workers—high school-level-trained technicians, designers, and safety and environmental experts—are often reluctant to bring their talents to the defense industry, fearing that they could be first on the chopping block in any downturn.

“Nobody is thinking that we should be going back to World War II and producing a plane per minute or a tank per minute,” said Camille Grand, a distinguished policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who was a NATO assistant secretary-general until this month.

For instance, France has debated replenishing artillery stocks after sending 16 CAESAR howitzer cannons to Ukraine this summer, but it has faced limits on production capacity. “Simply, there are not that many companies in Europe that are capable of doing a gun barrel,” Grand said.

The issue has occupied armament directors in NATO countries for months, including at the last alliance-wide defense ministerial in June. The U.S. Defense Department is starting to rebuild munitions stockpiles that have been used by the Ukrainians. On Monday, the U.S. Army said it had awarded Lockheed Martin more than $520 million in late October and early November to replenish stocks of guided multiple launch rockets used by Ukraine. Still, even as the United States is making moves to ramp up artillery production and kick-start production of shoulder-fired missiles, the Pentagon is getting criticism from Europe that the effort is moving too slowly.

“What industry wants is signed contracts,” said a congressional aide familiar with the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about ongoing negotiations. “We’ve been doing a lot of talking without a lot of signing. What we’ve mostly heard from the Europeans is like, ‘Hey, we just want to piggyback on whatever you guys are doing.’ They don’t want to wait. They’re tired of waiting.”

And the Ukrainians are also tired of waiting. Even as Ukraine has made extensive gains in a nearly four-month-long offensive—liberating Russian-held areas around Kharkiv and forcing the Kremlin to order a withdrawal from the critical southern city of Kherson—Ukrainian officials are concerned that they are running short on even the most basic weapons that they need, such as light arms and shoulder-fired missile systems, such as Stingers, Javelins, and the British and Swedish next generation light anti-tank weapons system, known as NLAW.

In an all-out artillery war with the Russians that has lasted almost since the Kremlin declared an offensive in the Donbas region in April, Ukraine has practically run itself out of Soviet-standard artillery, which comprises about 60 percent of their arsenal, forcing Kyiv to rely more heavily on NATO-standard artillery that can’t be produced fast enough to sustain the fight.

“We literally almost ran out of 152 [millimeter artillery],” said Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian parliamentarian. “So we’re totally dependent on the 155 [millimeter artillery], and the 155 is limited.”

Ukraine has also been challenged by how far the front lines have been stretched by the offensive, officials said. Although the war-torn nation has enough munitions and equipment to sustain fighting in the eastern Donbas region and the southern region of Mykolaiv, another Russian attack to the north could stretch supply lines thin.

At the same time, Moscow is also grappling with its own stockpile challenges, forcing it to turn to Iran and North Korea to bolster its dwindling supplies. “If you’re turning to a country [like North Korea] that has effectively zero GDP and is using World War II-era systems as its main tanks, if you’re buying stuff from them, then you’re hurting,” Kagan said. “We’ve also seen various indications that the Russians have had to ration artillery.” Ukrainian officials believe the Russian armed forces may have as few as 120 Iskander short-range missiles left in their arsenal.

Yet with U.S. and NATO officials seeing no clear end in sight to the nearly 9-month-long war and even with Ukraine clawing back more than half of its territory, once occupied by Russia, since February, Western militaries are getting ready for a prolonged period of change.

“We’re in this for the long game,” Grande said. “The security environment in Europe has changed so much since Feb. 24. This is not an issue that will vanish overnight.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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