The US and NATO are trying to arm Ukraine and replenish their own arsenals

BRUSSELS – When the Soviet Union collapsed, European nations reaped the “peace dividend” by drastically shrinking their defense budgets, their armies, and their arsenals.

With the rise of al-Qaeda nearly a decade later, terrorism became a target, requiring different military investments and lighter, more expeditionary forces. Even NATO’s long engagement in Afghanistan bore little resemblance to an artillery- and armor-heavy land war in Europe that almost all defense ministries believed would never be repeated.

But it has.

In Ukraine, a seemingly unimaginable European war is eating away at the modest stores of artillery, ammunition and air defenses of what some in NATO are calling “bonsai armies” after Europe’s tiny Japanese trees. Even the mighty United States has limited supplies of the weapons Ukrainians want and need, and Washington is unwilling to divert key weapons from sensitive regions like Taiwan and Korea, where China and North Korea are constantly testing borders.

Now, nine months into the war, the West’s fundamental unpreparedness has sparked a mad scramble to provide Ukraine with what it needs while replenishing NATO supplies. As both sides burn weapons and ammunition at a rate not seen since World War II, the competition to preserve arsenals has become a critical front that could prove crucial to Ukraine’s efforts.

The amount of artillery deployed is staggering, NATO officials say. In Afghanistan, NATO forces might have fired as many as 300 artillery shells a day and not really worried about air defenses. But Ukraine can fire thousands of shots a day and continues to desperately seek air defenses against Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones.

“A day in Ukraine is a month or more in Afghanistan,” said Camille Grand, defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who until recently was NATO’s deputy secretary general for defense investments.

In the summer, Ukrainians fired 6,000 to 7,000 artillery shells every day in the Donbass region, a senior NATO official said. The Russians fired 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a day.

In comparison, the United States only produces 15,000 cartridges each month.

So the West is struggling to find increasingly scarce Soviet-era equipment and ammunition that Ukraine can now use, including S-300 air defense missiles, T-72 tanks, and especially Soviet-caliber artillery shells.

The West is also trying to find alternative systems, albeit older, to replace dwindling stocks of expensive anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank spears. It sends strong signals to the Western defense industry that longer-term contracts are on the horizon – and that more shifts of workers should be hired and older factory lines renovated. It is trying to buy ammunition from countries like South Korea to “replenish” stocks that are being sent to Ukraine.

There is even talk of NATO investing in old factories in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria to manufacture Soviet-caliber 152mm and 122mm shells for Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era artillery to resume.

But the obstacles are as varied as the solutions being pursued.

NATO countries – often with much fanfare – have provided Ukraine with advanced Western artillery using NATO-standard 155mm shells. But NATO systems are rarely certified to use cartridges made by other NATO countries, which often make the shells differently. (It’s a way for gun manufacturers to ensure they can sell ammunition for their guns the way printer manufacturers make their money from ink cartridges.) And then there’s the issue of export statutes, which regulate whether guns and ammunition can be sold in a country be sent to another war. Because of this, the Swiss, claiming neutrality, refused Germany permission to export anti-aircraft ammunition needed to Ukraine, which was manufactured by Switzerland and sold to Germany. Italy has a similar restriction on arms exports.

A NATO official described the mixed systems Ukraine is now dealing with as “Nato’s petting zoo,” given the common animal names for weapons such as Gepard (German for cheetah) and the surface-to-air missile system called Crotale (French for Rattlesnake). So supply is difficult, as is maintenance.

The Russians also have supply problems. They use fewer artillery shells now, but they have plenty of them, even if some are old and less reliable. Amid a similar mess, Moscow is also looking to ramp up military production, reportedly trying to buy missiles from North Korea and cheaper drones from Iran.

Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in the Donbass region, NATO’s new military spending targets – 2% of gross domestic product by 2024, with 20% on equipment rather than salaries and pensions – seem modest. But even these have been largely ignored by key member countries.

In February, when the war in Ukraine began, many nations’ stockpiles were about half what they had planned, the NATO official said, and there had been little progress in producing weapons used interchangeably by NATO countries could become.

Even within the European Union, only 18% of nations’ defense spending is cooperative. For NATO countries that have supplied large quantities of arms to Ukraine, especially frontline states like Poland and the Baltic States, the burden of replacing them has proven heavy.

For example, the French have provided some advanced weapons and created a €200 million ($208 million) fund for Ukraine to buy French-made weapons. But France has already given Ukraine at least 18 modern Caesar howitzers – about 20% of its total existing artillery – and is reluctant to provide more.

The European Union has approved €3.1 billion to repay member states for what they have provided to Ukraine, but that fund, the European Peace Facility, is almost 90% used.

Altogether, the NATO countries have provided Ukraine with around $40 billion in weapons so far, which is roughly equivalent to France’s annual defense budget.

Smaller countries have reached their potential, another NATO official said, with 20 of its 30 members “pretty busy”. But the remaining 10 can offer even more, he suggested, especially bigger allies. These include France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has advised the alliance – including Germany explicitly – that NATO guidelines requiring members to hold stockpiles should not be used as an excuse to restrict arms exports to Ukraine. But it is also true that Germany and France, like the United States, want to calibrate Ukraine’s weapons to prevent escalation and direct attacks on Russia.

The Ukrainians want at least four systems that the West has not provided and is unlikely to have: long-range surface-to-surface missiles, known as ATACMS, that could hit Russia and Crimea; Western fighter planes; Western tanks; and much more advanced air defenses, said Mark F. Cancian, a former White House weapons strategist who is now a senior adviser at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The ATACMS, with a range of about 190 kilometers or about 118 miles, are not surrendered for fear of hitting Russia; The tanks and fighter jets are just too complicated and require a year or more to be trained to use and maintain. As for air defenses, Cancian said, after the Cold War, NATO and the United States disabled most of their short-range air defenses, and there is little to change. Producing more can take up to two years.

Maintenance is key, but there are clever answers for relatively simpler gadgets, like the M-777 howitzer given to Ukraine. With the right parts, a Ukrainian engineer can connect with a US artillery officer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and chat about maintenance over Zoom. Ukraine has also shown itself to be adaptable. Their forces are known within NATO as the “MacGyver Army,” a nod to an old TV series in which the hero is inventive and improvisational with whatever he can get his hands on.

For example, to shell Russian positions on Snake Island, Caesar’s Ukrainians used barges with a range of 40 kilometers and towed them out 10 kilometers to hit the island 50 kilometers away, which amazed the French. Ukraine has also sunk the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, with its own customized missiles and built drones capable of attacking ships at sea.

US officials insist the US military still has enough supplies to continue supplying Ukraine and defend US interests elsewhere.

“We are committed to providing Ukraine with what it needs on the battlefield,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, said this month after announcing more Stinger missiles for Ukraine.

Washington is also looking at older, cheaper alternatives, such as giving Ukraine TOW anti-tank missiles, which are plentiful, in lieu of Javelins and Hawk surface-to-air missiles in lieu of newer versions. But officials are increasingly urging Ukraine to be more efficient, such as not launching a $150,000 missile at a $20,000 drone.

Some weapons are already running low.

As of September, the US military had a limited number of 155mm artillery shells in its stockpiles and a limited number of guided missiles, rocket launchers, howitzers, javelins and stingers, according to Cancian’s analysis. The US and NATO are trying to arm Ukraine and replenish their own arsenals

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