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  1. The Staggers
28 February 2023

Will Ukraine run out of ammunition?

Complacency and budget cuts have depleted western reserves since the Cold War.

By Katherine Bayford

The West is not only struggling to maintain the supplies it is sending to Ukraine, it is failing to replace the ammunition it has sent. Years of budget cuts have left western ammunition capabilities and stockpiles low, with little to no public backlash.

Ukraine currently expends as many shells in a month as America produces in a year.

Recently Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, told reporters that “the current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production, [which] puts our defence industries under strain”. America and Europe produce around 480,000 155mm shells each year. At the moment that yearly production capacity amounts to about two and a half months’ worth of consumption for Ukraine. Nico Lange, a former chief of staff at the German Defence Ministry, has argued that the ammunition crisis may directly aid Russia’s military strategy, with its focus on “frontal attacks on the front line in many sections, [which] can only be successful if Ukraine runs out of ammunition”.

The West’s recent wars have been waged against Saddam Hussein’s battered and technologically-eclipsed Iraqi forces, and scrappy outfits of tenacious Middle Eastern terrorists and insurgents. None have impressed upon military planners the importance of increasing ammunition production.

While individuals – or even governments at large – have raised concerns about the possibility of an aggressive China or Russia, states have not been convinced to increase the production of ammunition above an alarmingly small amount. Last year Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, pledged to establish an extra €100bn in funding for the country’s armed forces, but none of that was designated for ammunition. This marks a wider trend within the West to prioritise the “vehicles” of war rather than the ammunition they require. As one former Pentagon official explains, “You can’t buy nine-tenths of a ship – but you can buy nine-tenths of the number of missiles you need.”

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[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]

Instead of maintaining the basics of war and defence, western countries have chosen to focus on high-spec, high-status equipment that has been described by one senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations as “a conspiracy of dressing the shop window while letting the stockroom empty out”.

Decades of budgetary cuts across Europe have severely depleted its ammunition reserves, justified on the basis that a massive land war was unlikely to break out on European soil. Europe’s nuclear capabilities were similarly part-justified by the idea that they would render massive ammunition stockpiles superfluous. As Trevor Taylor from the Royal United Services Institute think tank explained to CNN, during the Cold War the costs of maintaining forces and stockpiles that could withstand a Warsaw Pact attack for a longer period than three weeks were borderline unbearable, prompting Nato to stress “that it would also have to be ready eventually to initiate the use of nuclear weapons… After 1990, the apparent need for large stocks obviously diminished.” Too many western commentators confidently viewed the end of the Cold War as being synonymous with lasting peace on European soil.

The West’s support for Ukraine has compounded issues at the core of its own defence industry. Decades of underfunding and misdirected defence funding has put the West’s defence capabilities under enormous strain. The only person who stands to benefit is Vladimir Putin.

Read more:

“Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants

How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?

John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”

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