The conflict in Ukraine has already lasted nearly 10 months, and it has turned into something the United States has not seen since World War II: a battle of production lines. Both Russia and Ukraine have been expending munitions at a furious rate. “At the height of the fighting in Donbas, Russia was using more ammunition in two days than the entire British military has in stock,” notes the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
Not surprisingly, both sides are now running low. Ukrainian intelligence estimates, for example, that the Russians have already expended 80 percent of their Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, which have been used to target Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure.
With its economy hobbled by Western sanctions — and in particular by restrictions of microchip exports — Russia has turned to North Korea for artillery shells and rockets and to Iran for drones and missiles. British intelligence reports that Russia “has likely very nearly exhausted its current stock” of Iranian self-destructing drones and is waiting for more deliveries. (That China isn’t arming Russia is a huge, hidden win.)
Ukraine, for its part, is struggling to maintain the flow of artillery shells, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, Javelin antitank missiles, HIMARS rockets and other vital weapons systems from the West. NATO members have already provided Ukraine $40 billion in military aid — roughly equal to France’s annual defense budget — and they are finding themselves running low on weapons inventories. “There’s no question that it’s put pressure on our own stockpiles, it’s put pressure on our defense industrial base,” said Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl.
It’s vital, but insufficient, for Congress to pass the Biden administration’s new aid request of $37.7 billion for Ukraine. Unfortunately, more funding alone won’t immediately bust through bottlenecks in defense production, raising the need to provide Ukraine with more potent weapons systems to maintain its battlefield progress.
The U.S. Army just awarded Raytheon a $1.2 billion contract to deliver six National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile (NASAMS) batteries to Ukraine, in addition to the two that are already shooting down Russian missiles. But it will take 24 months to build the additional batteries. Ukraine needs to protect its cities now — not in two years.
Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
While a workaround for the NASAMS might be possible (persuading other U.S. allies to donate their systems in return for the promise of replacements), there is no long-term substitute for ramping up defense production lines in the West to deal with contingencies far beyond Ukraine. All NATO countries scaled back their defense industrial capacity after the end of the Cold War. In the United States, the number of major defense contractors fell from 51 to five, and many production lines were shuttered. In recent years, defense contractors have focused on producing a small number of high-tech weapons systems that were ideal for fighting the global war on terrorism but are insufficient for waging a protracted conflict against a conventional military power such as China or Russia.
“A major industrial expansion programme will be required if the nations of the West are to rebuild the capacity to design, produce and stockpile the large quantities of munitions (and platforms) that will be required for both deterrence and response missions in the twenty-first century,” retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan wrote.
But expanding defense production will take considerable time. Mark F. Cancian, an expert on defense industry at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reminds me “that U.S. mobilization in World War II took about six years,” from 1938 to 1944 — and we are not, of course, going to mount such an all-out mobilization today unless we find ourselves in World War III.
Moreover, building weapons systems today costs a lot more, and takes a lot longer, than during World War II — partly because systems are more sophisticated and partly because bureaucracy is more extensive. Boeing began designing the B-29 long-range bomber in 1938, and by 1946 had produced 2,766 B-29s. By comparison, Lockheed Martin began developing the F-35 fighter in 1995, and the United States currently has only 450 F-35s.
The systems destined for Ukraine aren’t as sophisticated as the F-35, but weapons such as the Javelin, Stinger, HIMARs and even 155mm artillery shells also require specialized production capacity that doesn’t exist in the civilian sector. Cancian tells me that industry is willing to ramp up production, but “they want assurances of long-term commitments” so that they don’t make a major investment in producing weapons that no one wants after the current war ends.
That is a commitment Congress and the Defense Department should make, because we have to be prepared to fight not only Russia but also China. (Efforts to arm Ukraine are delaying efforts to arm Taiwan.) With congressional negotiators agreeing on a defense budget for fiscal 2023 of a whopping $847 billion, the Pentagon should have the resources to pay for expanded weapons production. But rebuilding long-term industrial capacity will not address Ukraine’s immediate needs.
The best solution would be to help Ukraine win the war faster by providing it with higher-end weapons systems such as F-16 fighters, long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), Abrams tanks and Gray Eagle drones that the Biden administration has so far refused to supply. The Wall Street Journal just reported that the Pentagon even altered HIMARS supplied to Ukraine to prevent it from firing longer-range rockets capable of hitting Russia — even as Russian bases continue to be used for despicable and illegal attacks on Ukrainian civilians. That’s counterproductive self-restraint.
We can win a battle of production lines with Russia (the U.S. economy is 14 times larger), but we should be doing everything possible to minimize the cost and length of the conflict so that we don’t have to. If you think the supply strains are bad today, imagine what they will look like if the war is still raging at its current tempo a year from now. That’s a scenario we need to avoid if we can.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.