The 155mm howitzer is a long-range heavy weapon currently deployed on the battlefields of Ukraine. In peacetime, the US arms industry produces around 30,000 rounds a year. Ukrainian soldiers use that amount in two weeks, says Dave Des Roches, senior military scientist at the US National Defense University. He’s worried.
He warned the CNBC TV channel: “Unless we have a new production that takes months to ramp up, we will not be able to supply the Ukrainians.”
The situation in Europe is no different. “The military supplies of most [europäischen NATO-] Member States are, I wouldn’t say exhausted, but to a large extent used up because we have made a lot of capacity available to the Ukrainians,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg therefore held a special meeting of the alliance’s arms directors on Tuesday to discuss how to replenish member countries’ weapons inventories.
Military analysts see a fundamental problem: Western countries have produced far fewer weapons in peacetime as governments have opted to cut back on very expensive production and only manufacture weapons when needed. Some of the weapons that are now running out are no longer in production, and their manufacture requires highly skilled labor and experience – things that have been in short supply across the US manufacturing sector for years.
The US is by far the largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine, having provided arms packages worth $15.2 billion since Moscow invaded in late February. Some of the US-made weapons were crucial for the Ukrainians, in addition to the already mentioned 155 mm howitzers, long-range heavy artillery such as the HIMARS system (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
Now the US has essentially run out of 155mm howitzers to provide to Ukraine. To supply more, they would have to draw on their own stocks, which are reserved for US military units, and which they use for training and readiness. That’s a no-go for the Pentagon, military analysts say.
For the Ukrainian Armed Forces this means that some of their main ordnance – like the 155mm howitzer – will have to be replaced by older and less optimal weapons like the 105mm howitzer, which has a lower payload and shorter range.
“And that’s a problem for the Ukrainians,” says Des Roches, because “range is crucial in this war. This is an artillery war.”
Other weapons on which Ukraine depends and classified as “limited” in US inventory include HIMARS missile launchers, Javelin missiles, Stinger missiles, the M777 howitzer and 155mm ammunition.
There are bottlenecks here too. For example, the Javelin, manufactured by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, has achieved an iconic role in Ukraine: the shoulder-launched, precision-guided anti-tank missile was indispensable in combating Russian tanks. However, US production is low at about 800 a year, and Washington has meanwhile shipped about 8,500 to Ukraine, more than a decade’s production, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The Pentagon has ordered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new Javelins, but ramping them up is taking time. “We need to put our defense industry on a war-ready basis,” Des Roches said. “And I see no evidence that we did.”
The US Department of Defense has dismissed claims that US arms supplies to Ukraine are running out. “The ministry has made a mix of capabilities available to Ukraine — we and they are not overly dependent on a single system,” Defense Department spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said. The Pentagon is now working with industry to “accelerate the replenishment of depleted stocks.”