Coverage of the war in Ukraine has focused heavily on new high-tech weapons systems that promise to change the balance of power; TB2 drones, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and High Mobility Advanced Rocket System (HIMARS) rocket launchers have all gotten their turn in the spotlight. But as the war stretches on into an open-ended battle of attrition, victory may be less a matter of metaphorical silver bullets than supplies of the actual bullets — and shells, rockets and missiles — that both sides are firing at each other at shocking rates.
For months, the assumption has been that Russia’s larger defense industrial base and huge stockpiles of weapons and ammunition would give it an advantage in a prolonged firefight. But a recent U.S. intelligence report, suggesting Russia is now buying ammunition from North Korea, has raised doubts about just how robust those supplies may be.
Beyond the sheer volume of shells Russia is expending in the war, there is now Ukraine’s strategy of targeting Russian ammunition depots, particularly with its recently acquired long-range HIMARS rockets. The strategy appears to be working: In the first month of the HIMARS operation, Ukraine claimed to have destroyed 50 of these depots.
Ukraine has its own concerns when it comes to supplies of ammunition. Former Deputy Defense Minister Alina Frolova recently told Grid that while recent deliveries of high-tech weapons systems from the West had helped the Ukrainians close the gap in terms of battlefield capabilities, “the biggest concern for now is still ammunition. It’s quite heavily used. The delivery and production of ammunition is the principal point for now.” Ammunition has been a big part of the assistance packages the Ukrainians have received from the U.S. and other allies, but those supplies may not be inexhaustible either.
With no end in sight in the overall conflict, what will it take to win the ammunition war?
Russia’s stockpiles of weapons: smaller and dumber
“Ammunition” can refer to a number of things, big and small, ranging from bullets for small arms to the “hypersonic” Kinzhal missiles Russia has reportedly used several times in Ukraine. The Russians are reportedly facing acute shortages of more advanced forms of ammunition such as cruise and ballistic missiles and other precision-guided weapons, in large part because of their continued reliance on Western technology imports such as computer chips. Western sanctions have specifically targeted the technologies Russia’s defense industry needs to produce these weapons, and those sanctions seem to be working. Ukraine’s prime minister recently told Politico that Russia is down to just four dozen of its hypersonic missiles.
As a U.S. defense official told reporters in late July, “They have expended a lot of their smarter munitions. … Their capabilities are getting dumber.”
But some experts caution against reading too much into this dumbing down of Russia’s capabilities. “My concern is that we’re mirror-imaging. They’re not fighting the way we do,” David E. Johnson, a former U.S. Army artillery officer who is now a principal researcher at the RAND Corporation, told Grid. “They’re running out of the things we would use. Therefore [we assume] they’re running out of everything that’s useful. After all, the Russia military has used unguided munitions with brutal effectiveness in the virtual destruction of several Ukrainian cities.”
As for the less sophisticated types of ammunition, a July report from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said Russia was firing 20,000 152-milimeter artillery shells per day, the vast majority of them unguided. Among the many mysteries of this war has been just how long the Russians can keep this up. Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl said in a press briefing earlier this month, “My sense is they have a lot of kind of dumb artillery rounds and other munitions like that. I don’t think we have any assessment to suggest they’re reaching some inflection point where they’re about to run out of that.” The RUSI report noted that when it came to existing stockpiles of artillery ammunition, “by some estimates, several years’ worth still remains” and that Russia’s defense industry still had the capability to build more.
This is what made this week’s New York Times report that Russia is buying “millions of artillery shells and rockets” from North Korea so notable. The shells in question aren’t the kind of precision systems that Russia is having a hard time producing because of sanctions. They’re the “dumb” Soviet-era weapons that Russia supposedly had in abundance. There have also been reports in recent months of Russia drawing on Belarus’ ammunition stockpile and bringing shipments of weapons home from its ongoing military mission in Syria.
All of which would suggest that Russian ammo supplies are feeling the strain of a longer-than-expected conflict.
Why can’t Russia just build more?
Experts are divided as to what this all means. Some analysts suggest that Russia is scouring the globe for ammunition because it’s unable to mobilize its industrial base to build its own. “The only reason the Kremlin should have to buy artillery shells or rockets from North Korea or anyone is because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been unwilling or unable to mobilize the Russian economy for war at even the most basic level,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan told the New York Times.
Matthew Cancian, a military operations analyst and contractor at the U.S. Naval War College, said it’s too soon to reach that conclusion. The North Korea purchase may be a means of shoring up short-term supplies while Russia settles in for a longer struggle. “The Russians need these shells now, and it takes years to set up production lines,” Cancian told Grid. He pointed to a quote from then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill about Britain’s industrial difficulties during World War II: “Here is the history of munitions production: first year, very little; second year, not much, but something; third year, almost all you want; fourth year, more than you need.”
In this line of thinking, a big buy of North Korean ammunition might be a way to shore up supplies until more domestic shells can be produced.
Jack Watling, co-author of the July RUSI report, acknowledged on Twitter this week that his report had overestimated Russia’s current ammunition stockpiles and ability to sustain its current rate of fire in the short-term, but that “for unguided ammunition … production is likely able to step up to ensure long-term supply.”
The Russian government has shown signs that it’s trying to do just that. In July, the parliament passed legislation allowing companies supplying the military to compel employees to work nights, weekends and holidays. Shortly thereafter, Putin appointed Denis Manturov, reportedly a close confidant of the president, as a new deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry.
But Pavel Luzin, a Russian defense analyst who is currently a visiting scholar at Tufts University, told Grid he’s skeptical Russian industry has the capability to vastly increase production given a number of factors — including a shortage of skilled workers, deteriorating equipment, reliance on foreign-supplied parts and an overly centralized organization structure.
“How can Russia increase productivity? To me, it seems just impossible to do,” he said. Based on his own calculations of current defense spending and rate of fire in Ukraine, Luzin projects that Russian forces will have to reduce their rate of artillery use in order to conserve ammunition by the end of 2022, if not sooner.
Ukraine’s pipeline problem
In a now-famous (though possibly apocryphal) moment on the eve of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to a U.S. offer of evacuation by saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Ukraine has been dealing with ammunition shortages throughout the war, which have hurt the country’s ability to respond to the Russian barrage, particularly during the fierce artillery fighting in the Donbas in early summer. According to the RUSI report, Ukraine was firing only 6,000 artillery rounds per day to Russia’s 20,000.
Ukraine’s aging Soviet-era ammunition stockpiles were not in great shape at the beginning of the war, depleted by years of fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas as well as a series of fires and explosions in 2017 that destroyed some 32,000 tons of artillery shells. As such it has been heavily dependent on Western aid to keep its cannons firing.
Complicating the effort to get Zelenskyy his ammo is the fact that most of Ukraine’s artillery systems at the beginning of the war fired 152-millimeter Soviet-standard shells, whereas NATO militaries use 155-millimeter shells. Unfortunately for Ukraine, most of the world’s Soviet standard ammunition was in the hands of Russia and its allies. This led to a mad dash in the early months of the war to scour the world for remaining stockpiles of Soviet-standard ammunition as well as to provide the Ukrainians with NATO-standard systems.
Some of the U.S. aid to Ukraine comes in the form of money it can use to purchase its own weapons. Other military aid is weaponry and equipment drawn down from U.S. stockpiles. As of Aug. 24, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with 806,000 rounds of 155-millimeter ammunition, but even America’s vast stockpiles are not unlimited. At 6,000 rounds a day, this would last Ukraine for just about four and a half months, but more ammo is on the way in subsequent aid packages.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal quoted a U.S. defense official saying that because of the drawdown to supply Ukraine, current U.S. ammunition stockpiles are now “uncomfortably low” and “not at the level we would like to go into combat.” The same may soon be true of the guided rockets fired by the HIMARS. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged in July that while this system has been extraordinarily effective in Ukraine, “the issue will become ammunition and the consumption rates.”
No farewell to arms
The contest over ammunition supplies is, to a large extent, already driving Ukraine’s strategy including its ongoing practice of targeting Russian ammunition depots and, as the Washington Post recently reported, its use of decoy rocket launchers to lure the Russians into wasting valuable long-range cruise missiles. Worries about whether Western supplies can continue indefinitely may be one factor behind Ukraine’s decision to launch an offensive in the south last month. Ukraine needs to press its advantage as much as it can while it still has the firepower.
As for the Russians, Luzin said we will soon see the end of Russia’s reliance on its overwhelming artillery advantage to gobble up Ukrainian cities and territory. “[Russia] may be trying to reduce the intensity of the conflict into, not a full-scale war, but an irregular war. That way, they could continue the campaign for the next several years,” he said.
Beyond this war, the artillery duel in Ukraine could also change some assumptions about the future of warfare and just how much ammunition will be needed to fight those wars. Even as U.S. defense budgets overall have steadily increased in recent years, artillery stockpiles have been rapidly decreasing. Another recent RUSI analysis found that current U.S. annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. In a recent war game, British forces ran out of artillery in eight days of fighting.
Johnson told Grid, “We’ve taken our experience of the last 30 years as the future. We think war is going to be quick, fast, decisive and low-casualty. What this war is showing is that this may be partially true, but when you show up with a million artillery rounds and start pounding something, your presence is noted.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.