The war in Ukraine is burning through America's ammunition stocks, and experts are getting nervous

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Ukraine has an insatiable need for ammunition, but the US doesn’t have an endless supply

Ukraine is using a lot of ammunition. Western countries have agreed to send a lot more. The question is, how much is left?

As of last month, the United States had already provided more than 1 million rounds of artillery shells and more than 115,000 mortar rounds to Ukraine. That’s on top of the more sophisticated deliveries of guided ammunition for systems like the HIMARS mobile rocket launcher and the NASAMS air defense system. Ukraine’s insatiable appetite for ammunition is understandable. It’s locked in a war of attrition with an adversary, Russia, that for most of the last nine months has relied heavily on its advantages in terms of sheer power. At one point in the summer, Russia was firing as many as 20,000 artillery shells per day. And in recent weeks, Russia has been launching massive missile and drone barrages on Ukrainian cities — 96 missiles across the country in one day last week — a strategy meant to sow terror but also to deplete Ukraine’s air defenses. Ukraine has to keep pace with this rate of fire just to stay in the war. All in all, it’s a rate of artillery use not seen anywhere in the world since the Korean War.

But Ukraine’s suppliers are also starting to feel the strain. While there are no publicly available numbers to document just how acute the problem is, a defense official acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal in August that American supplies of 155-millimeter shells — the standard rounds for most NATO artillery systems — were “uncomfortably low” and “not at the level we would like to go into combat.” One U.S. defense official recently told the New York Times that Ukrainians are firing artillery at an unsustainable rate “under the false assumption that the West’s supply of ordnance is unlimited.”

The U.S. has also faced shortages for Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. And for all the excitement surrounding the HIMARS’s ability to strike deep behind Russian lines, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged that the limiting factor for the system will be “ammunition and consumption rates.” In other words, the Americans may struggle to keep the HIMARS in action.

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The issue is even more acute for European countries, many of which have scaled back their stockpiles in recent years. Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum last week, NATO’s senior military officer, Adm. Robert Bauer of the Netherlands, said, “We all know that when winter comes, animals start making sure that they’re stocked in terms of food. We have not done that, NATO and the allies. We didn’t believe it was going to be winter.”

In Bauer’s analogy, “winter” is a metaphor for the war itself, but it could also refer to the literal onset of winter, a season that will test the Ukrainian military’s ability to operate and the willingness of Western governments to continue supporting it.

Shell games

Those governments are taking steps to address the stockpile issue. In late September, NATO convened a meeting of its members’ top armaments officials to discuss ways to address gaps. The U.S. Army has put out an industry survey to identify U.S. and Canadian companies that could ramp up production of 155-millimeter shells. (They’re currently produced only at government facilities.) But some experts say it could take as long as four or five years before these investments pay off.

Lockheed Martin has been awarded a $521 million contract to replenish stocks of the guided missiles used by HIMARS. Eastern Europe’s factories are now churning out weapons, ammunition and other military supplies at rates not seen since the Cold War.

Bauer also urged countries to dig deep and get creative in their efforts. “If nations start looking around in their ammunition warehouses, you might be surprised that you find ammunition for weapons systems you don’t have any longer but that are now being used in Ukraine,” he said. “So you can give away something that is not hurtful to yourself.”

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The war has also led to arms trading within the pro-Ukraine alliance. In the early months of the war, the U.S. provided NATO-standard weapons to countries in Eastern Europe, to replace the Soviet materiel these countries were sending to Ukraine. At this point, the world’s supply of Soviet-standard weaponry that’s not in the hands of Russia or its allies has been pretty much exhausted, and Ukraine is itself converting to NATO systems.

The U.S. and Canada have also announced a plan to purchase artillery shells from South Korea in order to backfill their stocks — a plan that allows South Korea to support Ukraine indirectly while obeying the letter of the law in its policy of not providing lethal aid to the conflict.

Why weren’t we ready for this?

European countries might reasonably blame low post-Cold War military budgets for this state of affairs, but it’s harder to account for how the U.S. — with a defense budget larger than the next nine countries combined, and closing in on $1 trillion — is having trouble putting out items like 155-milimeter shells, one of the most basic tools in the modern military arsenal.

Experts say the issue is a matter of planning and priorities.

“Very often, munitions production is kept at a ‘minimum sustaining rate,’” Bradley Martin, director of the Rand Corporation’s National Security Supply Chain Institute, told Grid. “Nations say, ‘We know we need a certain amount to fight, but we’re confident that if we had a war, we could expand [production.]’”

The problem is, the capacity of industry to expand turns out to be less than advertised. As Bauer put it, “Everything that we have in terms of our industries is based on ‘just in time, just enough,’ and by now we know it’s not enough and it’s too late.” In the case of the war in Ukraine, industry leaders say post-covid supply chain issues and labor shortages that are affecting all sectors of the economy haven’t helped matters. Reuters notes that Lockheed Martin has recently posted more than 15 job listings related to HIMARS production “including supply chain quality engineers, purchasing analysts, and testing engineers.”

Meanwhile, “surging” production is tougher for more advanced systems such as the GMLRS, the precision-guided rockets fired by the HIMARS systems. A recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that if the U.S. sent Ukraine about a third of its supply of these rockets, that would amount to some 8,000 to 10,000 rockets. That might last Ukraine several months, and the U.S. produces only about 5,000 GMLRS each year.

Martin said getting industry to ramp up production will require a long-term policy shift away from a just-in-time model. “If we’re just paying for enough weapons to keep the factory open, that’s all they’re going to make,” he said. “If we expect them to beyond that, we need to not only buy more weapons but also probably negotiate long-term, five-year type of contracts so they can be confident in expanding their production capability.”

Industry watchdogs also argue that defense contractors and their lobbying efforts deserve some portion of the blame for the recent de-emphasis on maintaining stockpiles.

“Ever since I’ve been working on defense policy, all I’ve been hearing about is transformation of warfare, revolution in military affairs, the need to invest in AI. Then a big war kicks off and we’re taking about artillery rounds,” Dan Grazier, a defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, told Grid. “Look, 155-milimeter artillery rounds aren’t sexy. The money is in developing the next new thing.”


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Stocking for the next war

The good news for Ukraine and its allies is that Russia’s difficulties on this front may be even more serious. Despite prewar assessments that Russia’s Soviet-era munitions stockpiles were virtually limitless, Western officials believe that the country is running out of long-range missiles, and the Kremlin has recently been shopping around for artillery ammunition from North Korea and drones from Iran, to name just two examples. Export controls slapped on Russia’s defense industry at the beginning of the war may hamper its ability to ramp up production.

Most experts believe that by making some new investments and digging deeply in their warehouses, the U.S. and its allies will be able to continue supplying Ukraine for the foreseeable future without harming their own readiness. Virtually no Western officials are arguing that preparedness problems at home are a reason to scale back support for Ukraine. But the fact that this is even an issue raises some uncomfortable questions about readiness for future conflicts.

The American Army is five times the size of the Ukrainian army. So, if the Ukrainian army can deplete U.S. stocks in eight months, then how fast would the U.S. Army deplete its own stocks?” Grazier asked. As for other countries involved in this war, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper recently estimated the country’s military has enough stocks for only about two days of high-intensity combat.

Also worth keeping in mind: There’s a good chance the next war will be an entirely different sort of conflict with entirely different needs. A fight with China over Taiwan, to take just one nightmare scenario, would likely involve much larger numbers of anti-ship missiles and air defenses.

“A good portion of what we might need for a higher-end fight is not necessarily what’s being provided to Ukraine right now,” Rand’s Martin said.

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Trench warfare and protracted artillery duels against a superpower military were clearly not what most U.S. and European commanders envisioned as recently as a year ago. But as former secretary of defense Robert Gates once put it, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

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Ukraine