Ukraine is firing artillery shells faster than manufacturers can make them. Brussels is working on a plan to increase production by guaranteeing big advance purchases.
BRUSSELS — So desperate is Ukraine for ammunition, it is firing considerably fewer artillery shells than it otherwise would, its defense minister says.
But it is still going through shells faster than the West can produce or supply them, and making more shells is expensive. If arms manufacturers are to increase production and build new factories, they want large orders with guaranteed money — and those factories can take two to three years or more to come online.
Hoping to address these problems, the European Union’s defense ministers will gather on Wednesday in Stockholm to consider proposals to use the E.U. budget to order and purchase up to one million shells for Ukraine at an estimated cost of four billion euros.
It is an approach the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, likens to the one used by Europe to secure vaccines early in the Covid-19 pandemic — pooling resources to offer more money up front to encourage manufacturers “to invest in new production lines now” for the “standardized products that Ukraine needs desperately.”
With that in mind, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, with support from Ms. van der Leyen and the E.U. foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, made her ambitious proposal to buy up to one million shells for Ukraine.
Short of that, Mr. Borrell has proposed spending €1 billion in the next few months to help reimburse countries that donate artillery ammunition to Ukraine, while pushing member states to place fresh joint orders to replenish and expand their stocks, which are running precariously low.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, has told its member nations not to worry too much about reducing their own stocks for now, despite formal NATO requirements, since they could refill them later. But he warned last month that “the waiting time for large-caliber ammunition has increased from 12 to 28 months.”
Initially, Ukraine’s challenge was to find enough Soviet-era ammunition to satisfy the outmoded arsenal it had. But European countries have recently been sending modern Western guns to Ukraine. Those require a shell of a different size, 155 millimeters.
Arguing that their efforts to hold back current Russian attacks in the Donbas are being hampered by lack of ammunition, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told E.U. counterparts in a recent letter obtained by The Financial Times that, at a minimum, Kyiv needed 250,000 artillery shells a month. He also said that his forces were firing only about 120,000 a month, a fifth of the rounds they would ordinarily use.
But a senior European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that the 12 companies in 10 E.U. countries that make such artillery shells can currently produce only 650,000 a year — and that includes other types of ammunition that are in short supply, including 120-millimeter rounds needed for German Leopard 2 tanks and 105-millimeter rounds needed for the older Leopard 1 tanks.
The United States has already sent Ukraine about one million 155-millimeter artillery shells from its stocks and is backfilling them in part with purchases from South Korea, which refuses to sell directly to Ukraine.
But the United States, too, does not make many 155-millimeter shells and is trying to increase its own production. It is ramping up from about 14,400 rounds a month to 20,000 a month this spring, with plans to be making 90,000 rounds a month by 2025.
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All those numbers pale compared with Ukraine’s needs, let alone the number of shells Russia is firing at Ukraine, estimated at 10,000 a day, though sometimes twice that, Mr. Borrell said.
Russia, too, is facing ammunition shortages, and its munitions factories are working at speed. But it has also reduced the number of shells it is firing. Last summer in the Donbas, the Russians were firing 40,000 to 50,000 artillery rounds per day, while the Ukrainians were firing 6,000 to 7,000 a day.
Ukraine also needs ammunition for its existing fleet of Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which Western companies do not manufacture.
François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, praised the idea of joint purchasing but warned that even if the money comes through, Ukraine or its Western suppliers might not have the ammunition they need soon enough.
“It’s not coming fast enough, but it’s coming,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “It isn’t a question of resources or money. The €1 billion is not the problem, it’s to get those factories up and running, and that takes time.”
But there are also concerns that E.U. bureaucracy, no matter the shared sense of urgency, could slow things down, said Christian Mölling, who runs the Center for Security and Defense at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
It would be far better and faster, he said, to give Ukrainians the money and tell them to order the ammunition they need directly, rather than go through Brussels. “The E.U. should do what it does best, give money, and not get involved in the bureaucracy of procuring the ammunition,” he said.
By now, the Ukrainians know what they need and what works best from which gun, Mr. Mölling said. Ammunition is not the only issue, given the need for spare parts, maintenance and trained personnel, the same requirements that will follow the provision of complicated Western tanks to Ukraine. “It needs to be an infinite stream,” he said.
The European Union and member states could also help, he suggested, by getting rid of complicating political restrictions like export licenses for arms shipments to Ukraine, which are intended to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, and climate and other regulations on ammunition production. It could push bankers to invest in arms plants, which some banks boycott under pressure from stockholders, some of whom do not want to profit from weapons.
And NATO could ease certification regulations on the use of certain shells for certain guns. For example, he said, it is against German law to fire uncertified shells from German howitzers. These regulations are designed for safety, but they can also benefit manufacturers that produce shells to sell for guns they also make, similar to printer cartridges for particular printers.
Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary general for defense investment, said that NATO estimated that 80 percent of 155-millimeter shells could be fired from any Western gun, despite restrictive certifications.
Ramping up production by 50 percent would be easy, he said, with more worker shifts, even if there are sometimes supply problems for key ingredients. But to increase production by 300 percent would require huge investments for new plants.
Delivering ammunition, especially 155-millimeter shells, “is the most urgent issue,” Mr. Borrell told E.U. foreign ministers late last month. “If we fail on that, the result of the war is in danger.”