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Why ammunition is so difficult to obtain


There is no shortage of promises to get Ukraine more ammunition. But purchases on the world market are complicated. Security expert Rafael Loss explains why this is and what the consequences are for Europeans. Why is 155 millimeter caliber artillery ammunition so important for Ukraine?

Rafael Loss: At the beginning of the Russian war of aggression, Ukraine mainly had old Soviet-made artillery pieces in its arsenal. They were also used effectively and successfully, in conjunction with anti-tank missiles supplied by the West, to stop the advance on Kiev and then push it back. However, the ammunition for these systems soon ran drastically low.

Based on this realization, the West decided to provide Ukraine with NATO-standard artillery systems. This now results in a need for ammunition for these NATO standard weapons. This is usually the 155 millimeter caliber.

Rafael Loss

To person

Rafael Loss is a Policy Fellow at the European Council in Foreign Relations think tank in Berlin. His research focuses on security and defense policy, military operations, nuclear strategies and arms control.

Competition for ammunition Why not also purchase artillery ammunition of the Warsaw Pact standard?

Loess: These would be projectiles with a caliber of 152 millimeters, 122 millimeters for smaller artillery shells. There are certainly attempts, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. The stocks are not that large internationally. Countries that provide this ammunition must then procure replacements.

In many cases, the only supplier would then be Russia – and of course it gives its own military priority for the war of aggression. And Russia itself is on the world markets to replenish its own stocks on the one hand and to buy ammunition from under Ukraine's nose on the other. There is a certain competition over who can buy when and how much and at what prices.

“There are no reliable estimates” Are there any estimates of how large stocks of 155-millimeter artillery ammunition are?

Loess: There are no reliable estimates. You can look into the order books of the various defense companies and get a certain overview of what is being produced in Europe or North America, for example, how much has been produced over the last 30 years, and how much has perhaps been used for exercises or other missions. But this does not result in a reliable overall evaluation.

That is why Europe will not be able to avoid increasing the production of artillery ammunition and all other armaments. The Western countries decided on this too late – and progress is only going slowly.

The long road to production What's wrong here?

Loess: It takes time for a new ammunition factory to start operations and reach full capacity. There are the processing times for building applications for new factories. Raw materials must be procured. You need specialists for the extremely complicated production. You need the rooms in which the ammunition is stored. And then the ammunition has to be brought to the place where it is supposed to go and stored there in bunkers.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new ammunition plant in Unterlüß was held in February – almost two years after the start of the full Russian invasion. Rheinmetall, which already operates a site there, estimates that it will take at least twelve months for production to start – and then certainly another two years for production to reach full levels. Then let's talk about the year 2027…

Loess: In this case, yes. The arms industry has already made some investments on its own initiative in order to expand production or set up new production facilities in various European countries. It is expected that the increase in production rates in Europe will become noticeable towards the end of 2024 and then in 2025 it will reach a level that will allow Ukraine to at least maintain its defense. The need for artillery shells for Ukraine to return to the offensive is around 5,000 to 6,000 rounds per day.

Mechanisms from the time of the pandemic Meanwhile, NATO and EU countries are looking for additional ammunition on the international market. Is there any experience you can build on?

Loess: In the EU, the joint purchasing of vaccines was based on mechanisms that were developed during the fight against the corona pandemic. There were political differences here on the question of whether to choose and expand national mechanisms in order to be able to act more quickly – or whether to rely on EU instruments such as the European Defense Agency.

Despite little experience in procurement issues, the company was able to conclude some very extensive framework agreements with the defense industry in the last twelve months, but these have not yet been fully utilized. We will probably continue to operate on two tracks, even if this brings with it certain inefficiencies. Czech President Petr Pavel recently surprised people here with the news that hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition had been found on the world market at short notice. How can this be explained?

Loess: The Czech government with its new president, who was once a NATO general, may have a good nose for this and may have spoken to partners on the world market who had not been approached before or made them a different offer than they did had heard so far. In addition, efforts are also being made to redirect ammunition orders to Ukraine that are actually supposed to go elsewhere. The industry and the original buyers then naturally want to be compensated for this.

But ultimately it doesn't change the fact that Europe has to boost industrial production of artillery ammunition, but also of all other armaments, because Ukraine's needs and wear and tear are enormous.

NATO requirements are not met At the same time, NATO countries must also keep an eye on their own defense capabilities.

Loess: There is a NATO requirement that all Allies stockpile material for approximately 30 days of high-intensity combat. Nobody can achieve that, the USA probably most likely. There have been enormous gaps among the European allies since the end of the Cold War because stockpiling material over the relevant deadlines requires an enormous amount of space and has to be managed. Ammunition has an expiration date and must be discarded at some point.

All of this costs money and was no longer politically justifiable after the Cold War. People viewed it more as a financial cushion that they could use because they no longer felt threatened. This has been different since February 24, 2022 at the latest. That's why we have to invest here again and ramp up the arms industry, because Ukraine must continue to be supported for our own security interests.

Russia's possibilities The Russians have a significantly higher consumption of ammunition, but still manage to expand production more quickly. Why is that?

Loess: A dictatorship can act differently than a democratic constitutional state. This affects the application bureaucracy if you want to build new ammunition factories, it affects employee standards that can be waived in order to produce tanks, ammunition or drones in shift work almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Russia is also not so dependent on the import of certain resources and, although it is dependent on Western imports, has found alternative routes, for example via Central Asia and China. Refrigerators, microwave ovens and washing machines then find their way to Russia and are exploited in order to use sanctioned computer chips for the production of drones or missiles. The EU must therefore dynamically adapt its sanctions regime to these attempts by Russia to find alternative options.

The interview was conducted by Eckart Aretz,

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