A tough lesson for Australia as Ukraine runs short of munitions

PHOTO: A victory sign and a thumbs-up from Ukrainian personnel, but the country’s will to fight is not matched by its supply of weapons and ammunition.CREDIT:AP

By Mick Ryan – Military leader and strategist

In 1914-1915, a scandal erupted in England about the shortage of high-explosive shells for the Western Front. While there was a lag in industry expanding to satisfy the enormous consumption of munitions in the war, it was also a symptom of a military institution that had failed to anticipate the challenges of modern war.

We aren’t quite in this predicament yet. But in 2023, the Ukrainian army may run out of munitions before it runs out of fight. Based on current usage of ammunition in the war, production of munitions is increasingly lagging battlefield needs. Most of Ukraine’s use of NATO 155mm artillery ammunition has been drawn from war stocks, not production lines. These stocks are finite.

Ukraine fires up to 5000 artillery rounds each day (the Russians fire many more). With the US producing just 14,000 shells per month (European figures are not available, but they are probably similar), there is a drastic shortfall in this vital ammunition type.

Despite a ramping up of US production, quantities won’t increase until 2024. And, as a NATO official quoted in The New York Times describes it, 20 of NATO’s 30 members are “tapped out” in regards to supplying ammunition to Ukraine. The situation for air defence missiles and precision weapons is also trending towards shortages in 2023 if the fighting continues and production doesn’t increase.

Huge ammunition consumption rates were thought to be a relic of the past. Scarcely a single Western government since the end of the Cold War has imagined that large-scale production of weapons and ammunition would be required again. The past 30 years have seen a consolidation in the number of firms that can build military equipment, and with smaller government orders, production batches are more expensive with longer wait times.

Weapons are produced too slowly, and in smaller quantities, than what will be required in this new era of industrial-scale warfare. As a recent article from the prestigious Royal United Service Institution in England notes, “the war in Ukraine demonstrates that war between peer or near-peer adversaries demands the existence of a technically advanced, mass-scale, industrial-age production capability”.

At least the Europeans and Americans have an industrial base that can be expanded to produce (eventually) the quantity and quality of munitions required for modern combat. Not so in Australia, where a fascination with expensive American naval and aerial platforms has distracted the bureaucracy in the Department of Defence from a strategic approach to resilient ammunition and precision weapon supply.

Our precision weapons and heavy-calibre ammunition are all manufactured overseas and imported. In short, if we don’t already stock it or build it, once a war begins, Australia is on its own. And our current war stocks are tiny.



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