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Business News/ Industry / Europe Is Short of Ammunition at a Bad Time

Europe Is Short of Ammunition at a Bad Time


The EU promised Ukraine a million rounds by March of next year but may not be able to deliver.

Employees at the BAE Systems site in north-east England on 8 November 8, 2023. BAE Systems is Europe's largest defence contractor (Photo: AFP)Premium
Employees at the BAE Systems site in north-east England on 8 November 8, 2023. BAE Systems is Europe's largest defence contractor (Photo: AFP)

The European Union vowed it would provide Ukraine with one million artillery rounds by March of next year. But deliveries are lagging, and German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said this month that “we have to assume" this target “will not be achieved." The lesson is that once defense production capacity atrophies, it’s not easy to restore.

Ukraine fires some 6,000 to 8,000 shells a day. Its soldiers need large quantities of the 155mm artillery shells that are a NATO standard and can be used in howitzers from the U.S., France, Poland, Germany and Slovakia. Yet foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said on Nov. 14 that the EU had reached only “30% of the overall objective" for ammo deliveries.

As of mid-November the EU had provided Ukraine with some 300,000 rounds of ammunition, but that supply came from existing stocks, according to a recent brief by the European Parliamentary Research Service. The European Defense Agency has also signed at least eight contracts with defense firms to procure an additional 180,000 155mm rounds, but these haven’t yet been delivered.

Regardless of political will, Europe’s ammunition promise is “unlikely to be fulfilled" because of the “lamentable state of the defense industry," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this month, according to the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda. European military spending declined sharply after the Cold War. Rebuilding capacity will require investment in new facilities, machines, and worker recruitment and training.

Europe has also run into supply-chain constraints, according to a paper published in June by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Chemring, a supplier of explosive materials for ammunition producers, said some of its customers “have asked for output increases of 100%-200%," the report notes. Meanwhile “metals and plastics for fuses and casings" are also “reportedly in short supply."

The good news is that Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said that since February the EU’s ammunition production capacity has increased 20% to 30%, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service. But Mr. Borrell said that even if the EU’s defense industry “has the capacity to produce 1 million shots a year" that “does not mean that we [will] have 1 million shots ready by March."

Even that capacity would still be too low, given that EU countries need to replenish their own stocks after giving ammunition to Ukraine. IISS cites reports suggesting that in a high-intensity conflict the U.K. could run out of ammunition “in just eight days," while German “stocks would last somewhere between a few hours and a few days."

These shortages are especially dangerous as Russia moves to a wartime production pace of arms. The European Parliamentary Research Service says Russia produced some 1.7 million rounds in 2022 and seeks to produce some three million rounds annually by 2025.

Tehran supplied Moscow with more than 300,000 shells between November 2022 and April 2023, the Wall Street Journal reports. And a South Korean lawmaker said the country’s top spy agency believes Pyongyang provided the Kremlin with more than a million artillery shells since early August, according to the Associated Press.

Threats to global order will proliferate as the world’s authoritarians forge tighter defense ties. The post-Cold War peace is over, and the West is now paying for its decades of military under-investment.

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