February 26. 2024. 4:31

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NATO expected to raise munitions stockpile targets as war depletes reserves


NATO is expected to ask its members to raise its ammunition stockpiles which have been badly depleted by the war in Ukraine, as allies try to put arms supplies to Kyiv and their own militaries on a sustainable footing after a year in crisis mode.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, many NATO countries fell short of meeting the alliance’s stockpiling targets, as officials considered wars of attrition with large-scale artillery battles a thing of the past.

But the pace of deliveries to Ukraine, where Kyiv’s troops are firing up to 10,000 artillery shells daily, has drained Western inventories and exposed holes in the efficiency, speed and manpower of supply chains.

“If Europe were to fight Russia, some countries would run out of ammunition in days,” a European diplomat told Reuters.

NATO has just completed an extraordinary survey of the remaining munition stocks, a NATO official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“Those NATO (munitions targets) that we set, and each ally has a specific target, those were not being met for the most part (before the Ukraine war),” the official said.

Now the stockpiles are running even lower due to the conflict in Ukraine, making it likely that NATO will raise the target levels for their members’ ammunition reserves, the source said.

“I would be absolutely gobsmacked if the targets…were not increased,” said the NATO official.

Just how many rounds are left in Western military inventories is highly classified. The same goes for the NATO stockpiling targets, which are specific to each member state and one of the alliance’s best kept secrets.

Generally speaking, NATO tasks each ally with providing certain capabilities that the alliance can draw upon in case of a conflict.

This could, for example, mean a certain ally may have to have one armoured division – some 10,000 to 30,000 troops – fully equipped and ready with ammunition, capable of fighting at a certain level of intensity for a certain amount of time.

Factoring all these conditions in, the country will have to provide a certain amount of ammunition, tanks, howitzers and what else may be needed to fulfil NATO’s requirements.

Germany alone was 20 billion euros ($21 billion) short of reaching the NATO target before the invasion, according to a defence source.

The German defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

The NATO official said the biggest shortfall are battle-decisive munitions ranging from 155 mm shells used in howitzers, to HIMARS missiles, and ammunition for air defence systems like IRIS-T, Patriot and Gepard, all in heavy use by Ukrainian troops.

Decisions on stockpiling goals are expected when NATO leaders meet for a summit in Lithuania in mid-July.

Capacity problems

The war also cast a spotlight on the lack of industrial capacity necessary to ramp up production quickly, after decades of dwindling government orders saw many production lines vanish.

NATO defence ministers will discuss the issue in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday before dozens of Western leaders gather for the Munich Security Conference, ahead of the first anniversary of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The United States and France have both started to pressure defence companies to boost production.

Washington aims to raise its monthly production goal for artillery rounds to 90,000 from 14,400 before the war, the New York Times reported on Jan. 24.

As Ukraine’s biggest military donor, the United States has provided some $30 billion worth of arms to Kyiv since the war started, including more than one million 155mm rounds, according to the State Department and the Pentagon.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron ordered the country’s military contractors last July to come up with a “war economy” strategy to speed up production of everything from munitions to howitzers.

French officials declined to give a specific figure for munitions production, but for 2023 Paris has ordered about 2 billion euros worth of munitions, of which about 1.1 billion euros worth will be delivered this year.

That includes 10,000 155mm shells from Nexter Systems, France’s only contractor for large calibre munitions.

“Nexter was in peace time sleep. Now they have woken up,” said a French military official.

The war economy is starting to bear fruit. Production time for munitions has started to fall from nine to three months, according to military officials.

The Caesar howitzer, which used to take two years to build, is now manufactured in 18 months.

Cooperation between allies is key. An agreement between France and Australia will see Canberra provide gunpowder, which is not produced in France, to enable Nexter to manufacture 155mm shells.

The first several thousand will be delivered to Ukraine by the end of March.

“We are looking with other countries to see how we can replicate this sort of model,” said a French official.

Lagging behind

However, other countries are lagging behind.

Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a 100 billion euro special fund days after the invasion to modernise the military, has made little progress in backfilling arms and munitions rushed to Kyiv.

“Until the end of last year, we did not receive any significant orders,” said the head of the Association of the German Security and Defence Industry, Hans Christoph Atzpodien.

“In spite of the 100 billion euro special fund, we saw a defence ministry that administered shortages all through 2022. There was not enough money for the procurement of munitions, neither in the special fund nor in the defence budget,” he added.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the German parliament’s defence committee and ally of Scholz’ ruling coalition, called it a “lost year” and bemoaned a lack of foresight in re-ordering equipment.

However, some German arms makers are preparing.

Rheinmetall, probably best known for manufacturing the 120mm gun of the Leopard 2 tank, said it was ready to boost production of 155mm artillery shells to 450,000 to 500,000 per year from 60,000 to 70,000 in 2022.

This would make Rheinmetall the biggest producer for this ammunition, CEO Armin Papperger said. It is also in talks with the US’ Lockheed Martin, which builds the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, to establish a production line in Germany.

Even in Britain, which has appeared as one of Ukraine’s main suppliers, unease has grown among the opposition after London supplied Kyiv with 30 AS90 big artillery guns in January.

John Healey, defence policy chief for the main opposition Labour Party, told Reuters that this was one third of Britain’s entire supply, but nothing had been done to replace them.

“We need a stockpile strategy that deals with the requirement to continue to support Ukraine but also the requirement to restock our own forces for the future,” he added.

A defence ministry spokesperson said efforts were underway to quickly replace the AS90.

Semiconductor shortages

Efforts to ramp up defence production are hampered by several factors, among them a worldwide shortage of semiconductors, some raw materials and the challenge of finding enough highly skilled workers.

After the Cold War, the production of ammunition had turned “quite artisanal”, said the NATO official. “It’s become kind of Amazon-esque in some ways, sort of just-in-time, without a huge amount of depth behind it. It’s really expensive to retrofit that.”

At the same time, defence managers have been reluctant to make huge investments in additional production lines without having firm orders, preferably stretching over several years.

The NATO official said the alliance was trying to address such concerns by bringing groups of allies together to strike multinational contracts for several years, and that he expected several such contracts to be signed at the Brussels meeting.

But there will be a long way to go until inventories fill up again.

“I don’t necessarily think that within the next year our stockpile levels will increase massively,” the NATO official said. “Any additional stockpiles we will have will be heading to Ukraine.”