The U.S. defense industry has all but stopped making the kinds of weapons Ukraine will need to survive a war of attrition with Russia. Ramping up production won’t be easy.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, onlookers imagined a quick rout for Kyiv; then, when Ukraine held out, a humiliating and precipitous defeat for Russia. More than 120 days later, the two countries appear to be locked in a long war of attrition.
Russia can bank on both military and economic advantages as it seeks to deplete Ukraine’s arsenals, starve its citizenry and erode Western support. Whether Ukraine can hold out against this much bigger adversary in a long war appears to depend largely on the sustainability of U.S. military aid.
At a NATO press conference, President Biden affirmed that the U.S. would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to secure its victory. Already, the U.S. has provided more than $7.6 billion in security assistance, including air defenses, ammunition, rockets, missiles, loitering munitions, drones, helicopters, communications and intelligence systems. Congress has approved at least another $33 billion in aid.
Over the last decade, the U.S. has focused on producing the low-yield precision bombs and missiles favored in counter terrorism campaigns.
The U.S. is drawing from a sparse stockpile of weapons, however. Over the last decade, its priority has been to produce the low-yield precision bombs and missiles favored in counterterrorism campaigns, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. has therefore cut back on producing legacy munitions, including versions of the antitank Javelin and antiaircraft Stinger missiles, and on purchasing more expensive, high-yield smart missiles. Four months of support to Ukraine has already depleted much of the stockpile of such weapons, including a third of the U.S. Javelin arsenal and a quarter of U.S. Stingers.
U.S. stockpiles of artillery ammunition are similarly dwindling. The last three budget cycles have seen cuts in this area, leaving the U.S. without enough ammunition in storage to keep up with a conflict in which the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Britain’s oldest security think tank, estimates that Russia is firing more than 7,000 artillery rounds a day. RUSI concludes that the artillery ammunition that the U.S. currently produces in a year would last for only 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. Smart munitions—such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMAR) precision-strike missiles, the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile and the joint air to surface stand-off missile—could furnish an alternative, but these, too, are in very short supply. According to RUSI, already “Russia has burned through four times the U.S. annual
The natural answer to stockpile shortages is to increase production. But here, too, the U.S. has reduced capacity. After the Cold War, the U.S. consolidated its defense industry, leading many small-arms production plants to shut down completely. A February 2022 Department of Defense report on industrial capacity warned that companies producing tactical missiles, fixed-wing aircraft and satellites had reduced their output by more than half and in some cases by as much as two thirds, and that 90% of all missiles now come from just 3 sources. Many of the legacy weapons whose arsenals we now seek to rebuild were bought in such small quantities that they were essentially hand-produced. Production lines for generating larger quantities of them were long ago dismantled, such that they cannot simply be activated or modernized.
The U.S. defense industry is now called upon to build back this lost production capacity at a time when supply chains for such crucial components as semiconductors have been disrupted. As Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo testified in April regarding defense production, the “biggest pain point is chips.” In the first place, the semiconductor market suffered from pandemic-related supply-chain holdups. Now there are further problems that also affect domestic production. Many of the raw resources used to make semiconductors and weapons are choked off by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including neon (Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, estimates that Russia and Ukraine produce 70% of the world’s supply), which is critical for semiconductor manufacturing, and also aluminum, titanium, palladium and nickel, which are used in batteries, aircraft and munitions.
U.S. defense firms will need to obtain these supplies, recruit workers in a tight labor market, and cast off decades of countervailing incentives if they are to both outfit Ukraine and rebuild U.S. arsenals. Legacy weapons systems are expensive to produce, and the Pentagon has made clear over the last four years that its priority is research and development rather than procurement. When defense contracts do come, firms are saddled with cumbersome bureaucratic processes. Even recent attempts to speed up the procurement of commercial off-the-shelf systems for Ukrainian defense have been stymied by administrative processes. For example, on April 22, the Pentagon called on firms to send information about immediately available weapons technology. It received more than 1,300 replies, according to Politico, but responded only a month later, saying it might need further details and would get back to the companies over the summer.
There is little time to lose, as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on amid economic conditions that are hardly auspicious. U.S. defense budget top-lines are already struggling to keep pace with inflation, for example, and threats of a recession loom. U.S. foreign policy makers must consider other budget priorities, including commitments in Asia.
Support for Ukraine can dovetail with these priorities, however. Investing in defense production capacity and weapons stockpiles can help shore up U.S. deterrence in Taiwan and elsewhere—convincing states looking for a quick win that the U.S. is willing and prepared to sustain support for the long-term. That message will be especially important as the U.S. balances both a rising China and a revisionist Russia. Moreover, the U.S. can draw on its history, as it has successfully surged its economy to support wartime weapons production in the past: The U.S. “arsenal of democracy” was a key factor in the Allies’ victory in World War II.
The U.S. can support Ukraine through its war of attrition with Russia. But to do so, it will need to make significant reforms to its defense acquisition and production policies. Those changes will have to happen fast, because Ukraine might not have “as long as it takes” to survive.
Ms. Schneider is a Hoover Fellow at Stanford University
Appeared in the July 9, 2022, print edition as ‘What It Will Take to Supply Ukraine for the Long Haul’.