Pass the Ammo — But Rebuild Our Stockpiles

An ammunition supply crisis is coming into focus as the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears its first anniversary.

AP/Kostiantyn Liberov
A Ukrainian soldier takes a selfie as an artillery system fires in eastern Ukraine, September 3, 2022. AP/Kostiantyn Liberov

“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” is a classic song from World War II, and they’re singing it in Washington. 

Upon President Zelensky’s visit, the Pentagon pledged to send Ukraine an additional $1.85 billion worth of weapons, with $1 billion pulled directly from America’s own stocks, including more than a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition. 

This is the second shipment that America has, in the past month, announced that it would pull from our own supplies. On November 23, the Pentagon announced a $400 million shipment of ammo and generators to Ukraine, also pulled from American military stockpiles. 

Ukraine needs a wide variety of equipment to fight off the Russians, including, urgently, ammunition, as its battle for independence has increasingly become an artillery war. It has also become a war of attrition, as both parties have struggled strategically to gain the upper hand, amplifying the need for large quantities of ammunition. 

This is starting to worry a number of strategists with whom I’ve worked over the years. The Ukrainian military is currently firing on average more than 80,000 155mm rounds a month, which is more than six times what America can produce in that time. Supply is not keeping up with demand, despite recent efforts to boost production.

Not that we aren’t scrambling. Our secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, recently announced the U.S. would boost its production of 155 millimeter shells to 40,000 a month by 2025 from the 14,000 155mm shells we’re manufacturing now. Even 40,000 a month, though, is less than half what the Ukrainians are firing.

This is an unsustainable situation, with potentially serious ramifications for American readiness. While wartime stockpiles of ammunition remain high, the Pentagon has cut what is available for training down to the bone to divert as many rounds as possible to Ukraine. 

The Marine Corps, for one, has slashed ammunition available to artillery units for use in training by close to 90 percent this year. These cuts will result, I’m told, in active duty units training less than reserve and national guard units typically train. 

There is no replacement for live fire in artillery training. Our forces can go through the motions, but without live fire, there is no mechanism to know whether it has been done right. So 10 percent of the artillery, on some level, means 10 percent of the training. 

The consequences could be severe, and long term. Turnover in the military is high. Some 75 percent of the Marine force leaves every four years. Thus if training suffers for just two years, we could end up with third- or fourth-year soldiers or Marines who can’t teach newer recruits properly because they don’t know what right looks like. Institutional expertise can be lost quickly, and take years to restore. 

There is also a risk that the reduced ammunition levels become the new normal. If drawdowns, and purchases, for Ukraine mean there is no ammunition to buy, the money allocated to training ammunition would inevitably be spent elsewhere. That means restoring training ammunition to previous levels would require cutting whatever the money was being spent on in the interim. 

One question under quiet debate in Washington is whether the Pentagon is being honest with itself with respect to the impact on readiness and whether it is doing everything it can to mitigate the damage. 

Taking from our own stocks no longer seems like the answer. At this rate, we could take every last round of ammunition Marine Corp units have for training — wartime stockpiles are a separate entity — and it would barely register to the Ukrainians. The roughly 2,500 155mm rounds Marine Corp units still have to train with this year is less than the Ukrainian Army is shooting, on average, in a day. 

This is a production issue — and based on the Army secretary’s comments, the Pentagon is downplaying the scale of the problem. America needs to boost our production by seven times current output to sustain the Ukrainians each month and resume proper training here at home. 

All this is emerging as the war shows no signs of ending. With internal military estimates assuming the war will last another two years at least, the Ukrainians’ need for ammunition certainly isn’t declining. Nor, all too typically, are our European allies in a position to help much. 

They, in this case, are similarly struggling to produce enough ammunition to keep NATO armed while supporting Ukraine. Plus, according to the Wall Street Journal, Europe only produces 300,000 ammunition rounds a year. 

The only good news is that the Russians could be in the same boat. Both the chief of Britain’s defense staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, and our own director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, have recently surmised that the Russian military is running out of ammunition. 

Supporting Ukraine’s defense, and holding the line against Russian aggression, is essential, in our view, as is the need to simultaneously keep our own military in tip-top shape. The latter should not be forsaken for the former — or there won’t be ammunition left to pass.

The New York Sun

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