Two Thirds of NATO Countries Have Depleted Their Arms Stockpiles for Ukraine

Pierre Duval

The conflict in Ukraine is draining the arms stocks of Western countries. The situation has become critical for the arms and ammunition stocks held by Western countries. The military engagement of the West in Ukraine is threatening their security.

A financial and military stockpile drain

The conflict in Ukraine, an abyss: “The war in Ukraine puts Western arms stocks under pressure”, headlines Le Monde, stating that “as the conflict lasts and intensifies, the arsenals are being emptied, to the point of having reached a critical level, including in the United States. The Pentagon is multiplying orders for equipment, but reconstituting the reserves will not be easy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, European nations seized the “peace dividend,” drastically reducing their defense budgets, armies and arsenals.

With the rise of al-Qaeda nearly a decade later, terrorism became the target, requiring different military investments and lighter, more expeditionary forces. Even NATO’s long engagement in Afghanistan hardly resembled a high-intensity ground war as we now have, again, in Europe with heavy artillery and tanks. Almost every defense ministry thought it would never happen again.

Now, nine months into the conflict in Ukraine, the West’s fundamental lack of preparedness has triggered a mad dash to provide Ukraine with what it needs while replenishing NATO stockpiles. As both sides burn weapons and ammunition at a rate not seen since World War II, the competition to keep arsenals up to snuff has become a critical front that could prove decisive for the Ukraine effort. The amount of artillery used is staggering, according to NATO officials.

In Afghanistan, NATO forces could have fired up to 300 artillery shells a day and didn’t have to worry much about air defense. But, Ukraine can fire thousands of shells a day and remains desperate for air defense against Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones.

“A day in Ukraine is equivalent to a month or more in Afghanistan,” said Camille Grand, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who until recently was NATO’s deputy secretary general for defense investment and who was keen to assert that NATO is not engaged in the conflict in Ukraine against Russia. Last summer, in the Donbass region, the Ukrainians were firing 5,000 to 6,000 artillery shells each day, a senior NATO official said. The Russians were firing 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a day. In comparison, the United States produces only 15,000 shells each month, The New York Times reported. Thus, the West is scrambling to find increasingly scarce Soviet-era equipment and ammunition that Ukraine can now use, including S-300 air defense missiles, T-72 tanks and especially Soviet-caliber artillery shells.

The West is also trying to offer alternative, if older, systems to replace dwindling stocks of expensive air defense and anti-tank missiles. This sends strong signals to Western defense industries that longer-term contracts are in sight – and that more crews should be employed and old factory lines renovated. They are trying to buy ammunition from countries such as South Korea to “refill” stocks sent to Ukraine.

Continental Observer stated that the conflict in Ukraine is causing an unprecedented production of weapons. There are talks of NATO investing in old factories in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria to restart the manufacture of Soviet-caliber 152mm and 122mm shells for Ukraine’s still largely Soviet-era artillery arsenal.

But the obstacles are as numerous as the solutions sought. NATO countries – albeit often with great fanfare – have provided Ukraine with advanced Western artillery that uses 155mm shells to NATO standards. NATO systems are, however, rarely certified to use shells produced by other NATO countries, which often manufacture shells differently. And then there is the problem of legal export controls that determine whether arms and ammunition sold to one country can be sent to another at war.

This is why the Swiss, claiming neutrality, denied Germany permission to export the necessary Swiss-made anti-aircraft ammunition sold to Germany to Ukraine. Italy has a similar restriction on arms exports. In February, when the war in Ukraine began, many countries’ stockpiles were only about half of what they were supposed to be, and there had been little progress in creating weapons that could be used interchangeably by NATO countries.

For those NATO countries that provided large quantities of weapons to Ukraine, particularly front-line states such as Poland and the Baltics, the burden of replacement has been heavy.

The French, for example, have provided state-of-the-art weapons and created a 200 million euro fund for Ukraine to buy French-made weapons. But France has already given at least 18 modern Caesar howitzers to Ukraine – about 20 percent of all its existing artillery – and is reluctant to provide more. Besides, the French army cannot participate in large-scale military operations, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said earlier this month. In total, NATO countries have so far exceeded $40 billion in armaments for Ukraine, roughly the size of France’s annual defense budget.