Nato scrambles to ramp up weapons production and outlast Russia

Ukraine wants more western air defence systems, but investment has been neglected for decades

A Russian air force pilot is seen in the cockpit of his Su-25 as it flies on a mission in Ukraine.  Photo: Russian Defence ministry press service via AP
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Western countries are scrambling to increase their weapons and ammunition production to continue supporting Ukraine’s war effort through the winter and outlast Russia's production capacity.

Several nations, including the UK, Spain and Canada, have recently announced they will support Ukraine with air defence systems, fuel and winter clothes.

But such pledges are also hollowing out western countries’ own supplies. Recent media reports indicate that Germany’s ammunition stocks will not last longer than two days. Nato standards require that stocks last 30 days in the case of high intensity combat.

Yet replenishment orders across Nato have only recently been made due to expectations earlier this year that Ukraine would be unable to resist Russia’s invasion, said Rafael Loss, co-ordinator of pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Industry capacity and production is weak because it has been scaled down since the end of the Cold War. A senior executive separately told The National that he was concerned because the industry is still waiting for “demand signals” from governments to significantly increase production.

“It requires not only bureaucratic changes to adapt to procurement processes in Nato countries but also an intellectual revolution to refamiliarise oneself with the complexities of these types of decisions,” said Mr Loss.

Transition away from Soviet-era weapons

Nato’s ability to maintain its weapons stocks higher than Russia’s largely depends on its capacity to rapidly respond to Ukraine’s industrial large-scale warfare needs and to co-operate in jointly purchasing weapons and ammunitions.

Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly said this week during a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels that replenishing stocks of ammunitions and weapons was one of their top priorities, along with boosting Ukraine’s air defence.

“The deeper we dig into existing Nato stocks, the more important it is to ramp production,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Mr Stoltenberg added that in the long term, Nato also needs to help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era weapons to Nato equipment.

So far, Ukraine’s western allies have been providing Ukraine with as many Soviet-produced systems as possible, but those stocks are dwindling as well.

“The next logical step would be to also include Nato-standard battle tanks and fighting vehicles because there are supply chains and maintenance that could be made available,” said Mr Loss.

Crucial support

Nato support has so far been crucial in helping Ukraine make important wins on the battlefield and mount successful counteroffensives in the south and east of the country in the past months.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin on Wednesday hailed Ukraine’s “extraordinary gains”, which he attributed in part to “vital” support from Nato allies.

Mr Austin thanked European allies for announcing new support packages but also highlighted the need for a “flow of urgent capabilities to Ukraine,” including “intensifying training efforts to help Ukrainian defenders make the best of their new capabilities” and “pushing our industrial bases to innovate.”

US security assistance to Ukraine since February has reached $16.8bn.

Defence ministers meeting in Brussels earlier this week have been publicly optimistic about their capacity to produce more weapons.

UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace said that “there is no risk” of the West running out of weapons before Russia, due to its international isolation.

Sanctions against Russia have weakened its supply chain whereas Europe has a superior ability to manufacture weapons, argued Mr Wallace. The UK government in August expanded an international fund to finance military training and equipment for Ukraine.

The fund is “all about placing orders in the manufacturing space,” said Mr Wallace.

Neglected investments

But in reality, there is not much capacity in European armies to deliver complex air defence systems, warned Mr Loss.

European countries had little interest in developing their air defence systems in the past decades. Their foreign deployments in the sub-Sahara or in Afghanistan were focused on fighting counter insurgencies which did not involve complex ballistic missiles.

“The threat from above was fairly limited compared to what Ukrainian troops currently face,” said Mr Loss.

Ukraine earlier this week faced a barrage of Russian missiles which killed at least 26 people and wounded more than 100. Such strikes can be conducted with unsophisticated weapons.

The attacks suggest that because Russia has fewer military capabilities available that would be accurate enough to strike Ukraine’s moving forces, it is focusing on striking civilian targets, said Mr Loss.

This in turn indicates that Russia’s stocks of its most modern weapons, including hypersonic ballistic missiles, are dwindling.

“It is likely holding back some of its best capabilities in case, from a Russian perspective, Nato decides to enter the conflict at some point,” said Mr Loss. “They can’t use everything they have available.”

Mr Stoltenberg has stressed on multiple occasions that Nato is not a party to the conflict but will “continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

Ukraine has been able to intercept some of these missiles and deny Russia the control of its airspace but will need additional support from the West to face Russian long-range missiles.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that his country has only 10 per cent of its air defence needs.

Political will

Yet some recent announcements indicate that Europe may have summoned up the necessary political will to stay ahead of Russia in the arms race.

Nearly half of Nato’s 30 members states, in addition to aspirant member Finland, on Thursday signed a letter of intent to create a European air and missile defence system through joint purchasing, dubbed the “European Sky Shield Initiative.”

German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said that existing gaps in European air defence need to be filled “quickly” as Europe lives in “threatening, dangerous times,” news website Politico reported.

“The aim is to pool capabilities and to make purchasing new systems as cheap as possible for each country,” said Mr Loss. Discussions have indicated that the initiative will not be operational until 2025.

Previous attempts to create a European integrated missile defence infrastructure did not pan out as intended, he added. But the change in international security environment might act as an impetus to make it a reality.

“It is certainly a welcome step in the right direction to finally boost the European air defence area,” said Mr Loss. “We have to see how the next steps play out to measure the qualitative benefit of this infrastructure.”

Updated: October 15, 2022, 5:00 AM