In Ukraine, artillery has become a defining feature of the war. Both Russian and Ukrainian troops have fired a lot of it, and it has become a symbol of the brutal, attritional fight across the front lines. But the nature of these battles is unlikely to change, and that means Ukraine and Russia will need more and more munitions.
Ukraine has relied on such systems, which the West has supplied. It also relies on the West for a steady stream of rounds: that is, the shells or munitions that launch from these artillery systems. Think those 155 millimeter shells, which look like gigantic bullets. The two-foot-long shells are filled with explosives, so when they land, they explode, with a blast radius that kills.
Ukraine was burning through about 6,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds per day, according to an estimate in March, adding up to much more than the US or Europe is currently producing in a given month. As the war in Ukraine goes on, and looks to go on much longer, the United States and Europe are facing more constraints in their ability to supply Ukraine. Stockpiles are being depleted, reaching a point where to give much more might mean compromising Western countries’ own military readiness.
There are reports that Ukraine has had to cut or limit the use of artillery because it has shortages of munitions. Ukrainian officials have talked about it, and so have Western officials; the so-called “artillery” or “ammunition” diet.
Artillery isn’t the only weapon facing possible supply constraints as the Ukraine war stretches on, but the availability and continued access to shells is likely to be decisive in this war. Both Russia and Ukraine risk shortages, but Kyiv is wholly dependent on support from the West. Supply interruptions could force Ukrainian troops to make trade-offs on the battlefield — holding or delaying fire, for example.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently said that Ukraine is ready for its long-anticipated counteroffensive. The hope among Western partners is that Ukraine will have enough firepower to execute its spring campaign, and potentially be in a strong enough position by fall and winter to buy Ukraine’s backers some time to scale up things like artillery production, as they’re starting to do, and deliver more supplies.
But it also raises new questions for the US and Europe, about how much more support they might need to deliver to Ukraine, and how much they are willing to invest to do it, potentially moving industry to a more explicitly wartime footing. As experts said, there are obstacles to scaling up production — supply chains and labor, for example — and while a lot of these can be overcome, it’s at a cost. And even then, it’s unclear what amount of artillery will actually be enough for a war being fought around it, with an indefinite end.
“Nobody has as much as they want, whenever they want it,” said Eugene Gholz, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and former Pentagon adviser for manufacturing and industrial base policy. “And yet, somehow, they manage to fight.”
The US and Europe don’t have unlimited stockpiles of artillery
At the start of the Ukraine war, the US and its allies, especially eastern European countries, donated lots of old Soviet-style weapons to Ukraine. They gave Western equipment, too, but a lot of it was the military-assistance equivalent of cleaning out the basement. Governments found ammo and refurbished old systems that would work with Ukraine’s Soviet models. This made sense: the West wasn’t going to use it, and Ukraine’s military was already trained on and familiar with it.
But this equipment has since gotten used up and worn down, and it can’t be replaced or easily fixed. So the West began donating more of its own stuff, gradually upgrading to more advanced weaponry as its confidence in Ukraine increased — howitzers to HIMARS, anti-tank weapons to main battle tanks. A lot of this stuff came out of arsenals in the US and Europe. For example, in the US, President Joe Biden uses something called “drawdown authority,” which lets the US transfer weapons from the Pentagon’s own stocks in emergency situations.
These stockpiles are not unlimited. There are also limits to how much the US or Europe can give without jeopardizing their own security (though exactly what those thresholds are is probably a subject of debate). This is an issue for the United States, but much more so for many European countries, which, on the eve of the Ukraine war, did not have the kind of arsenal or commitment to military readiness that exists in the US.
“A lot of European countries already ahead of the war faced significant shortfalls in their stockpiles,” said Rafael Loss, coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And because of what they have supplied to Ukraine over the past 15 months, they have become more and more empty.”
Which is where we are now: the West wants to keep supplying Ukraine, and Ukraine needs more weapons to fight. Especially when it comes to artillery shells, the West needs to replace the stuff it’s given away, and maybe add to it, as Russia’s war has shifted European countries’ calculuses about their own security. In part, the US is trying to find other sources for artillery to give to Ukraine (hello, South Korea). But mostly, the war has forced the US and Europe to think about making a lot more of it.
How the West is trying to overcome the artillery math
More than a year into Russia’s war in Ukraine, artillery continues to shape the conflict. And providing more of it makes sense: it has immediate impact on the battlefield, and while it requires precision to manufacture, it’s not quite the same as a battle tank or a fighter jet, which also requires significant training and long-term maintenance. Artillery is designed to be destroyed.
As of May, the United States has given Ukraine more than 160 howitzers and more than 2 million 155 mm artillery rounds, in addition to other systems and thousands more types of ammunition that fit them.
European allies, Canada, Australia, and other Ukraine backers have all donated thousands of artillery shells. But Kyiv is firing off tens of thousands of rounds each month as it is. This spring, Ukraine asked the EU for 250,000 rounds per month — which is not that far off what the EU arms industries collectively produced in all of 2022.
Which is why both the US and Europe are trying to scale up production. Typically, the United States produces about 14,000 155 mm shells per month, just a small fraction of what the US has given Ukraine in the past year and a half. Now, the Pentagon is investing about $1.45 billion to increase that to 24,000 per month later this year, with the goal of reaching 85,000 to 90,000 rounds per month in five years. This is about a 500 percent increase in production in two years, rivaling levels not seen since the Korean War, according to the New York Times.
Europe is also trying to supercharge production. But European defense industries face even bigger hurdles, as EU countries have tended not to have as big of military spending appetites as the United States.
In the spring, the European Union proposed a plan to deliver about 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine by the end of the year. The plan includes three stages. The first is to reimburse states that turn over their stocks; the second is to make joint purchases to replace those stocks; the third involves ramping up production to meet EU defense needs and the needs of Ukraine. Though it took a bit to agree on the details, this plan is a big deal for the EU. Usually, defense is the purview of individual EU countries, but a component of this plan involves joint procurement — think the EU’s Covid vaccine plan, but for weapons.
The plan has yielded about 220,000 artillery shells so far, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said at the end of May.
What it actually takes to make a lot more artillery shells
These might just seem like a bunch of numbers; the US and the EU want more, so they make more. It is that simple, but also not quite that simple.
“The US can’t, or the European allies can’t, just push a button, but they can start planning,” said Jennifer Erickson, an arms expert and associate professor at Boston College.
The United States has a little bit more capacity than Europe, but both face constraints. Making artillery takes time: you’ve got to cut steel, cool it, mold it, and fill it with explosives to make a shell. There are supply chain, labor, and production issues — for example, the US has just two sites that make the steel bodies for the 155 mm rounds used in howitzers. “It’s not like there’s an empty factory, right, sitting out there that could just do it,” said Jen Spindel, assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Broadly, the more resources you put in, the easier it is to overcome these constraints. “If you want more ammunition, you just have to say, ‘We want more ammunition, and here’s the money to make it,” Gholz said. If you want as much as Ukraine does, this fast, it will cost you, he added. “But the fundamental question is: how many resources are you going to devote for this? What are you willing to do?”
In some ways, that is not really a resource question but a political, economic, and security one. In deciding to make those investments — putting billions into making more artillery — governments are signaling their national and defense priorities, now and potentially into the future. This is about Ukraine, but also about the potential of other threats: Russia, China, and whatever other big war might be looming.
A lot of defense industry experts will say that if weapons companies are going to increase capacity and hire more people to make more artillery, then they want to know that they’re going to have a buyer not just this year, but in the long term too — and the buyer is really governments.
“The US government has more ability to turn on the spigot, but the spigot might not be flowing for these different constraint reasons,” said Kaija Schilde, Jean Monnet Chair in European Security and Defense at Boston University.
“But,” she added, “if the US government incentivized firms enough, it’ll happen. It’s just that the firms aren’t going to do it without these major, major incentives.”
The European defense base is a little bit more complicated. For European defense manufacturers, the issue had previously been whether they would produce too much for Europe’s defense needs, rather than not enough. And defense has typically been handled by individual countries in the EU — Germany does its own thing, Poland does its own thing — each with their own security needs and priorities. That makes a collective ramp-up hard. The EU is trying to tackle with with its new plan, though exactly how successful it will be is still unclear.
Will it be enough for Ukraine?
“We need more artillery shells,” said Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s Operational Command East in a recent Semafor video. “This entire war, we’ve been on the artillery ammo diet. I wouldn’t say it’s a total hunger, but it’s a diet.”
An artillery diet is really about trade-offs, and all militaries make them to some degree. If you need to conserve artillery, it may be a choice between firing on a target today, or waiting until tomorrow, in hopes of a clearer, more decisive shot. It may mean compensating with different weapons or tools.
And for Ukraine, more is more, but the Western weapons-delivery system is an imperfect one. “It’s volume, it’s also availability. And it’s making sure that you have the right combination of hardware, and then shell, is easily accessible, and easy to get into the theaters of conflict once a fight has begun,” Spindel said.
Ukraine is getting a lot of artillery from NATO, and as you may have heard, NATO equipment is interoperable, or is supposed to be — the idea being if allies were fighting a war together, their equipment and systems should also able to work together. That’s why a lot of countries have this 155 mm caliber shell: it’s part of a standardization effort across NATO. “That doesn’t translate into interchangeability in a lot of ways, and we see this in Ukraine,” Loss said.
In other words, interoperability isn’t interchangeability. A US system may work with, say, a German-made shell, but it might not be quite as good. The projectile might not travel the same range, which potentially reduces its effectiveness on the battlefield. It could potentially degrade the equipment. “It’s like a giant matching problem,” Gholz said.
These are not necessarily new challenges for Ukraine, just another Kyiv will have to deal with as its expected counteroffensive has maybe, finally, begun. Offensives, when troops are moving forward, tend to require lot more ammunition than when they’re on defense, firing from more static positions. That is, if Ukraine is restrained, it will be harder to pull off what they need to this spring and summer.
This is partly behind the Western urgency of getting artillery and other equipment to Ukraine. But that comes with the expectation of Ukraine making real advances, and retaking territory. If it does not, and the war looks increasingly deadlocked — two sides, just firing and firing artillery, with no real progress — that could change the West’s calculus when it comes to continued support to Ukraine.
The Ukraine war is also changing the calculus in some Western capitals
A ramp-up in artillery production won’t be instantaneous in either the US or Europe. But plans to do so are a signal of political support — a sign, at least, that the West is willing to support Ukraine for the long haul.
But, in lots of ways, the decisions by Washington and Brussels to invest in arms manufacturing goes well beyond Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine is reshaping our understanding of warfare. The Ukraine war is already one of the bloodiest and deadliest of this century, if not longer. This is true on the front lines, where artillery has contributed to stunning casualty counts in the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, but also for Ukrainian civilians whose cities and towns have become artillery battlefields themselves.
Right now, traditional instruments of war — ammunition, artillery, armored vehicles, ground troops, trenches — are anchoring this conflict. Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying advanced technology on the battlefield — drones and facial recognition, for example — but instead of replacing old tools of warfare, it is interacting with or enhancing them. One way to know where to direct your artillery fire is to send in a surveillance drone over an enemy’s position.
All armies have artillery, and artillery stockpiles. No one, after all, was about to abandon the “king of battle.” But the rate of artillery use in Ukraine raises questions about whether the US and its partners really are, themselves, prepared for a big war. Part of the reason the US manufactured the number of shells it did is because that was enough in relative peacetime: enough to use, when needed, and keep those stockpiles in good condition.
“The wars the US has fought have been fairly low-intensity, and so the production capacity could meet that — or it was short, high-intensity,” Spindel said. “And so the reserves were never burned through in quite the same way that Ukraine was doing it.”
Of course, some of this is about opportunity: The Ukraine war is a chance for the generals and the military agencies and the defense industries to get more resources, to make the case that the US or Europe needs more to prepare for a future conflict.
Ukraine really is generating a broader reassessment about what the next war will look like, especially among more evenly matched powers. Russia is very much bogged down right now, but its invasion of Ukraine raised the threat level, especially in Europe. US-China tensions are not ebbing, especially over Taiwan. The decision to ramp up artillery production may say much about Western support for Ukraine, but it says much more about what the US and its allies think they might need to fight their next war.