In the 12 months since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine, one of the biggest surprises has been the willingness with which Western countries, especially in Europe, have handed over increasingly sophisticated military equipment for Ukrainian use.
At times the debates around sending certain types of weapons, most notably tanks, have been testy and caused high-level diplomatic spats. But given the scale of the challenge and how long it’s dragged on, the generosity of European leaders – often cast as cynical and self-interested – and their publics has been a surprise to some observers.
It’s all the more surprising for the fact that the donating of this military equipment – and crucially, ammunition – has left the stock cupboards of European militaries looking rather bare, according to defense officials and experts.
It’s hard to get exact numbers on exactly what weapons individual nations currently hold in their arsenals due to the sensitivity of the information.
However, since the start of the war, European nations have donated a wide range of weapons, from antitank missiles to artillery rounds and tank shells.
As Richard Shirreff, a retired British Army general and NATO’s former deputy supreme allied commander Europe, told CNN: “This is critical to national and European security. You don’t want to demonstrate your vulnerabilities to any potential aggressor. But at the same time people need to understand that this is serious, something has to be done urgently.”
Multiple European defense and security sources have told CNN that there are serious concerns at just how much of Europe’s ammunition has been used on the battlefield and not replaced.
One senior government official of a major European military power said that “it’s something we all know about, but don’t know what to do about it.” Another Western defense source explained that senior figures in the armed forces have “repeatedly raised concerns with me about it.”
Even the biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine and the world’s top military exporter, the United States, is having trouble keeping up with the demand. CNN reported late last year that defense officials were worried that the US was running low on some high-end weapons systems and ammunition available to ship to Ukraine.
Last month, Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, called on the nation’s defense industries to step up their game, saying “you’re not delivering the ordnance we need.”
“It’s so essential to winning. And I can’t do that without the ordnance,” Caudle said at a symposium in Washington last month, adding that the US is “going against a competitor here, and a potential adversary, that is like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
On Monday night, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of a meeting of alliance officials that “the current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production – this puts our defense industries under strain.”
“For example, the waiting time for large-caliber ammunition has increased from 12 to 28 months. Orders placed today would only be delivered two-and-a-half years later. So we need to ramp up production, and invest in our production capacity.”
Stoltenberg said NATO had completed a survey of the alliance’s munitions and planned to increase targets for stockpiles. He noted that some progress had been made among NATO allies, citing the example of the US and France signing new contracts with defense firms. Germany also announced Tuesday that it had agreed new deals with ammunition manufacturers for air defense systems it has delivered to Ukraine.
But the issue might prove more difficult than simply instructing private companies to produce more ammo or placing large orders.
Decades of budget cuts across Europe have led to policy makers keeping a deliberately low stock on the assumption that there would not be a land war that could swallow up ammunition at similar levels to World War I or II, experts said.
Trevor Taylor, professorial research fellow in defense management at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, points as far back as decisions that were made during the Cold War.
“NATO’s ‘Flexible Response’ stance during the Cold War was that its members should have the forces in being and stocks to hold all its territory for a period of about three weeks in the event of a ‘Warsaw Pact’ attack,” he said, referring to the military alliance between the Soviet Union and several satellite Soviet states in eastern Europe that ended shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The costs of maintaining that capability for any longer period were unacceptable, and so NATO stressed that it would also have to be ready eventually to initiate the use of nuclear weapons.”
“This was acceptable to Europeans because the envisaged Warsaw Pact effort was to overrun the whole of Western Europe. After 1990, the apparent need for large stocks obviously diminished.”
As the Cold War became a distant memory, so too did the threat of a land war in Western Europe and, in turn, the priorities of European governments shifted.
“The combination of no immediate threat and the financial pressures on European governments over the past couple of decades led to a conspiracy of dressing the shop window while letting the stockroom empty out,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
This “dressing the shop window” approach helps us understand why European countries had low ammunition stocks going into the Ukraine conflict, but doesn’t explain why things haven’t dramatically improved in the year that has followed.
Experts point to a range of factors. “There are limits to production increases that can be done quickly. More significant boosts to output will be expensive and take time to implement,” said Tom Waldwyn, research associate for defense procurement at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“No private company that is answerable to shareholders will have kept staff and maintained large capacity to produce equipment that people are not buying, so it will be difficult to meet a sudden surge in demand in the short to medium term,” Waldwyn added.
A senior European defense source echoed Stoltenberg’s assessment, telling CNN that they knew of at least one major ammunition company that had gone from giving customers lead times in months to quoting years. “It’s a mix of supply chain issues, sudden increased demand and, unfortunately, protectionism from companies in other countries, including allies,” the source said.
Complicating things further, governments are also concerned about the interests of the companies that could hypothetically help with a sudden surge in munitions production.
In the UK, a parliamentary report published in 2021 said that a “country-agnostic approach” to investment had led to companies critical to the defense supply chain becoming exposed to foreign governments “who are known to engage in intellectual property theft.” The report listed seven companies operating within UK defense that had been acquired by Chinese companies.
The picture European defense officials paint is a grim one. No one wants publicly to say that supporting Ukraine has caused problems, but the ammo crunch is coming and it will take major intervention to put right.
“All of the NATO countries must take a serious strategic look at this. We might be at the stage where we need to tell bicycle manufacturers to pivot and start making ammunition. The only way we are going to get back on track is to prepare for the worst case, which means relearning lessons from the Cold War to avoid another world war,” said Shirreff.
Of course, the vast majority of people involved in European defense at any serious level stand firmly by the support they have provided to Ukraine.
The looming ammunition crisis has, however, revealed that policymaking is often based on convenient assumptions of the best-case scenario. After all, taking no action, in the short-term at least, is often cheaper than taking action.