EU will miss 1mn artillery shell March supply deadline as Ukraine's ammo crisis deepens

EU will miss 1mn artillery shell March supply deadline as Ukraine's ammo crisis deepens
The EU promised to supply Ukraine with 1mn artillery shells / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin November 12, 2023

The EU is unlikely to meet the March 2024 deadline to deliver its pledged 1mn artillery shells to Ukraine, which will exacerbate a growing ammunition crisis in its war against Russia, according to sources cited by Bloomberg on November 10.

In March the EU approved a plan to supply Ukraine with badly needed 155mm artillery shells within a year. Without air cover, the war in Ukraine has largely become an artillery duel, with the 155mm shells the workhorse for both sides. With Russia already producing 1.7mn shells a year – planned to rise to 2mn shells by the end of this year, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin – Ukraine has found itself massively outgunned.

As bne IntelliNews reported from the front line in the battle for Bakhmut in March, Ukrainian gunners were already forced to ration their artillery barrages and limit themselves to high-value targets due to the shortage of shells.  

Ukraine doesn’t produce any shells of its own in any significant quantity and has been relying on its Nato partners for supplies. At the start of the war over 600 days ago, the US gave Ukraine 1mn shells from its own stockpiles. However, with Russia firing up to twenty times more shells a day than Ukraine, that stockpile is almost depleted.

The US is now running low on shells, as its own arms industry only produces some 100,000 155mm shells a year. Since US arms companies doubled shifts and invested into ramping up existing production, the output of US shells has roughly doubled but it remains far below the levels necessary to supply Ukraine so that it can match Russia’s rate of fire.

As bne IntelliNews reported in January this year, Ukraine was likely to run out of ammunition this summer. Nato allies have managed to put off the crisis by buying more shells from allies that also produce the same shells, such as South Korea, and delivered extra supplies to Ukraine ahead of this summer’s counter-offensive. However, those supplies are now also reportedly running low.

Despite the fact that a large-scale classical positional war has developed, neither the US nor the EU has been willing to invest into boosting arms production by investing into new shell production facilities. The problem is the privately owned arms manufacturers want Western governments to sign multi-year multi-billion dollar contracts, which the governments are reluctant to do – which implies they believe the war in Ukraine will be over much sooner than that.

As its own stocks of 155mm shells runs dry, the US recently started to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions, also of 155mm calibre, which have been banned by many countries due to the lingering hazard to civilians from the unexploded “pellets” that these shells inevitably leave behind.

Europe getting ready to invest

Europe has moved further towards investing into expanding its shell production with a plan to produce 1mn shells by March next year, but the same reluctance to invest is reportedly hampering those efforts too.

The EU’s plan involved reimbursing supplies from member states' own existing stocks of shells as the first step, followed by a joint purchase of new munitions as the second step that should trigger the necessary investment by arms producers to expand production.

As of October, more than half of the allocated time to see increased production has passed but the EU had only delivered under a third (30%) of the planned supplies, raising concerns about meeting the deadline.

Sources familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that the European External Action Service, the EU's foreign policy arm, informed member states' diplomats that the delivery was unlikely to be completed by March 2024. Some member states had been reluctant to disclose details about their supply efforts, and the EU might request more information from them. This issue is expected to be discussed during an upcoming EU defence ministers' meeting.

According to a report, bureaucratic obstacles and protectionism within individual member countries has slowed the planned increase in supply of shells, according to a Kyiv Independent investigation.

Ukraine's demand for munition supplies has become increasingly urgent after Russia boosted its defence budget for 2024 by a quarter as it continues to put its economy on a full war footing and is running its defence factories 24/7 to increase military supplies. In addition, Russia has also been buying shells from its partners; reportedly Russia has secured over 1mn shells from North Korea.

Ukraine going alone  

In response to the ongoing delays and falling Western supplies, Kyiv is increasingly turning to producing more munitions itself as a solution, as it becomes increasingly likely this will turn into a long war.

Ukraine hosted an international defence industry conference in Kyiv on September 30, where the government declared Ukraine will become a military production hub.

The country hopes to attract international arms manufacturers and make Ukraine a “large military production hub” as the government searches for ways to arm itself and break a stalemate that has developed on the battlefield.

Zelenskiy is ready to offer “special conditions” to companies that will produce weapons with Ukraine or on its territory. The event marked a new direction in how to supply Ukraine, with the previous focus being on the delivery of weapons from the West, repair of damaged equipment and military training of Ukrainian soldiers abroad.

Turkey had already promised to set up a Bayraktar TB2 drone factory in Ukraine before the war started and now says it is investing $100mn in three projects in Ukraine, among them the construction of a drone production plant that will be completed in one and a half years.

And leading German weapons maker Rheinmetall has entered into a joint venture with Ukraine’s state-owned counterpart, the Ukraine Defence Industry group (UDI), to build facilities to make and repair weapons, Rheinmetall said on its website on September 29. The strategic co-operation between Rheinmetall and UDI, formerly known as Ukroboronprom, began in May 2023 but now the relationship will deepen.

British arms producer BAE Systems has also unveiled plans to team up with Ukrainian producers.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said at the conference that Ukrainian producers had signed about 20 agreements with unidentified foreign partners for joint production, exchange of technology or supply of components to make drones, armoured vehicles and ammunition.

However, none of these production facilities are expected to come online before 2024 at the very earliest.