Nato chief sounds alarm on ammo shortage and urges members to invest in munitions production

Nato chief sounds alarm on ammo shortage and urges members to invest in munitions production
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on members to commit to long-term contracts with arms manufacturers and make more ammo for Ukraine otherwise Ukraine might lose the war this year. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 15, 2023

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took the radical step of calling on members to sign off on weapons procurement contracts that could commit them to billions of dollars of spending for years to come and invest in production of more munitions, as the western allies become increasingly alarmed by a looming ammo shortage.

"We need to ramp up production. And invest in our production capacity," Stoltenberg told Nato defence ministers at the start of a two-day meeting in Brussels. "It's urgent to provide Ukraine with more weapons.”

The Nato boss has already left it too late for manufacturers to respond to the call to ramp up production for this summer’s fighting season as it takes up to a year to build a new factory, but more munitions can be found from other Nato partners around the world to fill the gap.

Stoltenberg’s call for Nato members to finally make the investments into munition production that they have avoided until now also suggests that he wants Nato for a war that may go on for years, a long war Nato cannot fight without investing into expanding its munitions production now.

As bne IntelliNews reported, there is a looming ammunition shortage as the Western allies are running out of ammunition as their stockpiles start to run low. As a result, Ukraine runs the chance of losing the war this summer, unless more weapons can be made quickly available.

Nato member countries have "largely used up the available stocks" to provide assistance to Ukraine and must address the issue of restocking, former Nato deputy assistant secretary general Jamie Shea told journalists as the alliance members met for urgent arms supplies to Ukraine talks on February 14, as cited by Tass.

Stoltenberg’s call for member states to sign off on new production contracts with privately owned arms manufacturers is a radical step as so far members have been supplying Ukraine from their stocks of, first Soviet-era surplus they inherited after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and more recently, from their stockpiles of Nato compliant weapons. The Soviet-era supplies have long since been depleted, but now the modern arsenal is also starting to run low.

The alliance is now working to persuade defence contractors to ramp up their production, Shea said, adding that "it's not going to be easy." The West’s military relies on privately owned arms producers for its supplies, but following two decades of relative peace most Western countries have retooled their militaries to fight against terrorist groups and insurgencies putting the emphasis on very sophisticated high-tech weaponry that can take out small lightly armed guerrilla forces, now the large scale million-man conventional conflict that Ukraine is turning into.

As a result, and with the lack of orders for mass produced “dumb weapons” these conflicts need, the private contractors have closed down production lines and shifted production to cater for the interregnum demand for smart weapons. As the private contractors are for-profit concerns they remain unwilling to invest into new production lines without large-scale long-term contracts – something that Western governments have been unwilling to commit to. Russia has already put its economy on a war footing and defence factories in the hinterland are reportedly running at full pelt, working 24 hours a day to increase production. As bne IntelliNews has reported western government have failed to make the same commitment and even with a “surge” in production, the amount of arms that can be produced still fall well below Ukraine’s needs; Ukraine is firing off the same number of shells in a day that the US can produce in a month.

The US has already stopped providing Ukraine with the deadly tank-killing Javelin missiles as it has depleted its surplus stock to the levels of its minimum strategic reserve. UK defence officials admitted last week that the British military is “in a mess” after it has sent so much of its hardware to Ukraine. The US has also delivered over one million of the crucial munitions workhorse of the Ukrainian army, the 155mm artillery shells. However, US manufacturers can only produce some 100,000 new shells a year and Ukraine may run out of these shells by summer. bne IntelliNews reporters on-the-ground in Donbas say the Ukrainian army is already rationing the shells and restricting itself to only high value targets.

Stolenberg’s call and sign the long-term contracts is already too late to make a difference in this summer season of fighting. Even if governments heed his call it will take military manufacturers up to a year to go into production as they need to make the necessary investments and finding personnel to work in the factories is reportedly another major hurdle that will be hard overcome.

In the meantime to stave off a collapse of Ukraine’s military efforts on the battlefield this summer, Nato officials have been scouring the world to find alternative stock piles of Nato compatible materiel to fill the gap in the coming months.

"The secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has just been in South Korea and Japan, asking them to supply more," Shea said. "While we get production ramped up, if we can persuade some of these other sorts of pro-Western countries beyond Nato to provide these types of munitions, that should help to fill the gap in the meantime.".

Bankova has also been signalling it is becoming worried about the lack of offensive weapons from the West. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was in London last week to ask for fighter jets, and while he made it plain that Ukraine is very grateful for the weapons already supplied, the need for more, and more powerful weapons, was pressing. The decision to send Ukraine hundreds of main battle tanks (MBTs) at the end of January was very welcome in Kyiv, but Zelenskiy has been calling for the West to follow up with F-16 jet fighters – a plea that has largely fallen on deaf ears.

Zelenskiy’s sense of visible unrest is now spreading to other European leaders. Stoltenberg’s comments were a new direction for him and the language of urgency was also a departure from the most cautious rhetoric he usually employs.

Polish President Andrzej Duda added to the growing sense of uncertainty on February 13 saying: “If Ukraine doesn’t receive arms in the coming weeks, Putin may win.’ Ukraine’s need for Western arms is urgent and will determine the outcome on the battlefield, Duda said in an interview with the French media outlet Le Figaro.

The pressure is rising ahead of a widely anticipated Russian counteroffensive that could begin sometime in March as well as a second mass mobilisation to further bolster Russia’s forces.

Zelenskiy admitted last week that the situation for Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) where fighting is underway and concentrated in the city of Bakhmut is “very difficult”. "We are observing this increased pressure on various front lines as well as the pressure in the information field. It is very tough in the Donetsk Region - the clashes are fierce. Yet no matter how hard it is and regardless of pressure we should stand our ground," he said in his video address to the nation aired at the weekend.

After six months of fighting Russia has been making slow progress, halting and reversing the spectacular rout of Russian forces in the Kharkiv offensive in September and the recapture of the regional capital of Kherson at the end of the same month.

Top Ukrainian official Igor Zhovkva echoed Shea’s comments in an interview with Bloomberg at the weekend saying Ukraine’s stocks of ammunition are “almost zero”.

Intense fighting in Ukraine means that its military is running out of ammunition, with stocks not being replenished in time, Zhovkva, said, the Deputy Head of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy’s office.

Zhovkva lamented in addition to low supplies, Russia has more firepower and Ukraine needs fighter jets and long range missiles to launch a counteroffensive against Moscow’s forces. Commenting on the military aid already provided by the West, Zhovkva said that it was “too late, too little, and too slow.”