WASHINGTON (AP) – The intense firefight over Ukraine is prompting the Pentagon to reconsider its weapons stockpile. If another major war broke out today, would the United States have enough ammunition to fight?
This question worries Pentagon planners not only as they aim to fuel Ukraine for a war with Russia that could drag on for years, but also as they anticipate a possible conflict with China.
Russia fires up to 20,000 rounds a day, ranging from automatic rifle bullets to truck-sized cruise missiles. Ukraine responds with up to 7,000 rounds per day, firing 155mm howitzer shells, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and now NASAMS air defense munitions, as well as thousands of small arms rounds.
Much of Ukraine’s firepower is provided by US government-funded weapons, which are pushed to the front lines on an almost weekly basis. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced an additional round of aid that will provide Kyiv with an additional 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition.
“We were not in a position where we had just a few days of critical ammunition left,” Pentagon Controller Michael McCord told reporters this month. “But we are now supporting a partner who is.”
US defense production lines are not designed to support a major land war and some, like the Stinger, were previously shut down.
That puts pressure on US reserves and has officials questioning whether US stockpiles are large enough. Would the US be prepared to respond to a major conflict today, such as if China invaded Taiwan?
“What would happen if something exploded in Indo-Pacom? Not in five years, not in 10 years, what if it happens next week?” said Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s chief arms buyer, referring to the military’s Indo-Pacific Command. He was speaking at a defense procurement conference at George Mason University in Virginia this month.
“What do we have in any quantity? That will actually be effective? Those are the questions we’re asking ourselves this minute,” he said.
The Army uses many of the same munitions that have proven highly critical in Ukraine, including highly mobile artillery missile systems known as HIMARS, Stinger missiles and 155mm howitzer shells, and is now reviewing their stockpile requirements, Doug Bush, Deputy Secretary the army for the acquisition, told reporters on Monday.
“You see, what Ukraine is using, what we can produce and how fast we can ramp up are all factors that you would work into, ‘OK, how (big) does your pre-war stockpile need to be?'” Bush said. “The slower you start up, the bigger the pile has to be at the start.”
The military aid packages that the US is sending either pull stocks from stockpiles or fund contracts with industry to boost production. At least $19 billion in military aid has been provided to date, including 924,000 artillery shells for 155mm howitzers, more than 8,500 Javelin anti-tank systems, 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft systems and hundreds of vehicles and drones. It has also deployed advanced air defense systems and 38 HIMARS, although the Pentagon does not disclose how many rounds of ammunition it ships with the missile systems.
Infusion of weapons raises questions on Capitol Hill.
This month, the administration asked Congress to allocate an additional $37 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine in the post-election session and approve it before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of California, who wants to be Speaker, has warned that Republicans would not support issuing a “blank check” to Ukraine.
Even with fresh money, inventories cannot be replenished quickly. Some of the systems that have proved extremely important in Ukraine had their production lines shut down years ago. Keeping a production line running is expensive, and the Army had other spending priorities.
The Pentagon awarded Raytheon a $624 million order for 1,300 new Stinger missiles in May, but the company said it could not ramp up production until next year due to parts shortages.
“The Stinger line shut down in 2008,” LaPlante said. “Really, who did that? We all made it. You managed. We did it,” he said, referring to the decision by Congress and the Pentagon not to fund the Army’s continued production of anti-aircraft munitions that can be fired by a soldier or mounted on a platform or truck.
Based on an analysis of previous Army budget documents, Mark Cancian, senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates that the 1,600 Stinger systems the US has provided to Ukraine account for about a quarter of its total arsenal.
The HIMARS system that Ukraine has used so effectively in its counteroffensive faces some of the same challenges, LaPlante said.
“The thing that is now saving Ukraine and that everyone in the world wants, we stopped producing,” he said.
HIMARS production was suspended by the Army from about 2014 to 2018, LaPlante said. The Army is now trying to ramp up production to eight a month, or 96 a year, Bush said.
The effectiveness of HIMARS in Ukraine has also increased interest elsewhere. Poland, Lithuania and Taiwan have placed orders while the US is working to rush more to Ukraine. As the conflict drags on and more HIMARS munitions are prioritized for Ukraine, it could potentially limit US troops’ access to the live-fire training rounds.
The Pentagon this month announced a $14.4 million contract to speed up production of new HIMARS and replenish its inventories.
“This conflict has shown that munitions production in the United States and with our allies is likely insufficient for major land wars,” said Ryan Brobst, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Center on Military and Political Power.
The US also recently announced that it would supply Ukraine with four Avenger air defense systems, man-portable launchers that can be mounted on tracked or wheeled vehicles to provide another shorter-range option against Iranian drones used by Russia’s armed forces. But the Avenger systems also rely on Stinger missiles.
Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said stockpiling concerns had been addressed.
“We wouldn’t have deployed these Stinger missiles if we didn’t feel we could,” Singh said at a recent Pentagon briefing.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine