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Who repairs Ukraine's Western weapons?

September 26, 2022

Seven months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, repairing worn-out Western weapons is becoming increasingly important. A workshop dedicated to this upkeep is planned for the Polish-Ukrainian border.

A mobile artillery rocket launcher in Ukraine in August 2022
Mobile artillery rocket systems have been in heavy use in eastern UkraineImage: kyodo/dpa/picture alliance

Passengers flying into Rzeszow Airport in southeastern Poland hardly notice that the most important hub for military aid to Ukraine has been created here. Far from the civilian airport terminal, the 50 countries that are supporting Ukraine have set up a military camp under the leadership of the United States. Behind the airport fence, NATO has also built an imposing line of defense to protect the alliance's eastern border with Patriot anti-aircraft systems whose missile shafts rise into the sky.

The area of the small Polish regional airport used by the military has now become like the Fort Knox of support for Ukraine. Even before Putin's invasion began on February 24, the US and UK had begun to fly in light anti-tank weapons for the Ukrainian army, as US intelligence agencies warned of the Russian attack. The Polish-Ukrainian border is only an hour's drive from here.

A howitzer 2000 on a Dutch transporter driving down Germany's A1 motorway
Since the war in Ukraine began, transport vehicles carrying heavy weapons have been seen traveling across EuropeImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture alliance

Military vehicles on Polish streets

On the ground, the logistical operation cannot be overlooked. Military transporters are constantly being spotted on the region's roads. People who travel a lot by car in southeastern Poland report that hardly a day goes by without them seeing uniformed soldiers in civilian flatbed trucks taking a break at motorway rest areas. But the detail of how Western aid reaches the Ukrainian army at the front is one of the best-kept secrets of this war.

The fact that the Polish region on NATO's border has become the central reloading point for aid has also only been indirectly confirmed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. In mid-September, following a trip to Kyiv, she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that a "maintenance hub on the Polish-Ukrainian border" would be set up.

Polish media are reluctant to report on the military aid efforts in the southeast of the country. The fact that Germany and the US-forged coalition of supporters for Ukraine are building a repair center there has so far not made the news in Poland.

A map showing regained territory in Ukraine
In recent weeks, Ukraine has been making significant advances in eastern and southeastern regions

German howitzers wearing out

Bundeswehr General Christian Freuding, the leader of the Special Task Force on Ukraine for the German Defense Ministry, was in Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian military leaders in early September. He reported that the Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers that Germany had delivered to Ukraine were suffering from wear and tear.

"They have been used in battle since May. And now, of course, they have some restrictions on their operational readiness," he said. A special task force is working to ensure "that we achieve continuity and very quickly return to a high level of operational readiness," for the artillery systems.

In these weeks before the approaching winter, there is a focus on repairing worn-out Western weapons. Following the successful counteroffensive by the Ukrainians in the northeast of their country, Germany gave the army four additional Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers.

Ukraine forces move east as Russia retreats

An arsenal of spare parts

"Logistics must be strengthened," said security expert Wolfgang Richter from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises the federal government in Berlin. "And that is exactly what is happening," he added — also in view of the discussion within Germany about whether to deliver Leopard-2 battle tanks, which Chancellor Olaf Scholz has refused to do, at least for now.

Intensive fighting means weapons are worn out. "Spare parts for various Western weapons systems need to be kept at the ready as close to the Ukrainian border as possible," Richter told DW. "Secondly, you need trained personnel who are capable of repairing Western weapons systems."

It is a difficult endeavor, because so many different weapons have been delivered to Ukraine. "I think about the different artillery systems as well as the necessary peripheral equipment — of French, Italian, British, US, and German design," said Richter. The military equipment from many countries needs "completely different spare parts — and in large quantities."

Uncertain course of the war

Looking to the coming months, Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the US Center for Naval Analyses, said the war in Ukraine will be defined by "attrition and reconstitution."

Although Ukraine has a good chance of gradually liberating more territory following its recent military successes, Kofman does not dare to predict how long the war might go on.

The region surrounding Rzeszow in southeastern Poland will likely have to get used to military equipment on the roads for a long time yet. That will now include the deliveries of spare parts to repair weapons.

Monika Sieradzka and Max Zimmer contributed to this report.

This article was originally written in German.

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