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Ukraine war: Is the army running out of ammunition?

Stephanie Höppner | Ralf Bosen
February 15, 2023

The political debate in recent weeks has focused mainly on tanks, but Ukraine faces another urgent problem — a shortage of ammunition.

Ukrainian soldiers outdoors, military vehicle
Ukrainian soldiers could soon be affected by the West's dwindling stockpiles of ammunition Image: Libkos/AP Photo/picture alliance

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had sounded the alarm ahead of this week's meeting of defense ministers, saying that the Ukrainian army was consuming significantly more ammunition than could be produced in the West.

"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," he said, adding that  the alliance needed "to ramp up production."

Frank Sauer, a security expert at Universität der Bundeswehr München (University of the Bundeswehr in Munich), told DW that he also thought the shortage of ammunition was the "fundamental problem" at the moment — much more than the much-debated air defense systems and tanks.

Increasing production capacity is of the utmost importance, agreed Nico Lange, a military expert from the Munich Security Conference and former chief of staff at the German Defense Ministry.

"From my point of view, [the ammunition shortage] is more important than any symbolic discussion," he told DW, explaining that this was related to Russia's military strategy. Russia's attack tactic — "frontal attacks on the front line in many sections — can only be successful if Ukraine runs out of ammunition," he argued, adding that this should be avoided at all costs with Western support.

What are the consequences of the ammunition shortage for Ukraine?

Ukrainian commanders are being forced to make "very tough decisions" on the use of ammunition said DW correspondent Nick Connolly. "I've met commanders of howitzers, of artillery pieces, who've told me that they don't know how long they can keep doing their job, if they will be forced to withdraw and move away from positions and wait for more artillery," Connolly said in Kyiv. "This is a very real problem."

DW reporter Nick Connolly, man holding a DW microphone in front of a cityscape
Ukrainian commanders have to make "tough decisions" says DW reporter Nick ConnollyImage: DW

But even if more ammunition were ordered today, it would take time for it to arrive as the wait for large-caliber ammunition is currently 28 months. "Orders placed today will only be delivered two and a half years later," NATO chief Stoltenberg has said, given that stockpiles are being depleted.

Why is there a lack of ammunition?

Sauer argued that Germany and the West should have reacted much earlier. "Figures probably started circulating towards the end of summer, there was talk of five- to six-digit figures for artillery ammunition per month," he said. That was when Germany should have switched gears and realized it was time to take urgent action, Sauer said, adding that he was not sure why those in charge had not reacted at the time. He said that production had started rather late in the US too.

According to German news outlet tagesschau.de, the US has delivered or promised to deliver more than one million artillery shells. They ran into supply issues, so they probably had to fall back on ammunition depots in Israel and South Korea. According to experts, that shows that neither the US nor Europe are prepared for conventional wars.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has also said that there was "only" talk of tanks and that the issue of ammunition is only now gaining momentum: "This is important and necessary and hopefully not too late because it's about air defense and providing replacement supplies of ammunition and missiles for the Ukrainian army's air defense systems."

What could a quick solution be?

Pistorius has urged the German defense industry "to ramp up all capacities to the maximum as quickly as possible." A deal with defense contractor Rheinmetall to resume production of ammunition for German-made Gepard (or cheetah) anti-aircraft tanks was an important first step, he said. "The contracts for the production of Gepard ammunition have been signed," the minister confirmed.

He said that Germany had decided to take that step so it would not be dependent on Switzerland.

Referring to its neutral status, the Swiss government has so far refused to allow a supply of Swiss-produced ammunition for the Gepard tanks supplied by Germany.

According to the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the new contract with Rheinmetall is for 300,000 rounds, to be delivered to Ukraine from July.

Large glass building, sign that reads Rheinmetall.
German defense contractor Rheinmetall is restarting the production of ammunition for Gepard anti-aircraft gunsImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa

Ukraine and its allies are "scrambling around the world  — looking as far afield as Pakistan and South Korea for artillery munitions," DW correspondent Connolly said. "We've had reports of Pakistani-made Soviet-caliber munitions heading this way, [and] of US troops being asked to send munitions that they had stockpiled in South Korea to Europe for Ukraine."

What the defense sector needs now

Despite the German defense minister's pleas, Hans Christoph Atzpodien, the head of the German security and defense industry association BDSV said in an interview with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that companies needed binding orders and more commitment. If politicians were to order ammunition, weapons and equipment quickly, the German defense industry could get going properly, he suggested.  

He said that orders had been relatively slow last year because of budget allocation issues, adding that nobody could expect "unlimited upfront work."

"At some point," he said, "there has to be an assurance that these are really the products the customer wants. We urgently need these orders, we need to be able to plan, we need reliability. The more long-term our capacity utilization is, the better we can plan."

This article was originally written in German.