Opinion by the Editorial Board
March 07, 2023 at 6:56 Taiwan Time
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not catch the West’s intelligence agencies unaware. But no one in Washington or Europe anticipated the scale at which they would need to provide Kyiv with arms and munitions. That’s an increasing challenge for NATO and other countries rightly determined to prevent a Russian victory, and the dire consequences for the United States and its allies that would follow. It needs to be addressed swiftly.
In a ground war that in some ways has come to resemble World War I — with thousands of artillery rounds fired daily against deeply dug-in armies — Ukrainian forces are now at risk of running low on key munitions. They are firing shells faster than supplier nations are producing them. There are other historic echoes. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Americans to rally behind the country’s European allies as the “arsenal of democracy” in 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor, President Biden will be tested and judged by his own success in making a similar case for this country to step up by applying its military and industrial might.
The most pressing need in Ukraine is the supply of 155mm howitzer shells, which in recent months have become the main munition holding Russia at bay. The United States has supplied more than 1 million to Ukraine since the war’s outset, according to the Pentagon. Ukrainian artillery units have been firing them at a rate of roughly 3,000 daily — perhaps one-third the number of rounds screaming back at them from the Russian side. The math is unforgiving. Not only is Ukraine’s inventory dwindling, but the U.S. prewar production of the shells, fewer than 15,000 per month, is scarcely enough to sustain Ukraine for five days.
To its credit, the Biden administration is gearing up for a sixfold increase in monthly production of the shells, and sharply accelerating the manufacture of other materiel. European countries, too, are rushing to furnish Ukraine with more shells. That will take time, however, not least because defense-procurement bureaucracies, in this country and other major industrialized democracies, have been calibrated mainly for peacetime since the Cold War. Germany in particular, which has tried to surge its defense spending, faces long-standing problems with red tape and inefficiencies that have impeded arms production.
The need to provide more weapons systems to Ukraine is equally urgent. Yet the problem, depending on the system, tends to be different. Take, for instance, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the precision multiple rocket launcher that has been used to deadly effect against Russian ammunition dumps, command posts and other targets. Hundreds of HIMARS are in U.S. and other NATO countries’ inventories, yet just 20 or so have been sent so far to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have shown their ability to shift the battlefield momentum with HIMARS, and they have pleaded for more of them. Yet the Western allies have dragged their feet.
One reason is that Washington and its allies are reluctant to draw from stockpiles of the weapon, given the need to train their own forces on its use. War planners in the Pentagon are wary of eroding U.S. military readiness in the event of another conceivable ground war — on the Korean Peninsula, for example, or involving NATO’s Baltic allies. That same reluctance is at play with other weapons. The result is a gap between the West’s supportive rhetoric on equipping Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruinous invasion, and the pace of actual deliveries of arms and ammunition, which is slower than Kyiv needs to push back Russian forces.
Some U.S. military officials have suggested that Ukraine should slow the rate at which it fires artillery shells, or pick its targets more selectively. That’s an armchair general’s risky prescription, overlooking the fact that Kyiv is already enormously outgunned and outmanned. It’s worth remembering that Ukrainian forces have massively outperformed expectations. More than a year after an invasion that most outsiders believed would succeed within days, second-guessing Ukrainian tactics is the height of presumption as their citizens continue dying on the battlefield against a country with triple Ukraine’s population and an economy nearly 10 times its size.
The burden is rightly on the West to ramp up production and shipment of the weapons and munitions Ukraine needs. And there are steps Washington and its allies can take to achieve that, beyond the sharp increases in defense spending to meet what seems likely to be a long-term commitment to Kyiv’s security, along with other growing threats to U.S. interests.
One sensible move would be to send Ukraine some weapons currently in the arsenals of National Guard units in individual states. Granted, that has the potential to erode their training capacity and combat readiness in the short term. Until the stockpiles could be replenished, it is likely some governors would complain.
In other cases, the administration would be wise to undertake a clear-eyed analysis of the strategic consequences of framing these decisions too narrowly. According to Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Pentagon has shipped about 40 percent of the U.S. stockpile of some 20,000 Javelin antitank missiles, leaving a hole in our inventory that will take several years to fill at the current production level. It is understandable that Pentagon planners are reluctant to deplete their own supplies further. Yet if Ukraine’s planned spring offensive fails for lack of Javelins or other weapons that Washington could have provided in greater numbers, the Biden administration will regret its hesitation to take unorthodox steps.
It’s critical that the administration perceive those interests clearly and explain them compellingly to what recent polls suggest is an increasingly skeptical American public. Turning back Russian aggression is not only important for our European allies’ security but also to maintain a basic principle of civilized international relations: that one state cannot invade and subjugate another that has posed no threat. It is also crucial to transmit the message to China, North Korea and other would-be aggressors that the United States will stand fast in defense of its own interests and other democracies.
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