The recent fighting in Ukraine has brought forth a lot of support from NATO nations, especially in terms of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, fuel and much more. These shipments have increased but keeping it coming may be a problem. So far nearly 90,000 anti-tank and portable air defense weapons have been sent. The most important of these have been portable ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles, particularly the American Stinger. The modern ATGMs and Stingers have been particularly effective, so much so that the United States is quickly exhausting its supply of these weapons as are other NATO nations which have also sent other types of ATGMs and some very effective unguided anti-tank weapons. All these shipments came from existing stockpiles, known as War Reserve Stockpiles. Over the last six years other NATO members have been copying the American efforts to build sufficient reserves of key weapons and munitions just in case.
The basic idea is to rebuild stockpiles of ammunition and equipment for use against a large, well-equipped force in a war. These stockpiles are also referred to as the “War Reserve”, as in large quantities of munitions and spares stockpiled to keep the troops supplied during the initial 30-60 days of fighting until production can be increased to sustain the fighting. These stockpiles must contain the most useful munitions and other supplies and be positioned so they can be moved to the combat zones as quickly as possible. Without adequate logistics, as in the right supplies delivered in time, wars or at least battles, are often lost early and often. This is happening to the Russians and threatens to hobble Ukrainian war efforts if NATO cannot keep key weapons and other supplies coming.
Ukraine is a major arms producer and increased production after 2014, but many of those manufacturing facilities have been destroyed or damaged by Russian cruise and ballistic missiles. Russia too appears to have nearly exhausted its supplies of these weapons after a month of more intense combat than they expected. Russian production of those depends on key components imported from the West which are now cut off by heavy sanctions so Russia is now limited to unguided rockets and artillery. Even these are not available in large quantities because Russia has shipped a lot of artillery ammo to Syria. While some of the huge Cold War stockpiles of artillery rockets and shells remain, that is because Russia has been slow to safely dispose of these projectiles that grow increasingly unreliable until those remaining are more dangerous to the artillery crews than to anyone being fired on. Russian production of artillery ammo is the only source of munitions for the Ukraine War and how large those stockpiles are now is questionable. All this is the main reason Russia withdrew all its battered forces from northern Ukraine and used new units to reinforce the fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and the south, where Russia has held Crimea since 2014 and can resupply by ship. Increased fighting in the east means Ukraine has a longer distance to move the NATO supplies which enter Ukraine from neighboring Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
Iran has contributed some unguided rockets and air defense systems to Russia but no cruise missiles and no large quantities of anything. China refuses to help and that gives Ukraine an edge if NATO can keep the shipments coming.
The nature of these war reserves has changed a lot since the 1990s. For one thing, the widespread use of GPS/INS guided shells and rockets since the late 1990s has led to most artillery being retired. One guided shell or rocket can do the work of dozens of unguided projectiles. The validity of this was proven time and again while fighting Islamic terrorists since 2001. This included 2016-18 battles against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) where the Islamic terrorists were defending urban areas the same way a conventional force would, but smart shells and rockets were used effectively and frequently rather than the older tactic of using far more unguided shells and rockets. In both cases, the urban areas are destroyed but with guided projectiles, it is done with more precision and that enables the friendly ground forces to advance more rapidly and with fewer casualties than in the past. Because of the battles with ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the effectiveness of fewer guided projectiles replacing many more unguided ones was proven and ammunition stockpiles could be adjusted accordingly. Russia has some guided shells, but cannot afford to stockpile many of them and they are less effective than American designs.
Over the last five years, U.S. Army orders for 155mm artillery shells were up from 16,573 for 2018 to 148,287 for 2019 because of the guidance option. In 2020 the emphasis switched to GPS guided 227mm rockets (GMLRS) and upgrades for the longer range 600mm ATACMS guided rocket. In 2020 the army has ordered 10,193 GMLRS rockets versus 8,101 in 2019 and 6,936 in 2018. In that time the Army discovered that it was easier to use the longer range (70 kilometers or more) GMLRS than trying to develop longer range tube-based artillery. The need here was to match longer range artillery developed and put in service by Russia and China. Even with longer barrels and rocket-assisted shells artillery could not reach as far as GMLRS. Moreover, jamming the GPS signal is a less effective enemy option with the much-improved microchip-based INS (Inertial Guidance System) long used as a less accurate backup in weapons using GPS for projectile guidance. The new INS is nearly as accurate as GPS and if you have to be sure-fire two or three GMLRS at the same target. That works, especially since INS cannot be jammed.
There is still a need for guided and unguided 155mm artillery shells. To provide choice the army has been ordering many more of the PGK (Projectile Guidance Kit) 155mm fuze. The PGK fuze turns an unguided 155mm shell into a GPS/INS guided one. These were found to be exceptionally useful in Syria and Iraq and, in mid-2017, the U.S. Army ordered another 5,600 PGK fuzes and has been building a large stockpile. The army still uses unguided artillery shells for situations that don’t require precise accuracy for each shell but the PGK provides options that can be implemented quickly to turn any “dumb” shell into a smart one. It is unknown if any of these PGK fuzes have been sent to Ukraine.
Recent U.S. defense budgets accelerated purchases of numerous items that have to be stockpiled to sustain a major war, even a short one. Although fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan has involved few American troops, it has seen enough action and use of artillery in support of Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan forces to deplete stockpiles and indicate which items would be needed in another major war. That war came along unexpectedly in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and much of the NATO support was in the form of modern ATGMs and other guided weapons.
Before 2008, as the war began to wind down in Iraq, there were warnings that stockpiles and war reserves were being allowed to shrink to dangerously low levels. In early 2016 American military leaders went public about how their complaints about smart bomb and missile shortages being ignored. In 2015 over 25,000 smart bombs and missiles were used by American (mostly) and allied (NATO and local Arabs) warplanes operating over Iraq and Syria. Nearly all weapons were supplied by American firms but the American politicians and military leaders couldn’t agree on how to get the money to replace bombs being taken from the war reserve stocks. That debate was largely halted in 2022 when Ukraine was invaded. Now there is lots of support for increasing production of the items most useful to Ukrainian forces (like Javelin and Stinger) and rebuilding war reserves of those weapons.
This is not a new problem. It was a major and widespread problem in 2011 when NATO warplanes provided air support for Libyan rebels. In the aftermath of the 2011 campaign NATO countries noted the importance of smart bombs and guided missiles, and the tendency of European nations to maintain meager stocks of these (and many other) munitions and spare parts for the aircraft that deliver them. NATO nations did not start acquiring smart bombs until after the Cold War ended, about the same time their procurement budgets were cut sharply. Until 2014 European defense spending continued to shrink, and war reserve stocks were not a high priority. In Europe, the attitude seemed to be that the Americans would be able to supply smart bombs in a crisis. For a long time that was the case, but with the Americans now running down their own war reserves and deadlocked over what to do about that (which was usually “not much”), American allies were getting anxious. After 2014, when Russia first attacked and seized parts of Ukraine, NATO defense spending began to increase and those increases grew much larger in 2022.
All this was yet another reminder that cutting corners in maintaining war reserve stocks was a false economy, even if the smart bombs and missiles are expensive. About 30 percent of the cost of the 2011 NATO Libya operation was for these high-tech weapons, with the rest of the expense being operational costs (fuel, spare parts, and personnel expenses). But if you don’t have the smart bombs to deliver there is no action, except for the imaginative stories conjured by many political and military leaders to shift the blame onto someone else.
When the smart bomb stockpile shortage got the most attention it became obvious that the army stockpiles of guided, and unguided, artillery ammunition needed attention as well as modernization efforts to communication. In 2019 U.S. Army procurement was up 18 percent over the previous year and that kept increasing until 2022 when it rose throughout NATO.
With all these guided projectiles being used there is a greater need to know precisely where friendly forces are at all times. That means more orders for the latest version of Blue Force Tracker (BFT), which lets commanders see where all their troops are in real time. BFT trackers are carried in all combat vehicles and orders for these trackers went from 6,552 in 2018 to 26,355 in 2019. This JBCP (Joint Battle Command Platform) gear that BFT is part of, began arriving in 2015 and is essential in large scale combat. It is unknown if equipment like this has or will be sent to Ukraine, where the Ukrainian military is familiar with it and how useful it has been since first employed in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.