NATO nations are facing major military, economic and security problems because of the war in Ukraine. What it comes down to is that military leaders back all possible military aid for Ukraine while political leaders face problems with paying for it. Not just the financial cost but the impact on voters who find themselves facing higher taxes and as well as inflation and shortages of essential goods. Supporting the Ukrainian war with Russia is expensive and exposes the true costs of cutting defense expenditures in the past by not maintaining sufficient stockpiles of weapons and munitions.
The basic problem is that it is a historical fact, reinforced by the current situation, that you must maintain adequate 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 is crippling Ukrainian war efforts because NATO cannot keep key weapons and other supplies coming. NATO military leaders point out that supporting Ukraine is not just about supporting a nation facing conquest and annexation by Russia. The real issue is that the war in Ukraine is between NATO and Russia only because attacking Ukraine, which is not a NATO member but wants to be one, does not trigger the mutual defense aspect of NATO membership. If Ukraine were a NATO member the Russian attack would face NATO troops from all NATO members. That would mean all NATO members would be suffering troop losses and that motivates voters to support paying the high economic costs of defending Ukraine. Russia sees victory in Ukraine as a victory over NATO and a weakening of NATO resolve to comply with mutual defense aspects of membership. Russian victory in Ukraine would make the new (since the 1990s) NATO members vulnerable to attack and annexation by Russia before other NATO members could help prevent it. For NATO nations adjacent to Russia, these fears aren’t theoretical but historical and often include centuries of Russian aggression and brutal occupation that sometimes led to annexation.
The original reason for NATO was mainly about “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. NATO was formed after World War II ended in 1945. That also ended over 70 years of major wars instigated by Germany. Now Germany was partitioned and the Western half faced another Russian invasion. The German occupation was short and the Germans were eager to join NATO and help keep the Russians out. That attitude has persisted through the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany. The Germans had lost all interest in wars of aggression, but the Russians had not.
The Soviet Union prospered for a while after Nikita Khrushchev, who took over when Josef Stalin died in 1953, concentrated on the economy and well-being of Russians rather than the world conquest and generally murderous attitudes of Stalin. This was a welcome change for most Russians if only because Stalin’s policies had resulted in 18 percent of the Russian population dying in wars or domestic terror against Russians by Stalin to protect his power.
Khrushchev was gone within a decade, the first Russian leader in a long time to “retire” alive from office rather than die or be killed while in power. Khrushchev was replaced by less altruistic politicians who had aligned with Russian military leaders who wanted to start an arms race with the West and prepare for an eventual attack on Western Europe and that new NATO alliance. Then as now Russia described this as necessary to defend Russia from more prosperous NATO countries who might think and act like Russians. This is a bad habit that Russia is having a difficult time overcoming even though the old Soviet Union collapsed from, among other things, this arms race.
After the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia tried democracy to do another Khrushchev for a decade. There was some success but not enough because Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, took power and returned to the police state and military buildup that Stalin and Khrushchev’s successors tried with such disastrous results. Putin won the support of the military by spending a lot of money Russian could not afford to update the Cold War era weapons. Those updates, as well new tactics and unit organizations turned out to be failures and this was made clear when the overconfident Russian military invaded Ukraine. Despite the initial failures, Russia persists and is still seeking to intimidate NATO into submission. For Russia it is a three-front war. First there is the very obvious combat in Ukraine as well as an Information War against politicians and journalists in NATO countries. Then there is an economic struggle to deal with the economic sanctions.
The economics of war have changed since the end of the Cold War, an event that was expected to deliver a “peace dividend” made possible by major cuts in military forces and defense spending. That did not work out as expected because many countries eliminated conscription but underestimated the cost of a smaller all-volunteer force. Another unpleasant surprise was the higher costs for maintaining war reserves. 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. Russia and East European nations that lost their communist governments by 1990, were stuck with huge stockpiles of ammo. Not all of it could be exported because so much of it was now available. Moreover bombs, rockets and artillery shells have expiration dates because the propellants, detonators and explosives used degrade over time. Elderly ammo first becomes unreliable and eventually too unstable for use because this ammo will detonate spontaneously or as it is used. This is why so many Russian shells and rockets fail to explode. It's expensive to dispose of elderly ammo and Russia tends to consider older ammo as either “unreliable” and acceptable for use or dangerously unstable because even moving it or trying to fire it will cause it to explode. This stuff be disposed of.
Since 2018, U.S. Army orders for 155mm artillery shells were up from 16,573 to 148,287 for 2019 because of a new precision 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’s 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. The impact of this was first seen during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war where ammo expenditures were much higher than expected. That lesson remains relevant and politicians don’t like when it stands in the way of keeping the defense budget from interfering with other spending priorities that appeal to more voters.
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.
Without NATO membership, Ukraine has to depend on the voluntary contributions of military assistance to defeat the Russian attack. The initial NATO response was massive and demonstrated the superiority of NATO weapons. It also revealed that NATO nations had underestimated the need to stockpile sufficient munitions to fight this kind or war and nations manufacturing most of these weapons had not paid enough attention (despite frequent warnings) to how long it would take to achieve wartime production levels. Also neglected were the problems of additional economic burdens placed on NATO member civilian populations. The new NATO members had warned of the growing possibility of a Russian attack, even though that was dismissed as unlikely because of the mutual defense aspects of Article 5 in the NATO membership agreement. But it happened in pro-NATO Ukraine and the new NATO members see doing everything they can to support Ukraine as essential to prevent future attacks on NATO members. Taking Ukraine is part of Russia’s plan to rebuild the Russian empire in spite of Article 5 and Ukraine is the place to prove their plan works. Some of the original (Cold War era) NATO members do not believe the Russians are that reckless. The new NATO members suggest that all NATO members should review the long and violent history the new NATO members have had with Russia in light of the current war in Ukraine and Russian plans for continuing their aggression after they conquer Ukraine.
Politicians prefer to defer hard decisions whenever possible. Insufficient defense spending is a favorite candidate for such false economies. Article 5 made politicians even more eager to defer essential defense spending because not only was NATO military manpower huge (over three million active duty troops and organized reserves) but NATO forces were equipped with the most modern weapons and equipment. All true. Left out of the press releases is the sorry state of stockpiles of spare parts (to keep all the vehicles, aircraft and ships operational) and war reserves.
Then there was the fact that half the NATO manpower came from two countries; the United States and Turkey. This is a major problem because the U.S. also manufactures most of the high-tech weapons and equipment. Turkey has become a very unreliable NATO member since an anti-Israel and anti-NATO government came to power in 2000. Led by Recep Erdogan, the new Turkish government also proved to be economically inept and Erdogan faces loss of power in the next elections because of the damage he did to the local economy and living standards of many Turks. With Ukraine, Erdogan is trying to play both sides to gain any advantage he can for Turkey and his own political career. The war in Ukraine has proved to be a major embarrassment for most NATO governments because politicians believed Russia would not invade Ukraine. The surprise turned politically painful when it was realized how much it was costing to support the Ukrainian forces and how much more expensive, and politically damaging it would be to continue that support until Russia was defeated. Many NATO politicians are looking for a way to evade their moral responsibility to support Ukraine. This is the price East European NATO members are willing to pay and this division threatens to destroy NATO as a unified defensive alliance.