Americans have grown up with the idea of the underdog. The dashing rebels that defeat a more powerful opponent through sheer determination and nobility is a staple cliche in popular culture. Unfortunately, the reality is that better-equipped armies usually beat those less equipped regardless of the strength of their cause. General Omar Bradley once said, “Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” The current discourse around the Ukraine conflict usually focuses on feats of heroism or the righteousness of the cause and less on the practical matters of munitions, production capabilities, and overall manpower issues.
Munitions, armaments, and manpower are the currency in this conflict, and the Western bloc is running out of all three. Russian drones, artillery, and air strikes have hammered Ukraine’s industrial base. The economic cost is astronomical. Congress has approved an estimated $113 billion in defense and financial aid to Ukraine since February 2022—more than half of Ukraine’s annual GDP.
The United States and NATO are becoming painfully aware of this fact every day as Western armories become increasingly depleted, and there is no existing industrial capacity to replenish the stockpiles, let alone continue to arm Ukraine.
The Return of Industrial Wars of Attrition
Following the end of the Cold War, it became increasingly fashionable for military policymakers to argue that “hybrid warfare” had replaced large-scale conventional warfare. As Patrick Porter explores in his recent Journal of Global Security Studies essay, hybrid warfare is fought with or against non-state or proxy actors, often using subterfuge tactics and cyber and economic warfare. In 2009, then UK Chief of Defence Staff, General David Richards, dismissed the idea that China or Russia would dare to confront the West with conventional military arms, claiming instead that “there is a good case for believing that even state-on-state warfare will be similar to that we will be conducting against non-state groupings.” As Porter proves, even a cursory glance at recent history proves this thesis is demonstrably false.
One of the clearest examples of this mindset manifesting in war planning is the requirement that NATO members stockpile enough material to sustain high-intensity combat for a mere thirty days. This optimistic pre-war planning is typical for peacetime policymakers. In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman notes how governments before the First World War hoarded stockpiles of artillery shells that they believed would last them throughout a hypothetical war. However, following the events of August 1914, the armories of the Allied and Central Powers were depleted within months, and domestic production increased considerably.
One of the current war’s defining features is the overwhelming reliance on artillery barrages and massive infantry reserves. Hence, the West has been caught unprepared, waging a proxy war of attrition with no industrial base to do so. On the other hand, the Russian defense industry is, in the words of John Mearsheimer, “designed to fight World War I.”
We’re Out of Weapons
President Joe Biden has openly admitted that the military is sending cluster munitions to Ukraine because it cannot provide the quantity of artillery shells that Ukraine needs. The Pentagon intel leaks from earlier this year indicated that the United States pressured South Korea to send 330,000 155mm shells to Ukraine, likely via Poland. There are reports that South Korea loaned the United States half a million 155mm shells. But even if South Korea sent one million shells to Ukraine, it would hardly make up for the immense artillery imbalance. This lack of balance is only a symptom of a more significant issue: the West’s inability to transition into a war economy.
A recent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report estimates that Russia fired 12 million artillery shells in 2022 and estimated the military would discharge seven million in 2023. This could indicate that Soviet-era stockpiles are thinning out. Still, the report notes that Russia is producing 2.5 million shells a year, in addition to munitions imports from North Korea and Iran.
In stark contrast, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimated in January that the United States could only produce 93,000 155mm shells a year, all of which go to training exercises. If the military achieves an accelerated production schedule, it will produce 240,000 shells yearly, still less than 10 percent of Russia’s current production. Ukrainian artillery fires 8,000 rounds daily, consuming an entire month of current U.S. munitions production. Even if the Pentagon achieves its stated goal of manufacturing 90,000 shells a month by FY 2025, it still is only half of Russia’s current production level.
Other NATO members are in even worse shape. In June, the German Bundeswehr discovered that only 20,000 155mm shells remained in its entire arsenal. The United Kingdom cannot produce high-caliber gun barrels for tanks and artillery. Vast amounts of the equipment NATO has sent to Ukraine have been ill-maintained junk, calling into question the quality of the arsenals left behind. Meanwhile, at least 20 percent of the frontline equipment that the West scraped together for the Ukrainian counter-offensive was destroyed in the first week alone.
This is not even to mention the vast issues inherent in creating an army from the world’s spare stockpiles. Armored vehicles that are destroyed or damaged at the front are not easy to repair because of the range of materials, maintenance, and training required to service every piece of hardware. Ukraine is utilizing fourteen different 155mm howitzers alone.
Facing the Hard Realities of War
The Western public is not adequately informed about the nature of the conflict in Ukraine. Emotion and micro-level analysis of individual engagements overshadow discussion of the broader strategic situation. “Nothing is beyond our capacity” may sound good on a bumper sticker, but as a warfighting strategy without execution, it is fanciful. Realities on the ground will not allow us to pursue any goal without enormous cost to ourselves and our allies, who require our continued assistance.
The chance for a favorable settlement for Ukraine is vanishing due to the lag in armaments and manpower mobilization. The zenith of Ukraine aid has passed, and it will not be matched in subsequent months and years. The opportunity for a negotiated peace or even a ceasefire on terms favorable to Ukraine will become more unlikely as Russia’s advantage on the battlefield grows.
While the strategy of putting strain on the regime of President Vladimir Putin to the point of internal collapse may have been credible at the early stages of the war, there is scant evidence that it is working now. The Wagner mutiny, despite appearances, has only strengthened Putin’s authority over his decision-making subordinates.
If events continue as they are, Ukraine’s position will likely deteriorate. The structural imbalances that pervade the conflict will not improve with sporadic shipments of arms and equipment. If Ukraine is to hold a candle to Russia, the Western coalition must re-industrialize its military supply chains on a mass scale. Whether it has the capability or will to do so is far from certain.
While Western analysts have hoped for a decisive breakthrough in the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive, this has not been the pivotal battle they assumed it would be. The fighting in Ukraine may drag on for years with no clear end in sight. The Putin government also appears to be preparing for another wave of conscription, which will only increase the Russian advantages on the battlefield. In the words of an Atlantic Council report, “Putin is preparing for the long war.” These realities are not lost on some former top U.S. security officials, though they are negotiating with the Russians in opposition to the Biden administration. The logistical reality is not changing in favor of Ukraine, and there is doubt as to whether the West has the will to mobilize to the same extent as the Russians. Because of this, time is on Moscow’s side, and Western policymakers who hope that waiting will bring a more favorable settlement are in for a rude awakening.
Matthew Bryant graduated with a BA in Global Affairs from George Mason University. He is currently a joint Graduate student at the University of Trento & the Higher School of Economics. He researches and writes about the post-Soviet area as well as U.S.-Russia relations.
Zack Yost is a freelance writer and a Fall 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society. He has been published in a variety of outlets, including The National Interest, The Washington Times, and The American Conservative. He is the co-host of the Mises Institute’s monthly foreign policy podcast, War, Economy, and State, and writes at his Substack blog, The Yost Post.