After over a year of supplying the high-intensity Ukraine war “stockpiles are looking a bit thin” and supplies of some key items have “run dry”, Britain tells the world in apparently coordinated statements on the matter.
Western states like the United Kingdom saved money after the Cold War — the ‘peace dividend’ — by making military stocks much more efficient, but decades of slimming down suddenly meeting an unexpectedly long-lasting and intense war in Ukraine means some weapons have simply run out. This news comes in remarks from Armed Forces Minister James Heappey at the Warsaw Security Forum on Tuesday, as well as from an anonymous “senior military source” briefing on empty stockpiles to a British newspaper on the subject at the same time.
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Heappey emphasised his view that just because the stocks were running low the West couldn’t simply stop giving Ukraine equipment, but his remarks nevertheless underlined the fact that supplies were scarce and a major change in the way the defence industry worked was needed to overcome that. He told the audience it would be wrong to stop handing weapons over to Ukraine “just because our stockpiles are looking a bit thin” and that as well as keeping the conveyor belt of munitions going east working, the United Kingdom and others also need to work on “rebuilding our own stockpiles”.
The Daily Telegraph reported their own “senior military source” anonymously on Monday evening, with the unnamed figure hitting similar notes on how the Ukraine war has worn down reserves. They said: “We’ve given away just about as much as we can afford… We will continue to source equipment to provide for Ukraine, but what they need now is things like air defence assets and artillery ammunition and we’ve run dry on all that.”
On how this has happened, Heappey pointed the finger at a series of previous governments going back to the 1990s changing the way defence procurement worked from the end of the Cold War from a situation where weapons were in constant production and stockpiled, to one where occasional orders anticipating future demand became the norm.
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The old Cold War way was “highly resilient [with] enormous stockpiles”, he said, but such a system comes at a financial cost. The war against terror era brought predictable cycles of military deployments with comparatively low-intensity use of munitions and defence acquisition run on “just-in-time” delivery principles used by civilian industry.
Efficient as that may be, Heappey said it “does not work when you need to be ready for a fight tomorrow and crucially your capacity to fight that fight tomorrow is part of the deterrence.”
Defence procurement before Ukraine, Heappey told the conference, was essentially on feast-to-famine lines, where the state would occasionally buy “5,000 of those highly advanced missiles that should be enough to see us through… 30,000 rounds of artillery ammunition in a bunker, that will see us through”. The aggregate impact of that, he said, was the government had suddenly discovered in a time of unexpected crisis, industry was unable to respond quickly and scale to meet demand.
Heappey’s comments followed those of Admiral Rob Bauer, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee who spoke before the British minister at the Warsaw conference. The top military leader warned “many armed forces have been neglected for decades… the industry is not beefing up the production capacity fast enough, that is a huge problem”.
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Admiral Bauer said the weapons gifted to Ukraine were coming “not from full warehouses, we started to give away from half full or lower warehouses in Europe. Therefore the bottom of the barrel is now visible”. Just-in-time economics were no longer suitable for Western defence, he said, because “we need the industry to ramp up the production at a much higher tempo. We need large volumes.
“The just-in-time, just-enough economy that we built together in our liberal economies for 30 years is fine for a lot of things, but not for the armed forces when there is a war ongoing.”
The remarks by these leaders echo others by now former UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who led the UK response through the first year of the Ukraine War, when he revealed in July the acute problems the government was having buying more missiles to give to Ukraine. Modern anti-tank weapons are not just complex pieces of equipment, Wallace said, but the supply chains and constellations of companies that came together to manufacture them are as well.
In the case of the now-famous Anglo-Swedish NLAW anti-tank missile, Wallace said that when the government came to order more of the weapon various companies that had made key components of it had already ceased to exist years before, the expertise to make even a basically new missile already scattered. Overcoming this, he said, was a major challenge.
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Those NLAW missiles are part of the story of how the West failed to foresee how the Ukraine war would develop and become a long-term, high-intensity effort to underwrite, Heappey said in his remarks at the Warsaw conference. Retelling a trip to Kyiv shortly before Russia renewed the invasion, the minister made implicit it was not foreseen the weapon would be used to defend and turn back an invasion, but rather to launch a resistance effort after the invasion was complete, again underlining how opportunities to re-arm before Russia invaded were missed.
On how to overcome these defence issues, Heappey said these were major questions being faced by the “post-industrial” West more broadly. In previous wars, the minister said, the industrial nations of the west could repurpose “locomotive factories” to build tanks, or civil air companies to build fighter planes, but such infrastructure hardly exists any more.
Reaching for an alternative — and potentially a controversial one — Heappey posited a future solution may be locating a reliable offshore location for Western armaments factories that could be activated in times of war. He said: “We don’t actually have a lot of [industry] anymore, and that leads to some really interesting questions about where is near to the UK with defendable sea and air lines of communication where we can have an offshore manufacturing base which is more resilient and more reachable for the UK than where we manufacture now.”
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While striking, Heappey’s remarks in Warsaw are not by far the first such warnings on the continued ability of the West to keep supplying Ukraine at the rate it burns through ammunition. General Sir Richard Barrons, who formerly served as the Joint Forces chief warned earlier this year that in a hopefully hypothetical situation where the British Army had to engage with Russian forces it would run out of ammunition in just one day.
In separate remarks, General Barrons also stated his view that the United Kingdom would need five to ten years advance warning to be able to face off against a Russia-level foe. He said: “During the Cold War the Army, at all times, was ready to fight at four hours’ notice. When the Cold War ended and there was no sense of existential risk to the UK, all of that was dismantled… Now we would need five to 10 years’ notice of a Russian surprise attack to manage to deal with it.”
These are not issues unique to the United Kingdom. The German military, despite its NATO obligations, has been only questionably active for years and is now said to be incapable of defending itself. Poland, long a staunch supporter of Ukrainian independence and the obvious next frontier for Russia after Ukraine has stopped supplying weapons to Kyiv so it can attempt to re-arm itself.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Biden White House is “scrambling” to reassure allies that its own aid to Ukraine will continue, as the Federal government runs out of money.
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