Dramatic events unfolding in Washington DC have put the future of US aid to Ukraine in jeopardy, with hardline Republicans insisting their country simply can’t afford to keep funding Kyiv’s fight against Russia’s full-scale invasion.
But the argument that the US is simply writing “blank checks” and handing over bags of cash to Ukraine is both simplistic and incorrect.
As the German Marshall Fund (GMF), a US think tank, wrote recently: “US military support for Ukraine is helping put American industry back on track.”
GMF added: “The numbers suggest that sustained support is a win-win for Ukrainians and the American people. A large portion of the money designated for Ukraine is being reinvested at home, bolstering the defense industry and sustaining American manufacturing jobs.
“This translates to more business for US companies and sustained employment for rural communities in which they operate.”
Here’s why it’s a win-win
If past US aid to Ukraine was dominated by big-ticket items like HIMARS rocket launcher, Patriot missile batteries and Abrams tanks, the nature of future US arms deliveries to Ukraine is shifting. Now, it’s nearly all about ammo.
The latest announced batch of US security assistance to Ukraine, on Sept. 6, was a window onto the trend. In that tranche (the 46th so far) US taxpayers ponied up about $175 million to give Ukrainian soldiers an effective laundry list of modern munitions the Kremlin’s troops don’t have and have headaches dealing with – things like HIMARS guided artillery rockets, TOW and Javelin top attack anti-tank missiles, and depleted uranium anti-tank rounds.
That latest list of US arms transfers to Ukraine contained nary a tank, general officer’s limousine, high-end anti-aircraft system, fighter jet, HUMMV, tactical quad cycle, or Dodge or Ford pickup truck painted green.
Aside from comms systems, engineering materials and spare parts, last month American voters handed over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) nothing but ammo to shoot at the Russian army.
Above all, Ukraine’s military future is all about quantities of NATO-standard 155mm howitzer shells, by far the AFU’s most preferred tool for hitting Moscow’s troops.
AFU gunners first received NATO-standard towed 155mm howitzers in May 2022, and massed fires from those guns – at some points Ukrainian gun crews were going through 10,000 shells a day – were decisive in stopping the Russian army’s last major mobile offensive, in the Donbas sector in a series of battles for crossings over the Siversky Donets River.
Fast-forward more than a year: the Russians are still in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are still pounding them with 155mm shells. The Americans have delivered more than two million rounds, and other allies perhaps 300,00 more. But the problem is that’s still not enough. The Ukrainian army is saturated with commercial drones and the Russian military is mostly sitting still in hostile country, so Ukrainians are finding far more targets than they have shells to shoot. On an average day of war, the AFU fires 6,000 to 7,000 shells of all types.
The more slowly Russian bunkers and armored vehicles get blasted, the longer the war will last. Pentagon planners and logisticians are juggling the double-headed problem of finding enough ammunition to feed into the maw of the AFU, and at the same time refilling US artillery ammunition reserves long designed to be sufficient to fight an insurgency in Afghanistan or an opponent like the Iraqi army, but nothing close to a near-peer opponent in a conventional war.
The good news for the Ukrainians doing the fighting and the Americans doing the manufacturing, is that the dynamics of the Russo-Ukrainian War’s ammo bottleneck seems to be changing. The Americans are gearing up to deliver more ammo.
An economic boom – made in the USA
As of early September 2023, only a single factory, the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Pennsylvania, was actually machining the steel 155mm artillery shell bodies. A facility in Iowa that does assembly was putting together about 24,000 shells a month – roughly three times the volume at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Scranton factory is currently operating at max capacity, 24/7, and employs 300 workers in jobs paying well compared to most other work in the region. By August 2024 new capacity will raise volumes to over 80,000 shells a month, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in comments to War Zone.
Exploding artillery shells produced in mass date back to the 19th century, but the modern artillery round is a purpose-built tool, and in the hands of the AFU a deadly one. The Ukrainian military has received and used in combat practically every NATO-standard 155mm shell type – a gamut running from anti-personnel to anti-tank, and including bunker buster, smoke, incendiary, long-range, precision-guided and cluster munitions – and the feedback is universally excellent.
Cluster munitions are particularly favored. Reports of failures of any type are practically nil. All the shells are easy to handle, they work in all weather conditions, and they are murderously precise. The AFU usually estimates its guns will outrange Russian artillery by five to eight kilometers. The problem is too many targets and too few shells.
The Pentagon in December 2022 announced plans to expand production capacity in three 155mm shell plants – in Scranton, in Kingsport, Tennessee, and in Middletown, Iowa. At the time the plan was aiming for 40,000 shells a month capacity, but as of October 2023, the target was twice that. The plan called for upstream investment to increase capacity of generic sub-components like primer, propellant, projective and fuse, as well as more exotic supply chain monkey wrenches like the laser sensor on the end of the precision-guided shell, or the mini-rocket fitted into the base of the long-range shell.
None of this is cheap. The most basic 155mm shell probably costs the US taxpayer between $2,000 and $3,000, and the most sophisticated ones, the laser-guided M982 Excalibur, a munition accurate enough to strike the turret of a targeted tank at ranges in excess of 25 kilometers, costs about $120,000.
If and when the US hits its 80,000-shells-a-month 2024 target, the three companies operating the plants – General Dynamics, American Ordnance and IMT Defense respectively – will collectively receive $250 million a month from US taxpayers. Most of that money transfer will recirculate in those three communities as salaries and dividends. The rest will be passed on to another 200 to 300 American companies feeding the 155mm artillery shell logistics chain.
That kind of cash injection in places like Scranton, Kingsport, and Middletown could be roughly equivalent to the construction and staffing of a brand-new Amazon robotics fulfillment center near all three of those mid-sized towns, every six months. The economic effect of shifting from very little to massed 155mm shell production, in each of those communities, will probably go on as long as the Pentagon keeps on ordering 155mm artillery shells, Kyiv Post researchers have calculated.
Assuming American political will to help Ukrainians fight against the Russian invasion doesn’t reverse course (never a given), dozens and potentially hundreds of communities across the US could see their economies jump-started by Pentagon demand for US-manufactured war materials that get expended – not just artillery shells, but things like anti-aircraft missiles, replacement engines, and long- and short-range drones.
The 227mm rocket fired from the American HIMARS and M270 systems, called the M31, is able to sink a 22-91-kilogram warhead (depends on type and tactical mission) inside a 2-meter circle at ranges in excess of 80 kilometers. The weapons were decisive in Ukrainian offensives in September and October by obliterating Kremlin supply hubs and command posts thought by Russian forces to be out of range of attack. The AFU, according to Kyiv Post counts, operates about 60 launchers donated by the US, Germany, Britain and France, the last of which were delivered in summer 2022.
Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense corporation that manufacturers the HIMARS/M270 rockets, assembles both launch systems and rockets in Camden, Arkansas. The corporate plan is to double its launcher production capacity (from 48 to 96) by the end of 2025, and the cash knock-on effect is already hitting Rocket City, West Virginia, where Grumman manufactures the rocket engines.
The bonanza is a no-brainer
Theoretical demand for more rockets by this point is clearly bottomless. AFU gunners operating M270 and HIMARS could easily shoot off Lockheed’s entire rocket production for a month – for the entire US military and all foreign customers, Ukraine included – in a couple of hours.
US production capacity expansion plans of key munitions being used in Ukraine have been announced by Raytheon, which manufacturers the NASAMS anti-aircraft missile in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and by Martin-Marietta, which makes Patriot anti-aircraft missile in Orlando, Florida. Global Times called the flood of orders to US arms manufacturers “a bonanza.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in comments on US debates about supplying arms to Ukraine said: “It’s a cynical yet simple mathematical calculation of war. If you have the ability to destroy the military capabilities of your strategic adversary for only a small percent of your defense budget without using your own army, can this be considered a ‘good investment’? If this percentage of the defense budget stays mostly in your country, stimulating your defense companies, creating new jobs and increasing your military capabilities – what doubts can there be?”
Podolyak added: “And if this allows Ukraine to fundamentally defend freedom, democracy and destroy a key sponsor of global instability – isn’t this an investment in a just and secure future for you and us?”
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