Europe is leading a worldwide scramble to hunt down hundreds of thousands of artillery shells for Ukraine, as the world’s only superpower and Russia’s once arch-rival – America – is taking an unfamiliar back seat.

Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and even geographically-outside-of-Europe Canada are at the forefront of a global shopping effort aimed at breaking a bottleneck for deliveries of NATO-standard 155mm howitzer shells and other mainstream munitions to the Ukrainian military.

The price tag will be high. President Volodymyr Zelensky in a Sunday television interview pointed out, ruefully, that international market artillery shell prices have increased fivefold since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, creating almost bottomless demand for a Ukrainian army needing to defend itself and civilians, and major European states emptying their own ammunition reserves to dangerously low levels.

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“Because of the war in Ukraine, even an ordinary artillery projectile, which cost one-and-a-half thousand dollars at the beginning of the war, today we see some contracts where people are offering a shell from four to eight thousand. That's the war for you,” Zelensky said.

In 24 months of fighting against Moscow’s forces, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) have arguably only enjoyed sufficient artillery ammunition supplies twice, and only for short periods: Once at the start of the war when the AFU fired off almost its entire shell reserve in less than three months, and from stockpiles expended May-June 2023, during a failed counteroffensive in the southern sector.

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Ukraine’s most recent defeat, the loss of a fortified town called Adviivka, which Kyiv’s forces had held against Russian assaults since 2014, was the direct result of a severe artillery shell shortage, Zelensky said. The AFU will probably lose more ground, and lives, if it is still short of ammo when the Russian army launches its next major offensive, likely in late April or May, the Ukrainian leader said.

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Artillery and ammunition are the decisive combat arms in the Russo-Ukrainian war. The Ukrainian leader said more than 31,000 of Kyiv’s soldiers have died in combat since Russian invaded. More than 90 percent of Ukrainian casualties are hit by mortars or artillery, Ukrainian officials and combat medics interviewed by Kyiv Post said. According to recent combat reports, currently, for every shell fired by Ukrainian forces, the Russian military is able to answer with five to ten of its own.

A short-term, partial fix will, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said, arrive by the end of March in the form of almost 170,000 EU-financed artillery shells, and talks are in progress to increase delivery volumes. He made the Saturday comments following meetings with EU diplomatic head Josep Borrell.

The handover will be part of a European commitment, made in 2023, to supply Ukraine with a million artillery shells by the end of that year. The plan was first to send shells from existing stocks and then ramp up EU manufacturing. The deadline for keeping the promise has shifted repeatedly, first to March 2024, then to summer 2024 and most recently – as stated by Borell in early February – by the end of 2024.

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Currently, the EU has actually sent Ukraine about 300,000 shells, because of slow gear-up by local manufacturers and squabbles between EU states about manufacturing locations, the relative priority of deliveries to Ukraine and other EU ammunition customers, and which EU-based companies should get EU financing for increased production capacity.

By most estimates, the AFU needs about 2,000 shells a day/750,000 shells a year to have a fighting chance of defending its positions and holding ground, and double or even triple that to sustain a full-dress offensive. EU deliveries over the past six months, in rough terms, depending on the exact month, have been about 20 to 30 percent less than the minimum.

to Ukraine, including artillery shells. Like in the EU, the Pentagon was quick to send shells it had in stock and slow to build up production. As of the end of December 2023, all US military support to Ukraine, including shell deliveries, stopped cold due to wrangling in Congress about foreign military aid and border policy.

Financial Times in a Feb. 23 article said the Czech Republic had come up with a way to bridge the EU’s slow shell-production ramp-up, and at the same time side-step American political unreliability, by temporarily punting hopes European factories might make the shells, and just buy on world markets.

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Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19, Czech President Petr Pavel said his government had found “half a million rounds of 155mm and another 300,000 rounds of 122mm caliber which we can deliver within weeks, if we can find quickly funding for that.”

That short-term fix – mathematically probably sufficient to keep the Ukrainian army in shells for about three to six months – would cost someone or several contributors about $1.5 billion, Pavel said.

According to a Sunday article in the German mainstream magazine Der Spiegel, India is one possible seller. Berlin’s diplomats are currently in secret negotiations with Delhi counterparts for “hundreds of thousands of artillery shells (that) are stored in Indian arsenals, but Delhi does not want to spoil relations with Moscow and openly transfer them to Ukraine. Taking these circumstances into account, Berlin is negotiating the purchase of ammunition through intermediaries.”

According to Canadian mainstream media reports, Ottawa has been one of the first to declare support for the Czech initiative and promise hard cash. CBC News in a Feb. 21 report said Canada could contribute as much as $30 million and quoted Defence Minister Bill Blair as confirming the Canadian government had been discussing mechanisms with Prague and signed a memorandum of understanding.

The Czech Defense Ministry on Friday identified Denmark as another country ready to contribute to the Pavel plan, but did not name figures.

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Aside from India, exclusive of European manufacturers likely already producing at full capacity, major 155mm shell manufacturers include South Africa’s Rheinmettal Denel Munition (RDM), South Korea’s Poongsan Group and Israel’s Elbit Systems.

The EU’s dominant shell manufacturer, the Germany-headquartered Rheinmetall, in early February, broke ground for a new shell factory in Saxony that will ultimately produce 200,000 shells a year. A corporate statement said the first munitions should come off the line in 2025 and full capacity would be reached in 2026.

Rheinmetall also plans to open a shell production line in Ukraine and all being well could be manufacturing 700,000 shells annually by mid-2025, Rheinmetall AG CEO Armin Papperger told German newspaper Handelsblatt.

Per Borell’s comments, Financial Times wrote, pan-EU annual production capacity will rise to 1.4 million shells by the end of 2024, outstripping the US, which is expected to hit 1.2 million next year.

Congress in 2023 approved the kick-off to upgrades to artillery ammunition factories in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Texas. Future funding for planned improvements to the US facilities is currently stalled in the US House of Representatives.

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Comments (2)

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Carl Rodgers
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Give a looksy in Fantasyland! How sad to see the west governed but such idiots.

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John
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Sadly the allied leadership now plays Easter egg hunt for more artillery shells which they should have ramped up production for 2 years ago? Embarrassing.

In the interim please at least immediately give the better stuff that Ukrainians were asking for since day one. More tanks, more and better long range missiles, better air defence, more drones, fighter jets and bombers. Too politically risky? Then justify instead risking allied soldiers lives as a putin win risks escalation across NATO countries. Will you hold back our better weapons from our own soldiers too when you allow that to occur?

Not a single western fighter jet in 2 years war.....unfair! A handful of leopard tanks from a standing NATO supply of >2000...absolutely embarrassing! Not one Taurus or ATACM missile yet......cruel....just a big disappointing head shaking wow!

Allied leadership; dithering on supplying Ukraine with better weapons allows this thug to conduct the war on his own meat grinder artillery terms. Your own military leadership says as much. This should not be a meat grinder war. Think smarter allied leadership.

Give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend international law in terms putin will understand. Stop wasting time negotiating with deaf thugs. Blow up putin's toilet already.

A Fox
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@John, agreed. Now that recognition has been made that attacking military targets within Russia is “permitted” using weapons supplied by allies, and while waiting for the jets to arrive, how about some long-range missiles to kick things off. “Hello allies, is anyone listening?” Let’s get that bridge sorted out now. It’s been 2 years already, the word “feeble” springs to mind.

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