The shortage of artillery ammunition in Ukraine led many countries, including Israel to increase or revive production. The United States is the largest producer worldwide and is rapidly and vastly expanding production. For example, early in 2023 the U.S. was producing about 14,000 shells a month. That doubled by the end of the year and will grow to over 80,000 in 2024. Other NATO nations are seeking to match the American production. That will be difficult because most other NATO nations have ceased production and depended on NATO all America to provide. While most of the new production is going to Ukraine, a growing portion of these shells are used to rebuild stockpiles depleted by the need to supply Ukraine. There, the war has been going on for nearly 700 days and daily consumption of shells is often as high as 7,000 for Ukraine or three times that for Russia. Russia had larger reserves of 152mm shells, but less ability to expand, rapidly or otherwise, production. Russia began the war with a stockpile of about four million shells and went through that rather quickly because they were expecting a short war.
It’s been a long time since there has been a war where both sides fire a lot of shells at each other. For over fifty years the standard artillery shell has been 155mm in most of the world, 0r 152mm in nations that use Russian howitzers. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 it never expected to run out of ammunition. The war was not over in a few months, and because of that, Russia did run out of artillery munitions by the end of 2022 while Ukraine was supplied by NATO with massive amounts of 155mm artillery ammunition. Russia’s production of artillery ammunition continues but it is not enough to match what Ukraine is receiving from NATO nations. Ukraine has also revived its artillery munitions production of 152mm shells. This is the caliber used by Russian-designed artillery which Ukraine still has some of. NATO’s current munitions are more effective and reliable than Russian-made projectiles. For Ukraine to push the Russians out of its territory it must attack and that requires more artillery support than defense.
The NATO countries supplying all this ammunition have a problem because they eventually ran through most of what they had available. The United States supplied most of it and now has to replace its war reserves stockpiled for a major war. While European NATO nations don’t have to worry about their major threat, Russia, while they rebuild their war reserves, the Americans have to plan for potential conflicts elsewhere, like China, North Korea and Iran. The Americans can still do so because supporting Ukraine does not degrade American naval or air power. A war with China would not become more difficult because of American military aid to Ukraine. The same is true for potential conflicts with China, North Korea or Iran as both of them have plenty of powerful local near-peer opponents who would be American allies in such conflicts, i.e., South Korea, Japan, the Arab gulf states and Israel, who can deal with China, Iran or North Korea given American and naval support. American ground forces are also available for a Pacific campaign but cannot use artillery munitions as heavily as they would prefer.
The U.S. found that it takes several years to ramp up production of artillery munitions and five or more years of increased production to restore the reserves. Munitions are still being sent to Ukraine, but not in the massive quantities seen during the first eight months of the war. Ukraine has managed to repair its own production facilities after Russia damaged them early in the war and is now manufacturing a lot of the basic small arms, artillery and mortar ammunition its troops use. While NATO nations have sent Ukraine most of the available munitions as well as a lot of weapons and combat or support vehicles, this is justified by the fact that NATO exists to protect NATO members from a Russian attack. The Russians did attack, but started with Ukraine, which wanted to join NATO, before moving on to nearby NATO nations. Russia has wrecked its military power and economy with this invasion of Ukraine and won’t recover for a long time.
Two procurement lessons learned from the Ukraine War were the stockpiles of munitions built up in case there is a war tend to be much lower than needed. To make matters worse, the production capacity for additional munitions is usually neglected. That means when you discover your war reserves were too small, you find that production facilities to remedy the problem are also lacking. This is not a new problem for democracies because peacetime politicians back spending on items popular with voters. War reserve munitions stockpiles and production facilities are expensive and unpopular with most voters. That changed, temporarily, because of the experience in Ukraine. While Ukrainians did all the fighting, NATO nations, mainly the United States, supplied most of the munitions and many of the weapons Ukraine needed to stop the Russians and to push Russian forces out of Ukraine. The most common NATO artillery munition was the 155mm shell. The Ukrainians found these to be more reliable and effective than the Russian designed 152mm shell they were still using. When equipped with 155mm artillery and ammunition, the Ukrainians found they could match the Russian artillery.
The crucial Ukrainian artillery innovation was locally developed and built UAVs locating the Russian artillery using new Ukrainian-developed communications and fire control software. This was able to immediately provide Ukrainian artillery with the target locations. Even unguided 155mm shells could destroy or disable Russian guns, especially if they were firing in large groups from the same location, as Russian tactics dictate. More importantly, the new Ukrainian tactics dramatically facilitated almost instant use of massed fire on newly identified targets by any artillery piece in range. This is similar to Uber and Lyft software for sharing vehicle rides between drivers and users. Such immediate massed fire by two Ukrainian artillery brigades stopped the Russian attack on Kiev early in the war.
The Ukrainians went further and used their superior battlefield surveillance capabilities, some of them supplied by NATO, to locate and destroy Russian artillery munitions storage sites. These stockpiles supplied Russian artillery firing on the Ukrainians. These sites were increasingly found and destroyed. The best the Russians could do was move these storage sites further away from the front line. Because of the Ukrainian GMLRS guided rockets, with a max range of 85 kilometers, that meant Russia had to move their storage sites to locations more than 80 kilometers from the Russian artillery. This required more trucks to transport the munitions over longer distances. The Ukrainians identified and destroyed a lot of these trucks during their long journey. What this all meant that was after a few months Russia had lost its artillery advantage and often the Ukrainians had the edge when it came to artillery support. That changed when Ukraine went on the offensive nearly a year ago. Attackers use a lot more shells than defenders and Ukraine was discovering that their offensive could be derailed if they could get more artillery shells.
So far, the U.S. has sent over two million 155mm shells to Ukraine and there is not much left but the U.S. war reserve for possible conflicts in Korea or the Middle East. South Korea had larger stocks of 155mm shells and sold 100,000 of these to the Americans to maintain their war reserve. South Korea stipulated that none of these could be transferred to Ukraine.
At this point the Ukrainians were able to use all the 155mm shells they could get. By then the United States and other NATO nations had sent most of what 155mm ammo they had. All NATO nations were producing as much as they could, but production capabilities were only sufficient for building a small war reserve of shells with a shelf life of at least a decade and often more like 15 or 20 years. This persuaded American politicians to allocate over half a billion dollars to expand 155mm shell production capabilities from 14,000 shells a month to twice that. By 2025 the U.S. will be producing 40,000 to 80,000 shells a month. Ukrainian forces normally go through 40,000 shells in less than two weeks.
Other NATO nations are also increasing production capabilities because the next time it will probably be NATO troops doing the fighting and dying. NATO standard 155mm shells each weigh 45 kg (100 pounds) and have about 9.1 kg (20 pounds) of explosives. This makes for a bigger bang than Hellfire or TOW missiles, but much less than smart bombs. There's also the 227 mm GMLRS guided rocket, but this carries over 68 kg (150 pounds) of explosives, about half the bang of a 500-pound JDAM. The GPS-guided 155mm shell and MLRS rocket each cost over $50,000 each. There are also GPS guided 155mm shells which are expensive but popular because these GPS artillery munitions are available to the troops 24/7, and the need for fewer rounds per mission means there are fewer problems with running out, or low, on supplies.
A more affordable ($12,000 each) alternative to the Excalibur GPS guided shell is available using the ATK fuze, which is screwed into the front of an unguided 155mm shell. The ATK approach is somewhat less accurate than Excalibur shells but that has been found acceptable in combat situations. This was most recently during 2017 in Syria where a lot of AKT equipped 155mm shells were used to support Kurdish troops taking the city of Raqqa from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces. While the ATK fuze is cheaper, it is still a complex bit of tech and production facilities are not available to build a lot of them in a hurry. Excalibur stockpiles were larger, and these are being sent to Ukraine. More advanced versions of the first ATK fuze are now available, and production has expanded to meet the demand from Ukraine.
One of the problems Russia had with its large 152mm shell reserve was that the shelf life of most munitions varied from 5-20 years, depending on the component (shell, fuze, electronics, batteries or propellant.) Mortar and artillery shells and rockets use various types of explosives, notably as propellants, that degrade over time. Western nations spend a lot of money to remove elderly munitions by recycling them. This is expensive but it is a major reason why Western munitions are more reliable and less dangerous for users.
Russia takes a different approach. They know from experience that their 152mm shells gradually become less reliable after ten or twenty years of storage. Older shells don’t function as designed. That means more shells that are inaccurate or don’t detonate. That means more duds. For shells older than 20 years there is greater risk of a shell exploding in the gun or shortly after fired. This causes death or injury to the gun crew and anyone else nearby. Senior Russian commanders consider this an acceptable risk in order to win.