The US is expected to amplify its military assistance to Ukraine in the coming days as the Senate is anticipated to pass a bill giving Kyiv billions of additional weapons and military assistance. But the sheer extent of US arms donations has sharply reduced its own supplies – and analysts warn it will take time to replace a lot of this equipment.
Washington has sent more than $3.5 billion worth of arms since Russia invaded – including Javelin anti-tank missiles, shoulder Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, M777 howitzer artillery pieces, and the novel Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost kamikaze-like drone systems. Now the $40 billion bill the House passed on Tuesday will take all this military assistance to another level after its expected passage through the Senate.
The new package includes $6 billion for defence assistance including weapons and training; $8.7 billion to replenish supplies of US military equipment Ukraine has already received; and an extra $11 billion in the Presidential Drawdown Authority, which allows the White House to send emergency supplies without Congress’s green light. Much of the remaining money will go to non-military purposes like humanitarian assistance for refugees and economic help for Ukraine.
Concerns on Capitol Hill
The magnitude of these arms transfers to Ukraine has prompted questions about whether the US is depleting its stockpiles – especially given the need for contingency plans in case tensions with North Korea, Iran or even China spiral out of control.
Two senior House Armed Services Committee members have expressed concern about the US’s Stinger inventory running down. The Pentagon has not purchased any more of them in nearly two decades, while manufacturer Raytheon has warned it has finite supplies of the necessary parts.
The committee’s chairman, Washington Democrat Adam Smith, and its highest-ranking Republican, Mike Rogers of Alabama, wrote to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in March, saying that there was an “urgency” to the Stinger inventory issue.
“I’ve been asking the DoD [Department of Defence] for almost two months for a plan to replenish our Stinger stockpile as well as our Javelin launch units,” Rogers told Associated Press in early May. “I worry that without a readily available replacement or fully active production lines, we could leave Ukraine and our NATO allies in a vulnerable position.”
‘We can double production every year’
“The US has sent about a third of its inventory of Javelins and Stingers; I did my own calculations and the DoD confirmed them,” said Mark Cancian, a former US Marine colonel and government expert on Pentagon budget strategy, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
The US has sent a big proportion of its stocks of the two novel drone systems Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, Cancian went on, saying that this is not unusual because they are relatively untested and Washington would like a clearer idea of how they work: “They’re new systems – they’re almost experimental – so it’s not surprising that we would have sent just about all of our inventory.”
“We haven’t sent a large number of the towed cannon M777 artillery system, but we don’t have a lot of spares; the 90 that we’ve given are about all of the inventory we have, so if we sent any more it seems we’d have to take them from reserve units – and that’s very sensitive,” Cancian continued.
Of all these weapons, the Javelin has earned the biggest symbolic importance. Indeed, Biden visited Lockheed Martin’s Javelin factory in Alabama at the start of the month as he made the case for the new military assistance package – praising the anti-tank missiles for “making a gigantic difference” for the Ukrainian military.
Cancian warned it will take some time for the US to replenish these supplies: “We’re building about 800 Javelins a year – with maybe another 200 going abroad in foreign sales – and we’ve sent about 5,500 to Ukraine. My guess is that we can probably double production every year. But there’s about a 24-month lag when increasing production – so it’s maybe another four or five years before we can rebuild our stocks.”
Historically, defence companies and their staff tend to make the necessary adjustments when an absolutely pressing need arises, noted Trevor Taylor, professorial research fellow in defence management at the Royal United Services Institute in London: “The companies themselves do this; the staff can make extra effort to boost their output, by moving to weekend working for example. People who work in that industry tend to recognise that they’re contributed national security, so they respond when national security imposes certain pressures. You could see that in Britain during the Falklands War, when the Union Jack went up at defence factories.”
‘We’re going to have to adapt’
The US has a rich history of ramping up its defence industry’s output when circumstances require it – most memorably when it entered the Second World War and threw its manufacturing might into the creation of a military machine.
However, analysts say it is much more difficult to boost defence production in the current economic context. Vexed by skills shortages, supply-chain crises and signs of overheating, today’s situation is a far cry from the aftermath of the Great Depression – which left the US economy with huge spare capacity for turbocharging military production.
The challenge is much bigger today than it was then, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution in Washington DC: “It’s not just that defence contractors are having a hard time getting people working for Starbucks to work for them, it’s that the people working at Starbucks don’t have the skills needed; the US has a deficit of about 6 million people who have the skills necessary for the economy as a whole.”
“In theory the defence industry can resolve that problem by paying people more, by luring away well-trained workers that way,” O’Hanlon continued. But that would still leave the problem that the US defence sector “can’t generate the subcontractor base it should have at home, which has in many cases moved overseas, so that we’ve come to realise we’re too dependent on foreign supplies”.
For its part, the Pentagon is trying to iron out supply-chain issues, holding weekly meetings with defence companies to help them solve problems – finding new suppliers for elusive parts, for instance.
And the US military has lots of different weapons providing the same capabilities, Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks pointed out to The Economist: “People walk around the street talking about Javelin, but the reality is that we’re providing our anti-tank systems,” she put it.
This factor allows the US the flexibility it needs to keep supplying Ukraine with weapons, Cancian said: “We still have to give Ukraine weapons and not endanger our security. We’re going to have to adapt what we give them. We can give them TOW anti-tank missiles instead of Javelins, we can give them older howitzers instead of newer ones, and our European allies can do the same.”
‘You’d hate to see us take away that option’
At the same time, in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world – where the war in Ukraine is the most pressing among many defence and security challenges confronting the US – O’Hanlan said its military must ensure it keeps up its varied arsenal: “We’d have other means to shoot planes down than Stingers. But you’d hate to see us take away that option.”
The House Armed Services Committee’s Smith and Rogers are “correct” to worry about the US running down its inventories, O’Hanlon said. When people say that even though its stockpile is reduced, the US could be developing a new version of its four-decade-old Stinger system, for example, “it should not be a source of solace to hear that argument”, he argued.
“This is a question of some urgency; a question of what we can do in the next 12 to 14 months,” O’Hanlon concluded. “Nobody should feel like it’s an adequate response to say we’re producing new weapons systems, because – even if we already have skilled workers, even if it’s a capacity question as to one of technical know-how – it already takes about two years to do so.”