How the West is racing to stop Ukraine’s guns falling silent

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Ukraine has received 5,000 NLAWs from the UK, together with thousands of Javelins, Brimstones and other anti-tank weapons, 16,000 artillery rounds, hundreds of missiles and six Stormer vehicles fitted with Starstreak anti-aircraft missile launchers. 

Overall, the value of British military support for Ukraine has totalled £2.3 billion to date. 

In the past six weeks the Government has promised to supply 20 M109 155mm self-propelled guns and 36 smaller L119 105mm artillery pieces. The M109 broadly resembles a tank but is designed to fire larger shells over much longer ranges to bombard enemy positions. Accordingly, it is more lightly armoured than a proper main battle tank. Firing high explosive shells, it has a range of 21km (13 miles) and requires a crew of six. 

The L119 Light Gun, so named because it weighs less than competing designs and is therefore more easily moved around, is similar to the type of gun fired from Edinburgh Castle at 1pm every day. It is small enough to be lifted by a helicopter or towed by a road vehicle, and has a range of 11.4km (7.1 miles) using 105mm shells. 

If this sounds like Britain and her allies have thrown everything including the kitchen sink at Ukraine, there is some truth in that view. Indeed, the assortment of military hardware being shipped to Kyiv may be creating its own problem of training, familiarisation and ease of resupply. 

A Rusi report from July about the munitions supply difficulties facing Ukraine’s army said: “One challenge here is that Nato standardisation is not very standardised, with different countries’ howitzers not only having completely different maintenance requirements but also using different charges, fuses and sometimes shells. 

“The current approach by which each country donates a battery of guns in a piecemeal way is rapidly turning into a logistical nightmare for Ukrainian forces, with each battery requiring a separate training, maintenance and logistics pipeline. 

“Making support to Ukraine sustainable requires the provision of one or two kinds of gun, and for countries to step up production of the appropriate ammunition,” adds the report’s author, Jack Watling. 

Ukraine will need a regular supply of shells which can vary widely even within the broad 155mm category, he warns. As current munition stockpiles dwindle, the Ukrainians are already hunting for new sources of supply. 

Sources say they have been inspecting British foundries capable of making casings for 155mm artillery shells, as fired by Nato howitzers which have been gifted to Kyiv, such as US-provided M777s, French Caesars and German PzH 2000s. 

The casings must be made to a high standard. BAE Systems builds the UK’s 155mm casings, but Ukrainian officials are understood to be keen to diversify their supplies, picking several sources to minimise any delays in production. 

BAE’s Washington foundry in Tyne and Wear makes the metal shell casings. These are then sent to the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Glascoed in Monmouthshire, Wales, for filling with high explosive. 

Precise figures on production capacity and the state of British military stockpiles are not made public, but there is little doubt that UK officials are now having similar conversations with the defence industrial base as their US counterparts. 

In the UK there is thought to be some capacity to add shifts to production lines to increase supply, although some analysts say that basic 155mm rounds are not the critical bottleneck for Ukraine. 

“Newer, exotic 155mm munitions are also experiencing delays for the same reason as MLRS rockets,” says Drummond, the defence analyst. 

“Small arms, medium calibre and tank ammunition production has been expanded without too much trouble. 

“Many companies, like BAE Systems, have increased production.” 

So far there has been no need to increase the number of shifts at munitions factories, Drummond says. “Overall, I don’t see any serious barriers to resupplying ammunition stocks,” he adds. “The real issue is the manufacture of tanks and [infantry fighting vehicles]. “The timeline is basically 36 months from an order being placed to delivery.”

Levelling the playing field

With winter fast approaching, a three-year lead time for brand new military vehicles is clearly impractical. This is one of the reasons that Western stocks of ready-to-use munitions and vehicles are being sent east: buying new ones and waiting for factories to deliver simply isn’t an option for Ukraine. 

It’s a rosier story for Vladimir Putin’s forces, at least as far as ammunition supply is concerned. The Russians have several years’ worth of artillery munitions at their disposal, according to a report last month from Rusi. Russia is firing 20,000 shells per day compared with Ukraine’s 6,000, it said. 

The use of drones and radar jamming has made their strikes particularly effective against Ukrainian positions, although Ukraine’s forces have adapted recently by using decoy positions to draw Russian fire. Countering this means having the weapons available to destroy Russian military formations. 

Drummond says that production of Javelins, NLAWs and “other complex weapons” is ramping up accordingly. But he sounds a cautionary note, adding that there are “delays with long-lead items such as chips and controller parts”. 

“This particularly affects M31 rockets for Himars,” he says. 

Ukraine has been given 16 of the US-made Himars systems, which have proven formidable for attacking Russian airfields and key strategic chokepoints such as bridges. But the ammunition is expensive and in short supply. 

Himars, also known as the US-made M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, is essentially an armoured lorry with six rocket launcher tubes bolted onto a flatbed trailer. Its operating concept is simple: launch rockets at a target, then quickly drive away to a place of safety. 

So-called “counter-battery fire”, the targeting of artillery batteries as they open up, has become a real problem for the Ukrainians because of Russia’s plethora of radar, sensor-laden drones and rapid-deployment artillery vehicles of their own; Himars is one of the pieces of Western artillery that levels the field for the Ukrainians. 

Yet Himars’ M31 rockets, made by Lockheed Martin, are far more complex than the truck that launches them. The missiles are guided by an inertial measuring unit backed up by GPS, which means each weapon has a complex computer system built into it. 

Each of those contains computer chips, antennas and processors, all of which are built to exacting standards so they can survive the stresses of being launched at the speeds necessary to fly for the rocket’s maximum range of 43 miles. 

In July, a retired US lieutenant general, Mark Hertling, estimated that the 16 Himars rocket systems America sent to Ukraine could fire 192 missiles a day – equivalent to a year’s worth of production in less than two months. 

The same missiles are also fired from the M270 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System launcher vehicle, which is Himars’ armoured and tracked elder sibling. 

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