The Ukraine Weapons Drain
Russia is not the only country becoming demilitarized from sinking resources into Ukraine.
In the American capital, the Ukrainian flag is a less common sight now than it was when the Russian invasion began a little more than a year ago. Maybe people have realized the U.S. involvement in the war is a sham. Maybe they’ve just gotten bored. Nevertheless, the blue and gold remains ubiquitous—just as common in the imperial city as the stars and stripes, if not more.
Ukraine’s American supporters continue to suggest that American aid is not only protecting Ukrainian “democracy,” but making democracy safe for the world by declawing the Russian Bear. Russia, however, is not the only country becoming demilitarized sinking resources into Ukraine.
The latest numbers from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims that Russia has lost 3,423 tanks, 6,703 armored military vehicles, about 300 aircraft and 300 helicopters, 18 ships, and an additional 5,307 vehicles and fuel tanks.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense numbers seem slightly inflated compared to other estimates—no surprise given Ukraine’s track record of overestimating Russian losses since the conflict broke out. When it comes to tanks, for example, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recently approximated that Russia had lost slightly over 2,000 tanks. The losses have been particularly concentrated among Russia’s more modern tank models—its inventory of T-72B3 and T-72B3M have been halved since the war began. For the T-80BV/U, the losses are closer to two-thirds of the pre-war total. Currently, the IISS estimates that Russia has about 1,800 operational tanks at its disposal, although another 5,000 older and lower quality tanks are likely in storage and might be deployed if necessary. Oryx, a different outfit composed of independent analysts that has been attempting to track losses in the Ukraine war using open-source intelligence, claims that Russian tank losses are just over 1,700.
The data released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense goes on to claim that Russia has also lost 2,086 UAVs, 2,433 artillery systems, 250 anti-aircraft systems, 873 cruise missiles, and almost 500 multiple launch rocket systems.
But it's not just Russia losing military equipment to Ukraine. The spigot of Ukrainian aid is a serious drain on the United States’ military stockpiles.
On Friday, the Department of Defense announced yet another aid package for Ukraine. The package is valued at $400 million and includes additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds, armored vehicle launched bridges, ammunition, as well as other equipment.
The DoD release explains that the Biden administration is dispensing this latest round of aid using the Presidential Drawdown Authority, which, according to the DoD, is the thirty-third time the administration has pulled from DoD inventories since August of 2021.
The drawdown authority provides the president the flexibility to respond in a timely manner while Congress determines to provide further aid, and if so, what kind and how much. The drawdown authority is more than purely practical, however. It is also a sensible matter of checks and balances. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who has accumulated additional war-making powers in recent decades, can only dispense so much aid from U.S. stockpiles without the approval of Congress—the branch of government with the Constitutional authority to declare war. The relatively low cap, given the cost of military equipment, is meant to prevent the president from being able to wage unchecked proxy wars, conflicts that have the potential to embroil the United States in larger conflicts.
It all makes sense in theory if Congress is willing to provide a meaningful check on the executive branch. For decades, however, Congress has handed large amounts of its authority over to the administrative state in almost every policy area from national security to the environment. And Congress still isn’t up to the task. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cap on the Presidential Drawdown Authority established by Congress was $100 million in a given fiscal year. In May 2022, however, Congress increased that cap by 11,000 percent to $11 billion, effectively making Congress’s check on the executive via the presidential drawdown authority nonexistent.
At the bottom of the press release discussing the latest aid package, the DoD provided a link to a fact sheet outlining all the various kinds of equipment the United States has handed over to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion. The fact sheet is worth reading in full, and the cost of the materials listed, which spans just over two pages, amounts to approximately $32.2 billion.
The zeros are dizzying.
A particular piece of the most recent aid package that is drawing attention: additional 155mm artillery shells used by howitzers. Per the DoD fact sheet, the United States has already given Ukraine 160 155mm Howitzers and over 1,000,000 155mm artillery rounds.
In September 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) used estimates of current U.S. stockpiles and DoD data from an earlier iteration of the aforementioned DoD fact sheet, this one released on September 9, to estimate the current strain continued support for Ukraine was placing on U.S. stockpiles. The September 9 fact sheet claimed the U.S. had given Ukraine 126 M777 howitzers and at least 561,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition, which led CSIS to determine U.S. stockpiles were limited then. Just six months later, the United States has nearly doubled the amount of 155mm artillery shells given to Ukraine.
As it stands now, the U.S. Army produces about 14,000 155mm shells per month. Extrapolate that to a year, and that’s just 168,000 shells—less than a fifth of the number of 155mm shells the U.S. has given Ukraine in the past year. If all Ukrainian aid ended tomorrow, it would take the U.S. just under six years to produce enough 155mm shells to bring U.S. stockpiles back to pre-war levels.
This explains why the U.S. is looking to boost the production rate of these shells to 20,000 shells per month sometime this spring; but even then, it would take just over 4 years to replenish 155mm shell stockpiles. This is why the U.S. wants to increase that production more than fourfold, from 20,000 to 90,000 shells per month, by 2025. Congress has already provided the factories that produce 155mm shells $420 million, but the United States is projected to spend nearly $2 billion on boosting the production of 155mm shells this year alone. Even at that new production rate, it would still take eleven months and change to bring 155mm shell stockpiles back to pre-war levels, assuming the U.S. stopped giving Ukraine 155mm shells entirely.
And it still remains to be seen if the investment into the production of 155mm shells will result in the massive production increase the U.S. military expects. Time magazine recently published an article that gave readers an inside look of the Scranton factory, owned by the U.S. Army and run by General Dynamics, tasked with making 155mm artillery shells. The factory produces just over 11,000 155mm shells per month. Its 300 employees are already worked hard—the factory runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, and has an additional weekend shift. The men work around heavy machinery and three furnaces that burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to refine, process, and form the steel.
Even though the 155mm shells are less technologically advanced than other military aid the U.S. has given to Ukraine, making the U.S. military’s production goals come to fruition is a daunting task. For the 155mm shells, at least there are open factory lines and plenty of infrastructure for the U.S. military industrial base to start from. The same can’t be said about the gun that fires these shells. The M-777 Howitzer production line is closed, and CSIS claims that stockpiles of the weapon were already limited back in September when the U.S. had given 126 M-777s to Ukraine. That number has since risen to 160. In total, CSIS estimates that the U.S. military has only about 1,000 M-777 systems. To avoid stripping howitzers away from other military units, the U.S. has started providing more 105mm howitzers, of which the U.S. has large amounts in reserve because units have been shifting away from them in recent years. Furthermore, CSIS claims there are likely older 155mm howitzers, the M198, currently in storage. One wonders why the U.S. military did not start with those, rather than the more advanced M-777.
Other weapons stockpiles have dwindled, too—especially for weapons that have proven themselves especially useful on the battlefield in Ukraine, such as Javelins and Stingers.
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The U.S. military has provided the Ukrainians with more than 8,500 Javelins, a portable, shoulder-fired anti-tank missile system, but current production levels, split between Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, are only 400 Javelins per month. It’s a marked increase of previous production levels, which CSIS estimated sat at around 1,000 Javelins per year. Nevertheless, the U.S. has voluntarily given about a third of its Javelin stockpile over to the Ukrainians.
The U.S. has handed Ukraine about a third of its Stinger stockpile as well, amounting to over 1,600 of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft system. But the production line for Stinger missiles is in worse shape than that of the Javelin, kept open only thanks to small amounts of foreign sales, according to CSIS.
Raytheon Technologies chief executive Greg Hayes previously brought up concerns about dwindling Javelin stockpiles in December 2022. “In the first 10 months of the war, we’ve essentially used up 13 years of Stinger production, and five years worth of Javelin production,” Hayes reportedly said. “So the question is, how are we going to resupply, restock the inventories?”