Saint Javelin of Limited Supply

The United States and other countries in NATO, the European Union, and around the world watched in disbelief as Russia steadily shelled Ukrainian towns—and its people—for a month. While the world watched, the flow of weapons to support Ukraine’s self-defense moved at a fast pace. The White House announced over $1 billion in assistance to Ukraine. Other countries have announced their own efforts to supply Ukraine with military equipment. The situation in Ukraine even caused Germany to revise both its military export policy and its national defense spending.

The current level of support to Ukraine is not sustainable for the long term. Canada recently announced that it would now purchase supplies to send to Ukraine—because any further reduction of its existing stores would jeopardize Canada’s own self-defense requirements. As one Polish defense contractor recently stated, “It isn’t the arsenal of democracy where refrigerator plants are also making airplanes.”

Democratic countries allowed their ability to produce munitions to wither, lulled by years of wars fought in “faraway” places against adversaries with limited capabilities. For years, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has highlighted the importance of precision-guided munitions (so-called smart bombs) to its warfighting concepts. These weapons, such as 2,000-mile ranged cruise missiles and shoulder-launched stingers and javelins, allow for more precise targeting and fewer civilian casualties than the use of unguided, or “dumb,” bombs. However, precision-guided munitions are more expensive and take longer to build.

The White House announced that over the past four weeks the United States has given Ukraine 4,600 javelin anti-tank missiles. This accounts for more than half of the 8,885 javelins the DOD acquired in the past decade, based on the DOD’s budget documents.

Fighting in Ukraine proves what military planners and analysts have long asserted to be true: the rate of munitions expenditure in modern warfare far exceeds the current pace of production. As noted by the Polish defense contractor, democracies are no longer in a position where factories can quickly convert to building needed weapons or platforms. Even if they could, the lag time would likely be measured in months—with the first items potentially rolling off the line after the fighting was finished.

This is a concerning problem for the United States, and it produces the vast majority of its own defense equipment. For U.S. allies it is even more concerning. One of the United States’ great strengths is the network of alliances it maintains around the world and the interoperability between U.S. and allied forces. Facilitating much of that interoperability is that many forces use much of the same equipment. If, however, the United States is unable to produce enough material for its own military operations, how can allies rely on the United States to also sell them the material they need to engage in combined operations?

In peace time, democracies are loath to spend tax revenue on anything deemed unnecessary, such as surplus defense production facilities. In times of crisis, though, having excess production capability can be important—for example, facilities that were able to convert their production during the early months of the pandemic to deliver greater quantities of personal protective equipment or ventilators. Military production, similarly, is seen as an unnecessary expense until there is an emergency. Waiting to start until after the emergency arrives will guarantee that the response is late.

Right now, the United States should reinvigorate discussions with allies about investing in new facilities to manufacture and assemble munitions. These facilities should produce munitions common to many countries and should create steady production in excess of annual need. Australia has announced an A$100 billion fund to bolster domestic production of needed military capabilities. The fighting in Ukraine has demonstrated the effectiveness of javelin missiles for small, light forces to repel a larger, heavier invasion force. Creating a production facility for such a capability in Australia would provide an early test case of whether the alliance can deliver on the promise of AUKUS, announced last September. The urgency of the need across U.S. allies may provide the high-level attention to push through bureaucratic review processes that have historically been lengthy and begin to develop “muscle memory” for ways to make the processes move quickly—which can pay dividends in similar ventures in the future.

The invasion of Ukraine is both a tragedy and a crisis. Now is the time to start leveraging lessons from this crisis to ensure the United States and its allies are not caught flat-footed in the next.

John Schaus is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program