Ammo, Ammo, Ammo
On Tuesday, the United States initiated a new assistance package for Ukraine. This time around, most of the $2.6 billion in assistance is targeted toward ammo—ammo for tanks, ammo for small arms, but especially ammo for artillery, for HIMARS and for other MLRS.
Ukrainian soldier and friends.
Recently, there have been reports that some actions near the front have faltered for lack of available ammunition. These reports have come from both sides, with Wagner Group constantly harping on its need for more artillery shells to finish off Bakhmut, and Ukrainian troops complaining of their inability to follow up on an identified Russian weak point due to lack of ammo for tanks.
Over and over again, there have been suggestions that the world simply can’t keep up with the pace of ammunition being expended in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For Russia, that may well be true. In March, defense analysts estimated that Russia was expending around 10,000 shells a day. In Pentagon briefings, U.S. analysts dropped their figures from 20,000 a day in January to around 5,000 a day in March.
But those were low-end estimates. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov put Russia’s average rate of fire for the month of March at 15,000 rounds per day. Official Ukrainian military numbers put it at 20,000. Other Ukrainian sources insisted the number was an order of magnitude higher than U.S. estimates—40,000 to 50,000 per day. All these were actually below what the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said in January and February, where they put it at 60,000 shells a day. Before the invasion, Defense Express estimated that Russia had more than 500,000 artillery shells in inventory. Other estimates have put the number of shells in Russia’s basement at over 5 million, which sounds like a lot. Unless you’re blowing through them at 50,000 a day.
Ukrainian military analysts at Militarnyi estimate that Russia has used at least 7 million artillery shells since the war began. That’s not quite World War I levels, where an estimated 1 billion artillery shells of all makes and sizes were expended over the course of the war, but it’s still a lot. That would mean Russia has a burn rate of 17,000 shells a day, every day, over the course of the conflict.
How much is Ukraine expending? That’s just about as much of a guess. Everyone agrees that it’s a lot less than Russia, but is it half as much? A fifth? Maybe even 10 to 1, as this story from El País (and Ukrainian leadership) suggested just last month?
Russia has numerical superiority of 10 heavy guns to every one at the disposal of Kyiv. Furthermore, Ukraine is running low on ammunition and requires urgent supplies of shells, Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government has warned.
Trying to pick some reasonable numbers out of all this, it seems like that Russia has expended between 10,000 and 20,000 shells a day. Ukraine somewhere closer to 4,000 to 5,000.
Can Ukraine sustain that pace, or even increase it if necessary to support a counteroffensive? Just preparing for an advance could mean days of heavy artillery bombardment before the first tank rolls. The U.S. alone has delivered over 200,000 rounds of 155 millimeter ammo to Ukraine. Again, that sounds like a lot, but it could be just a 40 day supply in a war that has now lasted over 400 days.
That rate of consumption has generated hundreds of stories like this one from CNN.
Running full-tilt, as it was on a recent January morning, the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant churns out roughly 11,000 artillery shells a month. That may seem like a lot, but the Ukrainian military often fires that many shells over just a few days.
… The Army is planning a 500% increase in artillery shell production, from 15,000 a month to 70,000, according to Army acquisition chief Doug Bush.
Ukrainian servicemen fire a M777 howitzer at Russian positions near Bakhmut, March 17, 2023.
Even with that increase, it may still seem that Ukraine is in an ammo bind. However, the European Union has also more that tripled production since the invasion began. A total of 18 nations have signed onto a plan to increase 155 mm shell production, and those increases are already affecting deliveries. Also, the CNN number undersells U.S. production a bit, because—thanks to direct exports that aren’t funneled through the Army—overall U.S. production of 155 mm ammo is expected to be 600% higher by the end of the year. By the end of 2024, it should be at 90,000 per month.
Right now, production available to Ukraine provides enough 155 mm ammo to support a fire rate of about 1,000 to 1,500 rounds a day. By the end of the year, that number could be closer to 2,500. However, that’s a bit deceptive as Ukraine tends to get this ammo in tranches from allies, not a monthly delivery.
Then there’s this story from Euromaidan Press on Ukraine’s domestic efforts to supply it’s 152 mm Soviet-designed artillery, an effort that is netting about 1,000-2,000 shells a month. Fortunately, additional shells are coming in from Poland, Latvia, and other allies in Europe. Right now, total European production of 152 mm shells is estimated at about 50,000 a month, or about 1,700 a day.
These numbers—around 3,000 rounds a day—represent the current sustainable rate of fire for Ukraine. Expect it to be around 5,000 in the next few months. This can be supplemented by tapping into the stockpiles of shells that were available before the invasion began, not just in Ukraine, but the U.S. and all the European allies. It’s likely that Ukraine could sustain its current rate of fire, or even increase it, indefinitely.
On the other hand, Russia’s production capacity has been various rated at 20,000 to 70,000 shells a month. And that was before any effects that sanctions may have had on these factories’ maintenance. That means at best, Russia can build, in a month, what it was firing in less than four days. Even if Russia has managed to double their pre-war capacity, they are still seriously hurting for ammo.
The numbers suggest that Russia has relied heavily on tapping pre-war stockpiles and has largely burned through their supplies. As the Kyiv Post noted, there have been numerous instances of Ukrainian forces overrunning Russian artillery bunkers to discover boxes of ammo where almost 50% of the shells were corroded or overrun by rust. In a January article, CNN noted that many Russian shells arriving in Ukraine were over 40 years old. That’s a pretty good sign that the newer materiel has been expended.
All of this suggests that no matter how much Yevgeny Prigozhin whines about it, the Russian military is not denying shells to Wagner Group to make them look bad. Russia is simply running out of shells. When they launched their “winter offensive,” they pushed forward north of Kupyansk, at Kreminna, on all sides of Bakhmut, at Avdiivka, at Marinka, and at Vuhledar. Every single one of those advances involved Russia using the same tactic it has used throughout this war and in previous wars: heavy artillery bombardment to support short movements by infantry and armor. Some of these locations, like Kupyansk, have essentially gone silent over the last month.
There may be no better explanation of why every one of these attempted advances failed to make significant gains in the last three months than the diminishing ability of Russian artillery to crush the territory ahead of the infantry. General Mud played a role. Russian incompetence certainly helpd. Ukrainian bravery can never be discounted. However, where Russia has tried to operate without their infantry plowing the ground ahead of them, they’ve generated situations like Vuhledar, where at least two tank platoons are dead on the field.
Russia is running out of the shells that it needs to act like Russia.
It is still true that Russia has a lot more artillery than Ukraine. However, at this point Ukraine is probably getting more shells per month than Russia. If that’s not true already, it soon will be. By the end of the year, the difference may be 2:1 in Ukraine’s favor. Russia may have a lot more guns, but that won’t matter much if they can’t keep them firing.
This also makes it seem like those earlier periods, when Ukraine was concentrating heavily on taking out Russian ammo depots, may have been a very smart and informed move. They weren’t just removing shells that Russia could use at that moment, they were taking away ammo that Russia may never replace.
Russia went into this war claiming to have a “modern” military built around the much-hyped combined arms ability of the Battalion Tactical Group. That turned out to be a laughable facade. Russia lacked the corps of trusted noncommissioned officers that such a means of operation demanded. It also failed on every level of the logistical front. With a decisive defeat in the Battle of Kyiv, Russia appeared to abandon all tactics other than its tried and true “beat it to death with artillery, then walk on it to the next place that you want to beat to death with artillery” scheme.
But the U.S. estimates that Russia’s daily expenditure of artillery is down to one-fourth of what it was just months ago. That’s not just Wagner’s use of artillery. That’s the whole Russian military.
It’s likely because the estimated rate of 5,000 shells a day now represents a maximum of what Russia can deliver through production and scraping the bottom of its old supply closets. It would not be surprising to see that number continue to decline. After all, 5,000 shells a day represents a burn rate of 150,000 a month—and that’s more than double the high-end estimates for what Russia can produce.
If Russia’s actual production rate is closer to the 70,000 that some have estimated, their rate of fire will drop to no more than around 2,500 a day. It has to.
Russia has reportedly gone hat in hand to China for a source of ammo and been rebuffed. Now the rumors suggest that Vladimir Putin is having to beg Kim Jong-il for whatever North Korea can scrape together. What’s clear is that Russia is not going find many other source of 152 mm ammo other than its own factories.
Now the question for Ukraine is: Can it build up the necessary stockpiles of ammunition to support a counteroffensive, while still providing the cover fire its forces need to sustain positions in Bakhmut and Avdiivka?
Honestly, I will never understand how anything survives being at the other end of something like this.