War in Ukraine depletes America’s democratic arsenal

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America is following an “arsenal of democracy” strategy in Ukraine: it has avoided direct intervention against the Russian invaders, while working with allies and partners to provide money and arms to the government in kyiv.

This strategy, reminiscent of American support for Britain in 1940-41, worked wonders. Yet, as the war reaches a critical stage, as the Russians prepare to consolidate their hold on eastern Ukraine, the arsenal of democracy is running out.

This could lead to a fatal shortage of Ukrainian forces in this conflict, and it reveals American weaknesses that could be laid bare in the next great power fight.

Of all the support that the United States and its friends have given Ukraine, weapons have counted the most. Deliveries of drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, ammunition and other capabilities have helped Ukraine wreak havoc on Russian forces even as Moscow demolished the country’s industrial base.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the West had delivered 60,000 anti-tank weapons and 25,000 anti-aircraft weapons to kyiv. The Pentagon is currently preparing plans to ship additional artillery, coastal defense drones and other equipment to Ukraine. The White House on Wednesday announced a new $800 million package including helicopters and armored personnel carriers.

But President Joe Biden never planned a war like this. The assumption was that Russia would quickly conquer much of the country, so that the United States would support a simmering, low-intensity Ukrainian insurgency. Instead, Ukraine’s successful resistance has led to continuous, high-intensity conventional combat, with prodigious consumption of ammunition and intense wear and tear on key military assets.

Pentagon officials say kyiv experiences a week of anti-tank munitions deliveries every day. It also lacks serviceable aircraft as Russian airstrikes and combat casualties take their toll. Ammunition became scarce in Mariupol and other areas.

This leaves Western countries with a stark choice between providing more supplies to Ukraine or managing limited capabilities they may need for their own defense.

Germany has refused to transfer tanks to Ukraine on the grounds that it simply cannot spare them. Canada quickly ran out of rocket launchers and other equipment the Ukrainians desperately needed. The United States has provided a third of its overall stockpile of Javelin anti-tank missiles. It cannot easily deliver more without leaving its own arsenals severely depleted – and it can take months or years to dramatically increase production.

Before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers engaged in intense debates over whether the United States should rush arms to a beleaguered Britain. or cling to it in case America has to defend itself. Biden’s arsenal of democracy strategy is reaching a similar inflection point in Ukraine.

Kyiv will need much more western support to push back Russian forces gathered in the east, where relatively open ground is less favorable for defence. It will also need more sophisticated weaponry, such as tanks and aircraft, to deprive Russia of a decisive advantage – and perhaps take the offensive if Moscow’s eastern offensive falters. The strong Ukrainian resistance gave kyiv a reasonable chance of winning this war, but the cost of any victory, in equipment no less than in lives, will be staggering.

For the same reason, the war in Ukraine is a preview of the problems the United States itself would face in a conflict against Russia or China. If forced to go to war in Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific, Washington would exhaust its stockpiles of missiles, precision-guided munitions and other critical capabilities within days or weeks. It would likely suffer severe losses of tanks, planes, ships, and other sophisticated, expensive, and difficult-to-replace assets.

During World War I, the 1914 offensives led to the “shell famine” as European fighters exhausted their arsenals. Prepare for “missile starvation” if there is a war between great powers.

In the world wars of the last century, America’s unrivaled manufacturing base ultimately propelled it to victory. But today, replenishing the arsenal of the free world may not be so easy.

US economic leadership no longer rests primarily with the manufacturing sector. Shortages of machine tools, skilled labor and unused production capacity could slow a wartime rearmament effort. The United States cannot rapidly increase production of Stinger missiles for Ukraine, for example, because the manpower needed to do so no longer exists.

US stockpiles of key weapons are smaller than one might imagine, partly because of production constraints and partly because most of the Pentagon’s roughly $750 billion budget goes by hand labor, health care and more than bullets and bombs. economy – and all of its democratic allies – in a long war. But don’t think America would effortlessly produce what it needs to win.

The problem is not insoluble. Greater investment in the defense industrial base and more aggressive procurement and stockpiling of key munitions can help. The creation of a reserve industrial corps (civilians who have basic training in peacetime to be able to contribute to production in wartime) is worth exploring. Key allies, such as Japan, may be able to help the United States increase production in shipbuilding and other areas.

Small wars usually foreshadow what is to come in big wars. The conflict in Ukraine shows what it will take to keep the democratic arsenal up to the task.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

Putin was a victim of the dictator’s disease: Hal Brands

• Germany must wean off Russian gas sooner, not later: Chris Bryant

The most powerful weapon in the Ukrainian war could be a mobile phone: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, Henry Kissinger Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. More recently, he is the author of “The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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