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As Ukraine uses up ammunition quickly, allies scramble to restock warehouses


As the war approaches its first anniversary, the Ukrainian army continues to use ammunition at a blistering pace. NATO allies are now scrambling to restock their warehouses for a major war in Europe no one planned for. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on one of the war's challenges from London, Brussels and Paris.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: To appreciate the pace at which Ukraine is consuming ammunition, consider this. The Ukrainian army is firing 155 mm artillery shells so quickly that it would consume Britain's entire stock in just eight days. That's according to an analysis based on public data. Jack Watling is the senior researcher for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.

JACK WATLING: There are real concerns across NATO about our ability in the long term to sustain the extent to which the Ukrainians are using artillery. They are burning through ammunition very quickly, faster than we're manufacturing it.

LANGFITT: That heavy demand is stretching NATO allies. Estonia, which was once part of the Soviet Union, provided arms to Ukraine even before Russia's invasion. Juri Luik serves as Estonia's ambassador to NATO in Brussels.

JURI LUIK: We were providing them with howitzers, with Javelins. We have spent roughly 40% of our defense spending in supporting Ukraine.

LANGFITT: Rudiger Konig, Germany's ambassador to NATO, says his country's warehouses are pretty empty, and he's worried Ukraine could run short of critical weapons - in particular, surface-to-air missiles, which are crucial for shooting down Russian missiles and drones. Target everything from energy infrastructure to ammunition depots.

RUDIGER KONIG: Denying air superiority until the very moment we speak is an important element of defending Ukraine. So it would have consequences.

LANGFITT: That's Brussels diplomatic speak for if the Russians finally gain air superiority, Ukraine is in deep trouble. Morten Brandtzaeg is CEO of Nammo, short for Nordic Ammunition Company. He says dwindling NATO stocks are driving a lot of purchases. They include a $260 million order from the Norwegian military for artillery shells.

MORTEN BRANDTZAEG: The demand for our products is 10 to 20 times bigger. We have never seen this. It's unheard of in our part of the defense industry.

LANGFITT: But Jack Watling, the London military analyst, says the weapon squeeze is connected to supply as well.

WATLING: We've been fighting the war on terror for 20 years. And during that period, the idea of, you know, using massed artillery fire to destroy enemy maneuver units was irrelevant. The problem is that we've got rid of our industrial base.

LANGFITT: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, no one expected a major land war in Europe. Many heavy weapon production lines closed. Camille Grand recently retired from NATO as head of defense investment.

CAMILLE GRAND: The Europeans tended to really reduce their stockpiles, and you had shrinking inventories everywhere, which were not meant to fight a war of the type we're seeing in Ukraine.

LANGFITT: Nammo, the Norwegian arms company, has plants in Europe and the U.S., including Scranton and Salt Lake City. Makes everything from rocket motors to shoulder launch missiles and bullets, like these, which are manufactured in the factory - a two-hour drive north of Oslo. But Brandtzaeg says companies can't just flick the lights back on and triple production.

BRANDTZAEG: We are talking about building new production lines. It's about hiring more people, building more robots, automating the production. And this takes time.

LANGFITT: And as Camille Grand points out, making missiles is complicated.

GRAND: You do need a lot of different subcomponents. You need to make sure that none of them, whether you're talking about microelectronics or energetics, are in shortages. We're talking about weapons systems that can take two months to produce.

LANGFITT: No one knows how long this war will last, and that can be tricky for business planning. Again, Morten Brandtzaeg of Nammo.

BRANDTZAEG: We need concrete orders, and they need to be on more than a single-year buy.

LANGFITT: If you were to open up a bunch of new production lines based on the demand and then that demand dropped off, what could happen financially to your company?

BRANDTZAEG: This is a very big risk. You could actually end up with some of the companies going bankrupt.

LANGFITT: NATO allies are now working to make bulk orders for heavy weapons. Julianne Smith is the U.S. ambassador to NATO.

JULIANNE SMITH: We are regularly convening armaments directors and meeting with the private sector to figure out, for example, how fast you can get production lines turned back on for some of the capabilities that have been delivered and how NATO allies could come together to make pooled or multinational buys.

LANGFITT: Some European countries are hunting for deals all over. Tomasz Szatkowski is Poland's ambassador to NATO. We chatted over tea one evening at his home in Brussels.

TOMASZ SZATKOWSKI: We've ordered whatever we could from our defense industry. It is running well over its 100% capacity right now. But we have to look beyond Poland.

LANGFITT: To countries such as the U.S., where Poland plans to buy $10 billion in weapons, including 18 HIMAR rocket systems, and South Korea.

SZATKOWSKI: Altogether, 1,000 tanks are going to be procured from Korea. Several hundred of self-propelled howitzers, three squadrons of light attack aircraft, 230 heavy missile launchers. This is perhaps the most significant armament deal in recent history between Europe and East Asia.

LANGFITT: And Jack Watling, the analyst in London, says meeting Ukraine's demand for arms could have implications beyond Europe.

WATLING: In order to provide for this year, we are going to eat into our own war stocks very, very substantially. And if we don't have the industrial base to start replacing those war stocks, then if you're China and you're contemplating Taiwan, the calculus starts to shift. If we don't fix the industrial problem, we present our adversaries with those questions and opportunities.

LANGFITT: Which is why Watling says NATO allies need to rebuild industrial capacity quickly and meet Ukraine's need for weapons for as long as it takes.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.