Image Source: The Military Times
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the United States and its NATO allies have stepped up to provide military support to bolster Ukraine’s arsenal in its fights to repel Russian advances. However, the Allies are unevenly sharing the burden of supporting the Ukrainian defense, with the U.S. doing the heaviest lifting. As the U.S. scrambles for solutions and considers involving allies, it should be aware that they may not offer answers to its troubles.
Since February, the U.S. has pledged $16.8 billion in military, financial, and humanitarian aid, in addition to sending thousands of weapons to Ukraine. The U.S. has sent so many weapons that, as argued by Bradley Bowman and Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery (ret.) in their recent Defense News article, it is draining its own arsenal to a level that is endangering its own military readiness. Researchers and policymakers have been warning for months about the unbalanced ratio of munitions sent to Ukraine and the production time needed to replenish it. In April, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell informed Congress that the 5,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles delivered to Ukraine amounted to a third of US stocks. By October, the number of Javelins delivered to Ukraine increased to 8,500, along with the time—roughly 12 years—necessary to replace them. Moreover, the U.S. delivered 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, a number that accounted for approximately a quarter of its reserves. Bowman and Montgomery renewed calls for action, suggesting that Congress take measures to address shortages and help manufacturers, and that the U.S. could turn to its allies to offset the losses to its arsenal.
However, this appealing argument does not account for US allies’ needs and intentions. As these past months have shown, the U.K., France, and Germany have provided varying levels of support to Ukraine and pursued different courses of action within the alliance. If the U.S. hopes to count on allies to fix its prospective arsenal shortages, it should consider how the allies’ current behaviors reflect their changing perspectives towards defense. Unlike the U.K., France and Germany’s pledges to increase their military budgets are shaping policies to privilege their domestic military industries and the new European Defence Fund. These actions come after a renewed thrust to support European security under the political and economic umbrella of the European Union and its new concept of ‘strategic autonomy,’ which emphasizes the need for Europe to act independently from other countries. However, this dual approach to defense does not seem to leave much space for the United States or the United Kingdom, which have much more room for action and decision within NATO. In particular, the decision to mainly invest in national and European industries may make it more difficult for US arms manufacturers to access those markets in the future.
Like the U.S., the United Kingdom is a reliable source of military support to Ukraine. The U.K. currently ranks second in this respect, having spent £2.3 billion and started a program aimed at training 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers in 120 days. Additionally, the U.K. pledged to deliver a new air defense system to Ukraine and increase its defense budget to 3% of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030. This new budgetary objective could serve as a potential investment pool for future increased U.S. production; as recently as August, the State Department approved the sale of 500 Javelin launchers to its ally across the pond for a total of $300 million. Deals such as this might as well encourage the U.S. to enhance operational cooperation in strategic scenarios and explore more co-production agreements. Most of the additional spending will indeed sustain the British quest for competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific, a region in which the U.K. has demonstrated its interest through the AUKUS partnership and close cooperation with Japan and Italy on the Future Combat Air System. Moreover, the success of British M777 howitzers among Ukrainian forces has encouraged BAE Systems to initiate talks with the US Army, which runs the weapons program, to restart production, which offers positive evidence for stimulating joint-production venues to the U.S. Close cooperation with allies could indeed provide another lifeline to the US arsenal and defense budget and even speed up arsenal replenishing by differentiating supply sources and augmenting production capabilities.
However, such positive examples of allied collaboration are more scant across the English Channel. The U.K. is in fact the only reliable source of support among the U.S.’s Western European NATO allies. France, a military powerhouse, has lagged behind its partners in military support to Ukraine, with a total expenditure of 0.04% of its GDP and 0.11% of total EU aid compared to 0.2% of US and UK GDP, respectively. Although France has already recently announced it will provide Ukraine with air defense systems, it has also established a €100 million ($98 million) fund to allow Kyiv to buy weapons it needs to defend itself, which will boost France’s total investment in Ukraine to €333 million (roughly $325 million), albeit still distantly behind contributions from its allies. President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that this plan aims to have Ukraine buy directly from manufacturers and will also allow France to work with their defense industrial base. Also, as reported by Le Monde, the French Ministry of Armed Forces responded to critiques about French contribution to Ukrainian war effort by emphasizing that military aid is measured by quality. In this respect, France can certainly claim to have provided innovative weaponry such as 18 CAESAR wheeled howitzers, France’s most valuable contribution. Also, French Army Chief of Staff General Pierre Schill issued a warning about the importance of balancing maintaining readiness and providing aid to Ukraine, suggesting that France may continue to be conservative about its military contribution.
Yet, the problems affecting the French Army seem less urgent than the ones plaguing the U.S. In fact, President Macron recently announced that France will send six to 12 more CAESARs, which Ukraine has long requested, by pulling them from an order intended for Denmark. At the same time, CNBC reported that the U.S. has run out of 155 mm howitzers to give to Ukraine lest it sacrifice the stocks dedicated to training and readiness. Given how handy these long-ranged weapons have been to Ukrainian forces in destroying Russian depots and control centers, the U.S. may expect more requests in upcoming months. But while France can find alternative sources of supply and easily work with European allies to maneuver orders, the U.S. seems to have a harder time sustaining its effort. It is also worth noting that France has proposed a €43.9 billion ($42.8 billion) 2023 defense budget, which follows Macron’s announcement of a new ‘war economy’ in June. Although this is a clear hint of a further military build-up for the French arsenal, previous experience has also taught the French that exports are significantly important for the sustainability of their budget. Still, this does not provide a clear beacon of hope for U.S. production plans since the French are already wary of the red tape involved with any US arms import.
Last but not least, Germany’s pledge to raise military spending to €100 billion ($101 billion) and finally meet the NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defense has sparked many questions about what it could entail for the German arsenal. However, a recent study by the German Economic Institute, a Cologne-based think tank, suggested that Germany will not reach its target goal of 2% of its GDP (as per NATO agreements) within the foreseeable future. The report also proposed that Germany strengthen the Bundeswehr and its partnership with European allies by reducing dependency on the U.S. for defense projects. While this could be a possible avenue for a steady German military buildup, it could impact the U.S.’s chances to augment its defense industry capabilities through allies’ orders, thus restricting the range of solutions for US arsenal problems.
Like France, Germany has only dedicated 0.08% of its GDP and 0.09% of total EU aid (a committed budget of roughly €12.3 billion) to the Ukrainian effort totaling roughly €797 million. While Germany has supplied a wide range of weaponry, it signaled that any new sale to Ukraine will have to come from the arms industry, thus protecting its arsenal. These preventive actions could turn into a temporary advantage, as Germany prepares for future military investments while Ukraine pours funds into its military industrial sector. Also, like its EU neighbor, the German government’s plans to increase its military budget opens an opportunity for Germany to replenish its languishing forces, while the possibility of joint arms purchases with EU partners and the financial support of EU institutions could help carry the weight of the investment. Unlike the U.S., however, Germany will neither shoulder the bulk of the NATO effort nor be so engaged around the world, allowing it to carefully plan and execute its military build-up. On the contrary, the U.S. will have to maintain force readiness and plan for different scenarios where it could count on allies’ support according to their level of commitment, like in Ukraine.
The problem of a depleted U.S. arsenal extends beyond empty depots to the much more complicated matter of competitiveness. While the war in Ukraine has shown the U.S. the effectiveness of its arsenal and driven Russia to use its weapons at an “unsustainable rate,” it has also demonstrated how the U.S. takes on the lion’s share of the alliance’s work. This is undoubtedly beneficial for the U.S., allowing it to set goals and priorities. Still, it could become a challenging burden if the U.S. does not get more reliable contributions from its European partners other than the U.K.
The U.S. should take its European allies up on their promises to increase their defense budgets and sign more co-production agreements, which could help augment industrial capacity at less expense for US taxpayers, and appeal to those in Congress who seek to curtail the defense budget. In addition, the U.S. could also take a trick out of the EU playbook and opt for joint purchases from European and U.S. manufacturers. Along with domestic increases in military-industrial investment, these actions could help offset the weight of support to Ukraine. But the U.S. must act quickly. While it may be shouldering the burden of military aid, Europeans are eyeing an inflation-stricken winter and sky-high energy prices. This is perhaps the worst recipe for a successful increase in defense expenditure across the Atlantic, but it must not be a hindrance. The U.S. has already waited too long for European states to take on their NATO responsibilities.