Ukrainian soldiers fire a M777 howitzer near Bakhmut on May 17, 2023.
Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
The US is ramping up its artillery production to continue aiding Ukraine and resupply its stockpile.
A Pentagon official said the US aims to be producing 100,000 155mm artillery shells by 2025.
The announcement comes amid reports Russia is already out-producing the West in ammunition.
The US is rapidly expanding the production of conventional 155mm artillery shells, a top Pentagon official said on Friday, as Washington looks to replenish its stocks of a munition that has played a key role in Ukraine’s fight against Russia.
Artillery has been a central component of the nearly 19-month-long war, with both sides expending huge amounts of ammunition on a daily basis. Because of this, Ukraine continues to burn through its arsenal of 155mm shells, straining the stockpiles of its Western military backers — including the US.
To remedy the situation, Washington is fiercely ramping up production of these crucial munitions as part of a larger effort to continue aiding Ukraine and strengthen its own defense industrial base.
Ukraine’s ammunition troubles, meanwhile, are seemingly exacerbated by the fact that Russia in recent months has managed to circumvent Western sanctions and produce munitions at a rapid rate that exceeds even the country’s pre-war levels. Russia is now producing more ammunition than the US and Europe, with one senior Estonian defense ministry official telling The New York Times this week that Russia’s current production is seven times that of the West.
“Militaries have a strong tendency to think that war will be really short,” Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine Corps colonel and a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ security program, told Insider. “But every country struggles with munitions production as war goes on beyond a few months.”
The US has already upped its production levels this year
Earlier in the year the US was producing about 14,000 shells a month; it has since doubled that figure to reach 28,000 shells a month right now, Bill LaPlante, the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said this week at a virtual fireside chat hosted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.
“We’re going to be at 57,000 a month next spring,” he said, later adding that this figure will probably be closer to 65,000 a year from now. But that’s not the end game.
“We’re going to be at 100,000 per month in 2025,” LaPlante said. “We’re mindful of that fact that at that point, we’ll be producing more than, I don’t know, historically has been produced in decades.”
Ukrainian soldiers fire an M777 during an operation to target trenches of Russian forces in the Donetsk Oblast on August 6, 2023.
Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
LaPlante’s comments on Friday cited figures that were higher than those offered by the US Army last month during similar discussions about 155mm production.
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Douglas Bush told reporters in early August that the US was manufacturing up to 24,000 155mm shells a month at the time, with the goal of expanding that to more than 80,000 shells a month over the course of the following year.
Bush said at the time that increased production will help replenish Washington’s stockpiles and continue to provide support for Ukraine. But he also acknowledged that the US is expecting requests for shells from its other allies who want to be able to defend themselves.
“They’re hitting the limits of what the US is comfortable sending,” Cancian said. “Military planners are saying we don’t want to go below this level because of the possibility of other conflicts.”
The Army expects production will eventually give way to over one million shells a year, Bush said in August, which falls in line with what LaPlante said on Friday.
Western officials, meanwhile, believe Russia is on track to manufacture two million artillery shells a year, the Times reported this week. Manufacturing costs are much lower in Russia than in the West, in part, because the country churns out low-quality equipment, the outlet reported.
According to the latest Pentagon data, the US has already provided Ukraine with over 2 million 155mm artillery rounds as part of the nearly $44 billion in security assistance that Washington has committed to Kyiv since Russia’s full-scale invasion began last year. This military aid also includes just shy of 200 howitzers that can be used to fire the 155mm munitions.
A Ukrainian soldier carries 155mm shells for M777 artillery at a artillery position in the Donetsk Oblast on August 6, 2023.
Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
But relentless artillery duels have cause Ukraine to expend its 155mm shells at a very high rate, with US officials saying at one point that Kyiv’s soldiers were firing thousands of rounds on the battlefield each day.
Facing pressure to ensure the Ukrainian military had enough ammunition to continue the tempo of its offensive operations, the US was forced to explore alternative solutions to continue it support. Such a dilemma eventually led to the Biden administration’s decision in July to arm Kyiv with deadly — and controversial — cluster munitions, which White House officials said was necessary to help sooth Ukraine’s strained stockpiles of conventional munitions. The high-profile cluster munitions have since been used to hammer Russian positions on the battlefield with great effect.
Ramping up production takes time and money
The US has to establish new manufacturing lines to build the shells themselves; invest in the ability to pack the shells with explosives; and ramp up production of the charges that go behind the shells to propel them out of heavy artillery equipment such as howitzers, Insider previously reported.
“It’s a question of hiring enough people,” Cancian said. “In peacetime, factories tend to work what they call a “1-8-5″ or one shift a day, eight hours a day, five days a week.”
A steel worker moves a 155 mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2023.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
“If you want to ramp that up to say, two shifts a day, or three plus weekend work, you just have to hire a lot of people and train them up,” he added, noting that production plants are often in remote locations that lack large workforces nearby, he added.
Even as the US works to stock up over the next year and beyond, ammunition struggles will continue to be a problem as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, Cancian said.
“Long wars need a lot of munitions, and munitions have just never competed very well in the budget process,” he said. “It took this war to give priority to the munition stockpile.”