WASHINGTON — European Union leaders are expected to debate proposals this month for the bloc to get involved in buying 155mm artillery shells, as member states seek to restock their depleted inventories and help Ukraine’s forces defend themselves.
The shortage is high on the political agenda, with defense ministers expected to tee up decisions at a March 7-8 meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, an EU spokesperson told Defense News.
Estonia has been pushing for the bloc to get involved in producing more ammunition faster, circulating a paper behind the scenes in Brussels last month that called for €4 billion (U.S. $4.3 billion) in extra funds to catch up.
“Ramping up the European defense industry’s output is one the most pressing issues right now,” according to the document, obtained by Defense News. “Russia fires Europe’s monthly artillery production rate in a single day in Ukraine. The urgent need for increasing our defense industrial capacity is clear.”
According to Estonia’s math, a sevenfold increase is needed in output capacity among European suppliers to reach a production rate of 175,000 shells per month, up from 20,000-25,000 now. That would put Ukraine on a path within six months to replace the estimated 60,000-210,000 shells currently fired by its forces every month.
For comparison, Russian artillery averages 20,000-60,000 shells fired per day, according to the Estonian paper.
At the Munich Security Conference last month, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the will exists among member states to quickly move forward, comparing the level of joint effort involved to the procurement of vaccines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We could think of, for example, advance-purchase agreements that give the defense industry the possibility to invest in production lines now to be faster and to increase the amount they can deliver,” she said, as quoted by Reuters.
“As always in this atrocious war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine, we see that we can move mountains under pressure, and therefore here, too,” she said in an interview with the news service and other media in Munich. “These are not normal times, these are extraordinary times. And therefore we should also look at extraordinary measures or procedures.”
The Estonian paper proposes funding the initiative through “the existing EU framework,” including the European Peace Facility. The EPF is a military aid mechanism stocked with €5 billion between 2021 and 2027 that has already helped disperse €3.6 billion to Ukraine, according to an EU fact sheet.
Estonian diplomats have put the Brussels-based European Defence Agency — or alternatively, their own defense ministry’s procurement organization — in play for coordinating the effort.
EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said officials believe they can build on the Brussels-based EDA because that agency was already tasked with joint ammunition procurement days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022.
Government leaders quickly established a purchasing initiative for replenishing military stockpiles at their crisis meeting in Versailles, France, in March 2022, setting up a €500 million fund to incentivize joint procurements from European manufacturers.
As officials began fanning out to talk to manufacturers last summer, they found vendors willing to ramp up production, but governments still harbored reservations against buying military goods together, they said at the time.
Fighting has intensified in Ukraine, as Russian forces reportedly try to break through Ukrainian defenses with sheer mass in conscripts and contract soldiers. Ukrainian forces have been able to hold their defenses with help from Western equipment, including NATO-compatible 155mm artillery systems like the American M777, the French Caesar, the German Panzerhaubitze 2000 and the Polish Krab.
Christian Mölling, who leads the Center for Security and Defense at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, said production capacities exist among Europe’s arms industry for a significant increase in the style that EU leaders are envisioning.
The “litmus test” for the pending munition-production push lies in the question of whether the EU manages to set aside bureaucratic caveats and national industry preferences that typically permeate joint defense projects during peacetime, Mölling told Defense News.
“The Ukrainians will fire with anything they can get their hands on,” he said. “They don’t care who made it or what the employment caveats are.”
In that logic, Kyiv should get access to the extra money and then pick what types of munitions are needed, depending on the state of the war, he argued. “They should be able to choose, for example, between 1 million unguided versus 100,000 GPS-guided munitions based solely on their requirements.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.