ROME — When politicians and pundits make predictions about the course of the Ukraine war, a lot of numbers are tossed around, notably 60 billion: the number of dollars in U.S. aid blocked in Congress that Kyiv needs as its artillery shell stocks plummet.

This week the White House claimed the fall Avdiivka in Ukraine to Russian forces this month was a direct result of Ukraine’s ammunition shortage as it waits for Congress to vote the aid package through.

But another number worth considering is four million: that’s the number of artillery shells that Russia will reportedly be able to muster this year in Ukraine, begging the question: can Europe and the US match that, however much money they ante up? And if not, is the war lost?

The number comes courtesy of researchers at the RUSI think tank in the U.K., who wrote in a recent report that Russian industry expects to increase 152mm shell production to 1.3 million rounds this year and produce 800,000 122mm rounds over the same period.

Add in two million 122mm rounds arriving from North Korea, and Moscow will have just over four million shells, the report stated, plus what it can salvage for existing stocks, much of which is in bad condition.

Matching that number will be crucial for Ukraine, said Nick Reynolds, a Land Warfare research fellow at RUSI, and co-author of the report.

“It is a very important factor since both Russia and Ukraine are artillery armies – artillery is their backbone,” he said.

Despite the extensive use of drones, missiles and tanks in the conflict, artillery fire has been responsible for 70% of all losses on both sides, Risk and Strategy Weekly, issued by Italy’s RID publication.

So can the West reach four million shells? Bad news came from the European Union on Jan. 31 when it acknowledged it had fallen short on its pledge last March to supply a million shells in a year.

Instead, member states would hand over 524,000 shells, 52% of the promised batch, by March 2024, said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

The shells are coming from existing stocks and individual and joint purchases by member states, overseen by the EU’s so-called ASAP plan to use €2 billion ($2.2 billion) to buy inventories and make new purchases.

“This is a work in progress,” Borrell said. Member states are however getting into gear, he said, with another 630,000 shells arriving this year.

Asked why the one million target was missed, a spokesman for Europe’s defense companies said governments had a lot to answer for.

“Order, procurement and export of ammunition is a political decision,” said the spokesman for the Aerospace, Security and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD).

“The European defense industry has significantly expanded its production capacities and increased production – with ammunition being one element – as much as possible under adverse circumstances,” he added. The long list of obstacles, he said, included, “supply chain bottlenecks, swelling raw material costs, shortages of qualified workforce, burdensome regulation and administrative processes, paucity of actual orders, years of under-investment and low order volumes that resulted in down-scaled production capacities.”

He added, “Long-term investments in further expansion of production capacities must come along with long-term contracts from European customers. There must be a risk sharing between industry and the public sector.”

Compare that to Russia’s state-coordinated, increasingly war-focused economy where Moscow was able to last year transfer numerous production facilities to state champion Rostec in order to streamline and speed up ammunition production.

Catching up

Efforts in Europe to step up production have, admittedly, been notable this month, from Norwegian-Finnish ammunition maker Nammo switching to 24-hour production and Germany’s Rheinmetall announcing a new German plant which will produce 200,000 shells a year, plus a factory in Ukraine itself with a local partner to produce “a six-digit number of 155mm caliber bullets per year in the future.”

The U.K., which has supplied 300,000 rounds of various calibers to Ukraine so far, has committed to an eight-fold increase in 155mm production capability, with new BAE Systems’ production lines expected to be operational by 2025.

What that means in terms of output, however, is unclear.

“We do not disclose production capacity or stockpile numbers for operational security reasons,” an Ministry of Defence spokesperson told Defense News.

A clue did come in 2020 when the MoD said it was building up to large-caliber shell production levels of approximately 100,000 rounds a year.

Back on the continent, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is expected to launch a new strategy for securing extra defense investment on Feb. 27, while on March 15 Brussels will name up to 30 ammunition firms picked to benefit from €500 million in funding to beef up production.

But despite all the efforts, RUSI analyst Nick Reynolds was nonplussed. “We are two years into the war and the West is still looking at its industrial capacity, its lead times. It’s not optimal,” he said.

One option backed by the Czech Republic this month is for Europe to go beyond its boundaries to buy munitions - a solution backed by the ASD industry lobbying group.

“It could serve as a bridge until the European industry has reached the production capacity required to meet the demand,” the organization’s spokesman said. “[However], purchases outside Europe should not result in European production capacities not utilized to capacity and being ramped up further.”

In the short term, however, Reynolds said whatever solutions were put into play now, Ukraine would not be able to match Russia on the front line this year.

“Russia will have its four million shells this year, which is more than Ukraine can hope to have. It is more than Europe, NATO and the U.S. can supply before taking their own restocking into account. Russia will have artillery advantage in 2024,” he said.

That does not mean, though, that Ukraine will lose the war, but it will give Russia time to rearm, he added.

“Russia’s armed forces have lost a great deal of combat power. Its ability to carry large scale maneuvers is reduced by losses, but it can still do damage with attrition, especially if Ukraine is short of munitions,” he said.

“We may not see Russian advances in the short term, but it now has time to rebuild its combat power. Seeing little change on the map now should not lull us into a false sense of security.”

Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 28 to include a quote from the ASD defense-industry lobbying group qualifying its support for the proposal of purchasing ammunition from outside the European Union.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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