Rosie the Riveter, symbol of the surge in production during WW2. Photo: US Department of Defense

The long and short of it is that, while the US and NATO can fight a short conflict, neither can support a long war because there’s insufficient equipment in the now-depleted inventory and the timelines to build replacement hardware are long.

Despite a history of having done so before, starting in 1939, there is little chance that the US today can put in place a surge capacity, or that it any longer knows how to do so if it is even feasible.

Based on those circumstances alone – and there are additional, compelling reasons – the US and NATO should be thinking about how to end the war in Ukraine rather than sticking with the declared policy of trying to bleed Russia.

Let’s start by looking back at a time when the United States did know how to plan for surge weapons-building capacity.

WW2 precedent

In 1939 the Roosevelt administration, with Congressional support, passed the Protective Mobilization Act.  Ultimately this would lead to the creation of a War Production Board, the Office of Production Management and the marshaling of US industry to fight the Nazis and Japanese

In 1941 the President declared an unlimited national emergency, giving the administration the power to shift industrial production to military requirements. Between 1940 and 1945, the US supplied almost two-thirds of all war supplies to the allies (including the USSR and China) and for US forces – producing some 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces (all types) and 86,000 tanks (light, medium and heavy).

Russia faced an altogether more difficult challenge because after Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941 much of Russia’s defense industrial infrastructure was threatened.  Russia evacuated 1,500 factories either to the Ural Mountains or to Soviet Central Asia.  Even Lenin’s body was moved from Moscow to Tyumen, 2,500 km from Moscow.

Notably, Stalin Tank Factory 183 would be moved from Kharkiv, now a contested city in the Ukraine war, to the Urals, rebranded as Uralvagonzavod and situated in Nizhny Tagil. The facility had been a railroad car maker, so it was suitable for tank manufacturing. The tank factory relocation was managed by Isaac Zaltzman. 

Inside a tank factory in the Soviet Union during World War II. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At that factory the Soviets produced a massive number of tanks (light, medium and heavy), most notably the T-34, the world’s most successful tank design (based on the Christie tank chassis from the United States). Altogether the Soviets produced almost 78,000 tanks and self-propelled guns mounted on tank chassis.

This is now 

It is noteworthy that today Russia as well as the US and America’s NATO partners all face supply problems as the war in Ukraine grinds on. While the US and Europe maintain a significant commercial industrial base, needed to supply key components for defense equipment, Russia lacks an in-depth civilian manufacturing infrastructure – especially in advanced electronics, sensors and electro-optics. 

The US and Europe face a risk because they are increasingly dependent on high-tech supplies from Asia. Today there are severe supply bottlenecks, shortages and risk dependencies. Even China, which has a huge commercial manufacturing infrastructure, faces difficulties in obtaining the most sophisticated integrated circuits, manufactured only in Taiwan by Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC).

Procurement of defense goods in the US and Europe is episodic, not continuous. Funds are allocated to purchase a certain quantity of defense equipment. When the contract is completed and there are no immediate follow-on purchases, production lines are shut down and second- and third-tier component suppliers also stop production – or they shift to work on other projects (and in some cases go out of business). 

This means that if a new order comes in later, the supplier network and the production lines will have to be started almost from scratch. In addition to the loss of infrastructure for certain types of weapons, there is the related loss of skilled factory workers and engineers.

Giving away the stores 

Admiral Sir Tony Radkin, who is chief of the UK Defense Staff, says that  the “industrial capacity to backfill” has become “a significant issue” because of the rate of use of weapons in the Ukraine – where supply shortages are impacting Ukraine’s ability to continue fighting

Speaking to the House of Lords International and Defense Committee, Radkin said, “We are then talking in years, because you cannot whistle up with modern weapons a quick production line. Yes, you can churn out shells and artillery, but even at the not super-sophisticated end, even at the modest end of an NLAW [anti-tank] weapon, then that’s going to take several years to get back to our original stocks.”

In the recent war legislation to support Ukraine, Congress appropriated an additional $9 billion to replace US war stocks, suggesting that the costs of manufacturing and inflation have almost doubled reacquisition costs. Raytheon got a new resupply contract of $634 million to restock Stinger missiles, but Raytheon pointed out it could not begin to do so before next year.

A shipment of US-made missiles to Ukraine. Photo: WION

In the US, big defense companies such as Raytheon and Lockheed are facing serious difficulties in resupplying the military. The US has already sent more than one-third of its war stocks of Stinger and Javelin missiles to Ukraine. As the war continues it isn’t unreasonable to think that as much as half the war stocks for these weapons will be consumed. 

As the US pushes more and more weapons to Ukraine in its proxy war with Russia, important categories of military supply will be impacted.

Not counting Stingers and Javelins, the US has transferred 18 155mm howitzers with 36,000 rounds of ammunition, two Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems, thousands of night vision sets for Ukrainian troops as well as an unknown number of thermal imagers, thousands of secure radios, 700 Switchblade drones, 75,000 body armor sets with Kevlar helmets, chem-bio defense equipment and much more. 

Congress recently passed and the President signed a $40 billion Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, which supplies another $14 billion for arms and humanitarian supplies for Ukraine.

2 big dangers

There are two major dangers for the US and NATO.

The first is that there is simply not enough equipment in inventory to keep up the pace of supporting Ukraine if the war lasts much longer, even with orders for new equipment in the “pipeline.”

The pipeline probably can’t keep up with demand given the long lead times to produce new weapons. If the war spreads beyond Ukraine, then NATO could be faced with a huge challenge of defending a vast territory with few weapons.

There is no sign that such equipment deficits can be overcome over the next few years, even if there is a will to do so. Some European governments have become “woke” about defense spending. But manufacturing arms in Europe is very slow, even compared with the very long lead times in the United States.

Supply bottlenecks, if they continue, will add to the problem.

The second danger is if fighting breaks out in Korea or in a Taiwan invasion. This could put an almost impossible burden on the US. There already are serious military supply shortages for US forces in Korea and Japan. Taiwan has been told the US can’t supply some weapons, including the same howitzers being supplied to Ukraine.

Wishful thinking

The current US House of Representatives version of the annual Defense Authorization Act legislation contains a provision for a critical munitions reserve and proposes establishing a pilot program to keep better tabs on subcontractors involved in production. In Washington this is what is called an “unfunded mandate” – because, without a requirement for industrial mobilization and parallel long-term funding, the House proposal is just wishful thinking.

US policymakers appear oblivious of the great risk they face in promoting a  proxy war in Ukraine that could spread beyond Ukraine’s borders – impacting, for example, Eastern Europe or Germany or beyond.

Perhaps Washington policy-makers can take some comfort that Russia has wasted huge amounts of equipment and sustained the loss of over 30,000 fighting men. There is no doubt Russia’s lack of commercial industrial infrastructure and bad battle management, coupled with tenacious reinforced Ukrainian fighters, put it in a hole.

But no one knows how deep. Right now Russia is demonstrating that it has a huge store of heavy artillery and rockets, even if its mechanized armor force has been depleted.

A war that spreads could quickly consume what reserves NATO (and the US) have, and a conventional war featuring heavy artillery weapons would devastate Europe. (There is a parallel case of sorts in Korea, where North Korea has heavy artillery well dug in and close to vital urban centers in South Korea, even though North Korea is deficient in high-tech weapons other than missiles.)

One more thing

In addition, if Russia is pushed too hard, the Russian army will start demanding the right to use “tactical” nuclear weapons, which Russian politicians are already lobbying to use.

That gets to the other compelling reason to rethink the bleed-Russia policy: That policy ramps up the risk of general war to an unprecedented high level and increases the risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction.