Who Will Deplete Their Missile Supply First In The Ukraine War?

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Credit: lynn-kintziger-unsplash

A recent news article published in the TBS News talks about Ukraine war’s big question: Who will run out of missiles first?.

Ukraine has displayed remarkable bravery

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon. Or perhaps it was Frederick the Great. (Or my bet: neither.) In any case, the reference is to the importance keeping your forces well-provisioned, with food in particular, but also medical supplies, spare parts, communications equipment, weaponry and — most significantly at the moment — munitions.

Ukraine has displayed remarkable bravery, clever tactics and phenomenal leadership in fending off Russia. But let’s face it: Without Western-supplied arms, Kyiv would likely be a vassal to Moscow already. In the first six weeks of the war alone, according to congressional testimony of US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, the West delivered 60,000 antitank weapons and 25,000 anti-aircraft weapons to the Ukrainians. By May, and a quarter of the Pentagon’s Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were gone.  Exact figures are hard to come by — the new Republican House majority is calling for an audit — but even with stepped-up European help, the pace is unsustainable for a superpower facing a far greater threat across the Pacific.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is banking on a pitiless air campaign against civilians to make up for the pitiful performance of his ground troops. Even with some help from Iran, the Russians face a far more serious munitions shortage, given an industrial base that was struggling even before the West hit Moscow with brutal economic sanctions.

So, who will run out of ammo first? I asked that of a prominent Russia-watcher, Michael Kotkin. He is the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

Here is a transcript of our discussion

Tobin Harshaw: The attacks on military facilities inside Russia, ostensibly by Ukrainian drones, are the latest major twist in the war. The damage is minor, so how is it affecting Russia’s military?

Michael Kofman: At first blush, it is difficult to gauge the likely impact, and I’m not sure outsized effects should be expected. Perhaps a reorganization of Russian basing for their air-strike campaign. Perhaps the more relevant impact will be a boost to the morale of the Ukrainian military and population.

TH: Are you worried about this creating a new cycle of escalation in which the West becomes very uncomfortable?

MK: No, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks in the West were made uncomfortable by Ukrainian strikes aimed at Russia’s strategic bomber force. But Russia is using long-range aviation for regular strikes across Ukraine, so this is not an escalation, but a retaliation.

TH: Ukraine’s fall offensive was a success by any measure, but it expended a lot of munitions and put a huge strain on its machinery. Will Kyiv, with Western aid, be able to re-supply over the winter? Will there be a relaxation in the fighting now?

MK: I’ve not seen much evidence of a relaxation in the fighting. Instead, we’re seeing sustained attritional warfare characterized by heavy dependence on artillery, infantry attacks and long-range precision fires. There may not be major offensives at this moment, but this is a transitional period in the war. I’m skeptical that either side can dramatically alter their supply situation while sustaining artillery exchanges at this rate.

Ukraine needs Western air-defense systems, and a sustainable supply of artillery ammunition. Unfortunately, their use rate exceeds production rates in the West. Something will have to change on the production side, and on the employment side, to make the situation more sustainable.

Russia’s problems are likely even more severe, and immediate, given how heavily its military depends on artillery fires, and the large amount of ammunition they seem to have expended over the course of the spring and summer. The Russian military will try to use this period to reconstitute, while the Ukrainian military will keep pressing, and try to disrupt Russian attempts to restore their offensive potential.

TH: Russia’s new strategy is a brutal air campaign against civilian as well as military targets. Can you win a war from the air?

MK:  Air campaigns are generally lacking in coercive power, and strikes tend to build resolve rather than break it.

However, this war isn’t being fought in the air alone, is it? The air campaign is a counterpart to the ground campaign, both part of a Russian strategy to make the war materially challenging to sustain, and to extend, hoping that Western countries supporting Ukraine become wary of the costs and duration.

Furthermore, these strikes drain Ukraine of air-defense ammunition, and over time seek to set up a dilemma whereby Ukraine has to choose between defending cities versus the front lines. If this becomes the case, the Russian air force will become much more brazen in its sorties over the battlefield. Russia’s strategy appears to be mostly one of attrition and exhaustion, since its military is not capable of reviving substantial offensive potential. Bakhmut is somewhat of an outlier in this case, representing a sunk-cost mentality, and Moscow’s desire to take Donetsk despite the high costs.

Russia is using up munitions faster than it can produce them, and is increasingly dependent on imports of drones from Iran to sustain this campaign. That said, if Moscow is able to import Iranian ballistic missiles, it may be able to continue prosecuting strikes well into the winter.

TH: If Russia eventually needs to retake some ground, are its forces any better prepared? Will the influx of 300,000 newly mobilized troops help or was that simply desperation?

MK: Numbers are not deterministic, but they matter in war, especially if it is one largely defined by attrition. Mobilization, shambolic as it was, did stabilize the Russian lines, enabled an organized retreat from Kherson, and provided manpower to throw at Bakhmut, but it is too early to tell what they will make of it. Such processes often take several months to show results.

The Russian military is pursuing more of a defensive strategy at this stage. Mobilized personnel may not be effective in offensive operations, but they can prove useful in holding defensive lines, trenches, etc. The net effect is that mobilization can extend the war without necessarily changing its trajectory.

TH:  A few weeks ago, you noted that “Russia still retains a lot of some of the higher-end capabilities that are most concerning for NATO and for the US in defense planning.” What are those capabilities?

MK: It goes without saying that the Russian military has performed much more poorly than expected in this war, hence the commonly encountered opinion that any NATO-Russia war would have been little challenge for NATO. But this view overlooks important lessons from this war. It took a tremendous level of effort from the US, along with many other Western countries, to enable Ukraine’s military effort to get to this stage. Absent Western support, the war might have taken a different trajectory. Russia may not be in a position to threaten NATO conventionally now, but it will rebuild. Furthermore, some of the more capable systems were not used or exhausted in Ukraine. Russia retains effective air defense, electronic warfare, antisatellite weapons, directed energy systems, nuclear powered submarines, etc.

TH: The war has put a major drain on US coffers and, more alarmingly, its military stockpiles. Are we going to reach a point where the Pentagon says, “Nope, sorry, we need to be able to fight a war over Taiwan” and slows the tap?

MK: This is arguably the most significant medium- to long-term challenge of the war. The US military is not optimized to support Ukraine’s way of war, which depends heavily on sustaining large volumes of artillery and rocket system fire, and our defense sector will take some time to increase production. The qualitative advantages derived from Western weapons such as HIMARS offer a useful offset, but they do not make up for the fact that Ukraine requires a large amount of artillery ammunition on a monthly basis.

Europeans are also contributing from their arsenals, and have production capacity. However, much has already been taken out of US stockpiles, and the strain is visible.

TH: What about the medium-term or long-term impact on the Russian military?

MK: In the coming years, Russia is likely to be much more dependent on nuclear weapons given its depleted military, but in several sectors the Russian armed forces have either not suffered significant losses or could replenish said systems more easily than the badly attritioned ground force. Russia will be a declining power, and may take a decade or more to rebuild its military, but it will remain dangerous, and endure as a strategic challenge.

TH: Putin’s popularity has slipped a tad and the mobilization order hit some families hard. But is there any sense of him losing his iron grip?

MK: No.

TH: If he hits the point of desperation, do you see Putin using nuclear or chemical weapons?

MK: I’m somewhat puzzled by the recurring concerns that chemical weapons might be used, which I believe to be unlikely. But the risk of nuclear escalation is not insignificant. If the Russian military suffers a defeat, leading to a cascade collapse and loss of cohesion, then the Russian political leadership may well consider nuclear escalation. Folks who believe nuclear weapons lack battlefield utility, or would not dramatically alter the character of this conflict, strike me as whistling past the graveyard. Nuclear use would come with significant costs for Moscow, and is hardly an attractive option, but desperate leaders can prove unreasonable in their calculus.

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Source: TBS News

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