Last month, Russian cruise missiles and drones hit Ukrainian power stations and civilian infrastructure in a massive attack wave of 83 cruise missiles and 17 loitering munitions. The 10 October strike was the start of another strategic bombing campaign by Russia, targeting Ukraine’s electricity grid, water supply, and heating infrastructure. This campaign is still to let up. But it is aimed not only at Ukraine’s civilian population, attempting to wear down public support for military resistance; it also undermines what remains of Ukraine’s economy, making it difficult for Kyiv to resource the war.
Russia’s forces in Ukraine have lost the initiative. Even with mobilisation in place, Moscow will need until the spring to reconstitute sufficient forces to even try to regain the initiative and advance. Even a ceasefire, as recently floated by the Kremlin, would only mean a temporary pause, not peace. Russia’s attacks to degrade Ukraine’s economic sustainability are a sharp reminder that this is a long war. It will not be over any time soon.
The West is adapting to this fact only very slowly. Since 24 February 2022, Western governments have operated in reactive mode; and, following this pattern, the shock of the recent aerial attacks again prompted increased pledges of military assistance, this time for Ukrainian air-defence assets. France committed to deliver Crotale short-range air defence systems (an older system phased out in the French army) and Spain pledged to send a Hawk battery on top of its commitment to deliver the Spada-Aspide system. The United States is now considering doing the same. This Vietnam-era system, long phased out in US service, is less capable than the German-delivered IRIS-T system, which now performs so well in the hands of the Ukrainian air force. But, as with many cold war-era systems, many allies could deliver it, and it is available in quantity.
This is good news for Kyiv, of course, but it also says much about the nature of Western support efforts. As early as March it was obvious that Ukraine would run short of surface-to-air missiles, as all systems used by Ukraine are Soviet in origin and the ammunition is produced solely in Russia. If helping Ukraine survive a long war had been the West’s principal criterion for action, allies could have agreed to deliver these weapon systems much earlier in the conflict. But the military support they give to Ukraine is primarily driven by donors’ domestic politics.
In April, the first Ramstein conference took place, whose role was to coordinate the Western defence supply effort to Ukraine. After several further such conferences, the effects are still below expectations. Donations remain based on unilateral voluntary gestures. Countries hand over whatever they happen to have in deep storage and consider expendable. But such a model is insufficient for helping Ukraine survive a drawn-out conflict. Ammunition and spares are not only running short for Soviet air defence missiles, they are increasingly hard to find for most Soviet equipment. The situation is so serious that Ukraine may even be sending transport aircraft around the world to buy up such equipment wherever possible. Only a handful of NATO countries still produce ammunition for Soviet artillery and tanks, and their production capability alone is insufficient to keep the Ukrainian war effort afloat.
At the same time, Western-designed equipment such as artillery – and, now, air defence systems, armoured transport, and in the future tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from existing reserve stocks – will soon meet their limits, as so little is around. Thirty years of austerity measures in defence in the West and dwindling ammunition stockpiles have diminished NATO countries’ ability to supply Ukraine from existing stocks.
Therefore, the current approach of individual donations will not work for much longer. To increase the volume of systems available to Ukraine, Europeans not only need to better coordinate among themselves which vehicles they could provide in pools of larger quantities – they also need to consult with the defence industry to jointly procure replacements. For example, many main battle tanks (especially Leopard 2A4 in various reserve functions) and infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers (the Marder is a case in point) are due for modernisation or replacement across the continent. European states could send these to Ukraine in fairly short order, as long as they are able to replace them with new vehicles within a reasonable timeframe and cost. Countries in peace have greater ability to wait for replacements to arrive, so in principle they could do this.
However, for most countries, current delivery times stretch years ahead, and high costs per vehicle prevent the quick and cost-effective procurement of new vehicles. For this reason, governments stick to existing platforms. Crucially, ramping up defence industrial production in Europe is a prerequisite to meeting Ukraine’s ammunition and other demands.
Despite numerous pledges over the last decade to increase stockpiles, Europeans have made little progress on this. The Bundeswehr, for example, has a stock of ammunition for two days of war, while numerous German defence ministers, whether Christian Democrat or Social Democrat, have pledged to increase stockpiles to the 30 days’ standard prescribed by NATO since 2014. Unfortunately, Germany is not the only country in Europe lacking ammunition stockpiles. Ordering small batches at short notice by countries individually comes at a high price. And small batches will not enable industry to scale up production. Economy of scale makes a huge difference in defence. European policymakers therefore need to devise a long-term ammunition procurement plan on a European level, for both Ukraine and Western allies. This would provide the scale and the long-term horizon needed for industry to reliably scale up production and sell ammunition at cheaper prices.
The same is true for replacements of equipment donated to Ukraine. As suggested, the prevailing model of individual donations cannot supply the numbers of vehicles needed to transition the large Ukrainian army towards NATO standards. Buying new equipment – like the IRIS-T – is possible in some areas, such as air defence, where there is simply no second-hand system available. But the high costs and slow production times associated with this ad hoc approach will not help the bulk of Ukraine’s armed forces to transition to NATO-compatible vehicles.
Under current circumstances, delivery times for new vehicles are still too long for comfort. And, in any case, each country individually is only able to provide a few vehicles at a time, otherwise its own training and deployment schemes will suffer. The solution is to order replacements in bulk across many countries. This would allow industry to scale up production and decrease delivery times and costs per vehicle. This in turn can allow European armed forces to transfer systems to Ukraine faster and in greater numbers.
Procurement coalitions for tanks, vehicles, artillery, and ammunition
President Emmanuel Macron has declared that the French defence industry would move to a “war economy footing” not only to meet Ukrainian air defence demands, but also to speed up domestic procurement. In practice this will remove bureaucratic and warranty obstacles in defence procurement and will require an increase in the defence budget. While Macron is certainly right to adopt this approach, it remains to be seen whether the French armed forces alone can create sufficient demand to finance scaled-up production. Other countries should join in, and work jointly to boost production.
Pan-European coordination for rearmament and arms supply to Ukraine is required – but this requires political leadership. There are already some examples to follow. Germany already invited 15 European countries to jointly procure air defence systems for short-, medium- and long-range defence under the European Sky Shield Initiative. Common procurement of the IRIS-T, for example, provides the long-term demand for technology firm Diehl to expand the missile production now necessary for Ukraine. Members of the Sky Shield Initiative should consider including Ukraine in the supply effort for the planned short-range system (Gepard and Roland successor) they intend to procure.
Europeans should apply the Sky Shield Initiative model to other capabilities. They should create procurement coalitions for: main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, combat support vehicles, artillery, and above all, ammunition. Again, while Ukraine has an urgent demand for these systems, on the longer horizon European armies also require them. The short-term needs of war and the long-term needs for rearmament are best dealt with together.
In March, decision-makers in numerous NATO states refused to countenance a coordinated supply effort for Ukraine of complex weapon systems and vehicles. Their view was that, if they sent Western-designed weapons, it would take too much time to train Ukrainian soldiers and servicemen, and to prepare the logistical systems to maintain them. However, in the eight months of war that have already passed, a lot of the equipment then judged too time-consuming to deliver could already have been shipped. The recent shock from the need to boost Ukraine’s air defence is only one episode in a series that still has some way to run. Strategically planned supply processes based on Ukraine’s long-term needs would have prevented much of the carnage Russia has already wrought.
Washington is unwilling to apply pressure on European allies to increase deliveries or increase its own commitments beyond the current point, because it is primarily focused on the Asia-Pacific. The Pacific theatre will continue to draw US attention and resources. And, even beyond the long war and whenever President Vladimir Putin eventually departs the scene, taming and deterring the revisionist aspirations of Moscow’s elite will remain a vital task to fulfil in the years to come. In the foothills of the long war, European leaders now need to transition from supplying short-term, news-driven support to engaging in long-term strategic and military planning – for both Ukraine and themselves.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.