The amount of ammunition being consumed in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has surpassed all estimates. This is starting to put pressure on the production and supply chains involved in the manufacture of ammunition for artillery guns among other weapons systems.
This is not an unprecedented problem. In warfare throughout history, armies have often underestimated the level of force and destruction of equipment that will be encountered and the amount of ammunition that will be consumed.
Time and again, this has affected military planning. For example, a lack of shells for British artillery in the first world war resulted in a crisis that led to the downfall of the government of Herbert Asquith.
But the protagonists of the two world wars were typically able to sustain their efforts despite huge levels of destruction comes down to the fact that weapons of that era were relatively simple to produce compared to today’s sophisticated military hardware. And the relative cheapness of the weapons allowed extensive numbers to be produced during the conflict.
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The Russo-Ukrainian war has not involved loss rates of equipment or consumption of material on the scale of the world wars. But, despite this, destruction of major, technologically cutting-edge, equipment can cause a headache for military planners and strategists.
Nato members and other European countries have sent a great deal of equipment, beginning with air defence systems and escalating more recently to main battle tanks such as the Challenger II and Leopard. If the security of individual nations, Europe and Nato is to remain secure, this equipment will have to be replaced.
While losses of equipment in the Russo-Ukrainian are difficult to verify, various bodies including Oryx and Army Technology, an open-source intelligence site, have provided estimates on equipment losses. But when looking at these figures it is important not to look at just the raw numbers. Weapons lost, destroyed or used up need to be compared with the total numbers estimated to have been deployed.
Estimates of the numbers of Russian equipment deployed since February 2022 are 15,857 infantry fighting vehicles and 1,391 aircraft. Their estimated losses, up to the end of December 2022, according to Oryx, are 794 infantry fighting vehicles, 71 aircraft and 91 artillery pieces.
Ukrainian estimated available deployment has been 3,309 infantry fighting vehicles and 128 aircraft. Their estimated losses as of the end of December 2022 are 418 infantry fighting vehicles, 55 aircraft and 92 artillery pieces.
Major modern defence equipment, such as the F-35 Lightning fast-jet aircraft and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, is becoming ever more sophisticated and expensive. So it’s no longer possible for replacements to be manufactured quickly. And the sheer cost of this hardware means it’s virtually impossible to keep replacements in reserve for when losses occur.
When ordering the F-35 Lighting, with the first deliveries expected in 2012, the UK originally set out to purchase a total of 138 aircraft. But the timeline for reaching this total has been delayed and now that number has been reduced due to affordability problems.
The first batch of 48 aircraft is due to be delivered by 2025, with an additional 27 by 2033. This delivery schedule, which represents less than four aircraft per year between 2025 and 2033, has been agreed with the manufacturer largely on production and cost factors. Such numbers make the creation of a reserve force next to impossible.
Such a delivery schedule, caused partly by having to spread deliveries over a longer time period due to cost implications, but also because of the length of time that such equipment takes to be manufactured, means these assets become of increasing value.
Reports suggest that it takes more than 41,000 hours per worker to manufacture an individual F-35 jet aircraft. Such a lead time in manufacturing limits the total amount that can delivered in any one year. With the current backlog of orders awaiting delivery, the replacement of aircraft lost to enemy action or flying accidents could take many years, and perhaps even decades.
Losing such important and technologically sophisticated military assets, may lead to commanders in the field becoming more risk-averse when it comes to their direct deployment and engagement with an enemy that has an equivalent – or near equivalent – capability.
Without a mass of reserves to replace equipment that has been destroyed in the war, some of this equipment (which – let’s not forget – can cost millions or even billions of pounds) may not be deployed at all. While this is an extreme outcome, the potential for political backlash from the general public is great for politicians and senior military leaders.
This potential for increased risk averseness could mean these cutting-edge assets are not deployed or deployed only in exceptional circumstances.
There’s also an interesting equation involved in modern defence budget calculations. The increasing sophistication and accuracy of today’s weapons means fewer can be deployed to achieve similar damage to the enemy. In other words, more can be achieved with less.
Defence budgets as a proportion of overall government spending have tended to fall since the second world war – and particularly since the end of the cold war. This is what’s known as the “peace dividend”.
But at the same time, individual pieces of equipment are vastly more expensive. Time will tell whether this will mean field commanders are more unwilling to commit to the use of such expensive equipment when it is more difficult to replace. This could change the nature of the conflict and bring another meaning to the phrase the “cost of war”.
Matthew Powell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.