With U.S. Aid in Doubt, Europe Struggles to Rearm Ukraine

Juho Kuva for The Washington Post
Machined 155mm artillery shells at the Nammo Lapua plant in Finland, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

SASTAMALA, Finland – The race to stave off disaster in Ukraine’s war against Russia is unfolding in the battle-scarred fields and forests of Eastern Europe and, in a small way, a quiet wooded area of southwest Finland.

There, on the floor of an artillery factory, a mechanical arm lifts a mass of molten metal from the flames of a forging press. The red-hot steel cylinder will be cooled and packed with explosives before reaching its destination: bolstering NATO stockpiles or, perhaps, being fired down the barrel of a Ukrainian howitzer.

Workers at this plant, which now operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, have increased their output of 155mm shells fourfold since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The scramble here reflects an effort intensifying across the continent, as European nations seek to accelerate the production of weapons needed to sustain Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin forces and to harden their own defenses against what the continent’s leaders now see as a heightened Russian threat.

In Washington, the outlook for President Biden’s $61 billion aid package looks bleak, as Republicans continue to stall aid from the United States, Ukraine’s largest single military backer to date. Meanwhile, Kyiv is running short on key items, like artillery shells and air defense missiles, that it needs to hold Russian forces at bay.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking to Western leaders in Germany last week, made an urgent appeal for fresh weapons and ammunition, a growing scarcity of which U.S. and Ukrainian officials cited as the chief factor in Kyiv’s decision to cede the city of Avdiivka to Russian forces, a major battlefield setback.

European nations, two years after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, are struggling to expand defense manufacturing fast enough to meet Ukraine’s immediate needs. European Union officials now acknowledge that member states will be able to provide Ukraine only half of the bloc’s earlier target of 1 million 155mm rounds by this spring. On the front lines, Ukrainian troops say they are severely outgunned by Russian artillery forces.

While governments and industry leaders agree that Europe’s struggle is rooted in decades of disinvestment following the Cold War, the continent also faces a host of systemic constraints – including fractured defense manufacturing, smaller-scale markets and legal barriers to collective production – that it must overcome to help Ukraine survive and, should America turn inward, fend for itself.

James Black, a defense and security researcher at Rand Europe, said the continent had reconfigured its defense industries in recent decades, as regional militaries pursued smaller-scale missions beyond Europe and the prospect of renewed state-on-state conflict seemed remote.

“Europe is now racing to relearn how to mobilize industry onto a wartime footing. But you cannot simply flip a switch,” Black said, noting the months or years required to build production lines, hire and train workers, and obtain key materials. “That time lag only plays into Russia’s favor.”

Europe’s challenges are different from those faced by the United States, which has launched its own push to expand stagnated manufacturing capacity but has the advantage of a far larger market, a bigger budget, and government ownership of some production facilities.

In Russia, the Kremlin has managed to defy Western sanctions as it redirects economic resources toward its defense industry. Moscow has turned to North Korea and Iran for help bolstering its stocks of ammunition and drones.

Last month, the leaders of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and the Czech Republic called for greater joint procurement and immediate arms donations to Ukraine while the continent undergoes the onerous process of rebuilding its defense industry prowess.

“What is urgent today is to provide the ammunition and weapon systems, including howitzers, tanks, UAVs and air defence, that Ukraine so urgently needs on the ground. Now,” they wrote in a joint letter last month, using an acronym for drone aircraft.

Juho Kuva for The Washington Post
Manufacturing manager Rony Lappalainen at the Nammo Lapua plant.

Outgunned on the front line

The needs are immediate for Kyiv, which after an unsuccessful 2023 counteroffensive is attempting to hold off Russia’s much larger military while it refits its exhausted forces. With a 600-mile front line largely frozen in place since late 2022, artillery has emerged as the conflict’s most crucial capability.

Ukrainian officials have said they require a minimum of nearly 200,000 shells a month, but Europe’s collective output remains only around 50,000 a month, according to a recent Estonian analysis – only some of which now go to Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces on the front line are already rationing ammunition, forcing commanders to make tough choices. “I think it’s clear that they are worried about running out,” said a senior NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief the news media.

The gap is made all the more consequential by Biden’s inability to secure passage of a massive tranche of additional U.S. aid to Ukraine, which congressional Republicans have blocked for months. While White House officials have voiced confidence that Congress will eventually relent, they have presented no alternatives to securing the funds necessary to arm Ukraine.

Kyiv’s needs are not limited to artillery. Western officials acknowledge the potential for mounting civilian losses if its supply of air defense interceptors lapses in coming months, with no sign that Russia is running short of the missiles and drones it launches at Ukrainian cities.

Camille Grand, who served as NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment in 2016-2022, said that European leaders, despite their strong statements of support, had failed to shake their countries out of peacetime mode.

“We’ve ended up in a situation where production is far from anything resembling a war economy,” said Grand, who is now a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The reality doesn’t match the words.”

A second NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about sensitive issues, described Europe’s challenge as “a crisis many years in the making,” in part because member states have not been eager to pay for spare capacity in defense supply chains, which would have allowed factories to quickly increase production.

The official compared it to having snowplows in a country where it rarely snows: Nobody wants to invest in snowplows under clear skies. Then along comes a blizzard and you have to order one – full price – from under the snow.

“For many allies, the question of ammunition production was deeply unsexy,” the official continued. “Now it is at the top of everyone’s minds.”

A difficult ramp to production

Across the continent, officials have touted their steps toward reversing the long decline. Last month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg heralded a deal for $1.2 billion in 155mm shells, a victory for the alliance as more member states make good on long-overdue increases in military spending.

In Germany, defense giant Rheinmetall is building new artillery production facilities, while France is working with its defense firms to reduce manufacturing times for the Caesar howitzer system and Mistral air defense missiles.

Eastern flank nations, the most vulnerable to Russia’s reach, are making especially dramatic investments. Estonia and Latvia are banding together to purchase German air defense equipment, while Poland’s new government is scrambling to find European sources for its massive military scale-up.

According to the European Defense Agency, E.U. nations have continued to put more money toward new defense gear in recent years, collectively spending some $52 billion in 2022, the most recent year for which data was available.

André Denk, the agency’s deputy chief executive, said European nations’ production capacity for 155mm shells had increased by 40 percent since the start of the Ukraine war; output is expected to reach an annual 1.4 million shells by the end of 2024. That buildup, though, will require sustained investment – and finalized contracts – from European governments.

“You cannot buy artillery shells in Carrefour Express,” he said, referring to a European convenience store chain. “What we hear from industry is also that they need a certain predictability for their production capacity.”

Industry officials in Europe say defense firms have already invested in expanding production, sometimes using their own money, amid the “double challenge” of assisting Ukraine and filling European arsenals. But they complain that governments have been slow to sign contracts or match their promises with actual funds.

The Aerospace Security and Defense Industries Association of Europe, which includes major firms like Patria, Saab and Rheinmetall, said that governments must take on greater “risk sharing” if further expansion is to occur. “What is required is investment, firm orders and better and longer-term visibility of future needs,” the group said in a statement.

Lt. Gen. Michael Claesson, chief of defense staff of Sweden’s armed forces, cited the structural changes that have occurred since the Cold War, when defense industries operated under more direct state control. Today, while defense firms want to take part in the effort to assist Ukraine, many must also answer to shareholders.

“They say: We can do that, but show us the money,” Claesson said in a recent interview. “And that whole setting is somewhat unstable right now. ”

Kusti Salm, a senior defense official from Estonia, rejected the idea that there are big barriers to ammunition production in Europe. If there is sufficient demand, the market will figure it out, he argued. What has been missing, he said, is political will.

“It’s doable; it’s affordable; it’s not a herculean task,” he said.

Hindrances to competitiveness

Europe must overcome the effects of a deeply fragmented defense industry that, in a reflection of the continent’s history, is composed in large part of national firms with deep relationships with their respective governments.

European officials acknowledge the arrangement has impaired competitiveness and resulted in the kind of duplication now on display in Ukraine, where local forces have had to manage a bewildering array of systems donated by Western allies. For example: European nations operate 17 types of main battle tanks, compared with the single U.S. version: the M1 Abrams.

A study for the European Parliament estimated that more coordinated defense investment could save European nations up to $80 billion a year.

Another challenge for the European ramp-up is breaking down information barriers. Officials say that concerns about overreach by the authorities in Brussels and reluctance to share sensitive national security information, including about production, between E.U. and NATO states has hindered efficiency and faster delivery of arms.

The challenges have also intensified a debate over whether European nations should limit their arms purchases to regional firms or should be permitted to source them abroad for the sake of speed or value.

“Everyone wants the domestic market to benefit,” the second NATO official said. “We can’t be too parochial about it. If the best deal is South Korea, we should buy South Korean.”

Putin is watching

At the Nammo factory near the town of Sastamala, workers take lunch at a tidy in-house cafeteria, tucked away in an industrial park among picturesque lakes. The modest facility stands to grow substantially if the company can secure approximately $20 million that it has requested in special ammunition funding from the E.U.

“With this war started by Putin, it has turned out that old-fashioned artillery is very modern again,” said Mikko Myllykangas, a former artillery officer who now serves as senior vice president of Nammo Lapua, the company’s Finnish unit.

Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, spent decades hardening its defenses following the 1939-1940 Winter War with its eastern neighbor. Concerned about angering Moscow, it remained outside NATO, but that spirit of self-reliance paid off. Today, it is a member of the alliance and boasts Western Europe’s largest artillery force, Finnish officials say. The country also requires military service for all males and has long-established partnerships with the private sector to stockpile key necessities in the case of disaster or attack.

“We haven’t trusted Russia for the last 100 years,” Finnish Defense Minister Antti Hakkanen said in a recent interview. “We know what the Ukrainians are going through.”

Finland has set a goal of doubling its artillery shell production by 2027. Hakkanen declined to give exact numbers but said most or all of the increased output could go to Ukraine.

Underlying the questions of cooperation and process remains another central question: Will European governments allocate sufficient money to revive military manufacturing?

Unlike in Russia, where Putin is widely expected to win a fifth term in March elections, European governments must navigate public opinion and consider competing priorities as they allocate scarce public funds.

“All the autocratic countries are now watching what the West can do with their defense industry capacity,” Hakkanen said.

Despite widespread support for Ukraine, military spending is unpopular in many European countries. And though the urgency of collective defense has energized European leaders, whether they can sustain it over time remains unknown.

“That’s the curse of our continent, I guess, with differing minds,” Claesson said.