By Andrew Thornebrooke
As Russian paratroopers descended on Kyiv and attempted to seize Antonov Airport, U.S. officials offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a lifeline. Western leaders could guarantee him safe passage if he fled immediately.
Zelenskyy famously retorted that he needed ammunition, “not a ride.”
In the 15 months since, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars giving Zelenskyy and embattled Ukraine just that. Now, officials say, the nation has depleted its own stores of critical munitions so severely that it would likely be incapable of fighting a major war.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has said that the United States’ munitions production capacity is pushed to the “absolute edge.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley has said that the nation “has a long ways to go” to replenish its sorely depleted stockpiles.
One unnamed Pentagon official allegedly told the Wall Street Journal that the nation’s stores of critical artillery rounds were “uncomfortably low” as early as August of last year.
The Pentagon declined to provide an update to the Epoch Times on the status of its current munition stockpiles, with one spokesperson saying that providing any specifics on the matter could jeopardize “operational security.”
The spokesperson suggested, however, that the United States was making great strides in rebuilding what had been lost.
“Of note, the department has enabled a rapid increase in 155mm ammo production, from approximately 14,000 a month in February 2022 to over 20,000 a month more recently, with plans to produce more than 70,000 a month in 2025,” the spokesperson told the Epoch Times.
“This represents a 500 percent increase.”
There’s just one problem with the Pentagon’s rosy outlook on its quickly dwindling stockpiles: Even with a 500 percent increase in production by 2027, the nation would still only be halfway to keeping afloat.
That’s because, by the end of August of last year, the United States had already sent just over 800,000 155mm artillery rounds to Ukraine. That number has since increased to more than two million, according to a fact sheet provided to the Epoch Times by the Pentagon.
That’s a rate of more than 130,000 rounds per month. Nearly twice as much as the proposed production rate of 70,000 that the Pentagon hopes to achieve in five years.
US Struggles to Produce Enough Munitions
To be sure, the Pentagon has taken steps to stop the hemorrhaging of its critical munitions stocks. Most notably, it has taken to trying wherever possible to purchase ammunition for Ukraine from other countries rather than strip its own stores bare.
How long it can keep the current balance up is open for debate. Allied stockpiles are not infinite either, after all, and already some partners are thinking of their own security concerns.
Key ally South Korea, for example, has already refused requests to sell the munitions to the United States, citing fears of North Korean aggression.
Now, the U.S. is going so far as to pull equipment from units stationed in Israel and South Korea in order to adequately supply Ukraine without emptying its stockpiles.
Likewise, the U.S. Army is now seeking $18 billion from Congress to expand and modernize its munitions production capabilities over the course of the next 15 years. According to Secretary Wormuth, the effort will help to replenish the more than $20 billion in lethal aid already delivered to Ukraine directly from U.S. stockpiles.
Even that may not be enough, however.
“My sense is we’re going to need to do more,” Wormuth said during a March 30 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“One thing the war in Ukraine has shown us is that the estimates we’ve made for the munitions [required] for future conflicts are low.”
The Army’s first tranche of investments, worth $1.5 billion, is included in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2024.
That amount is expected to help the Army expand and modernize the nation’s ammunition production facilities, arsenals, and depots, many of which date to World War II.
Despite the stoic facade presented by policymakers, the idea that it will take 15 years to modernize the United States’ munitions production capability has some lawmakers worried. Particularly so for those dedicated to stopping a Chinese communist invasion of Taiwan.
US Stockpiles, Systems Insufficient to Deter Taiwan Invasion
The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tasked with overseeing the nation’s strategic competition with China’s communist regime. A key part of that competition is deterring a CCP invasion of Taiwan, which many believe the regime intends to be able to launch by 2027.
In order to prevent that from happening, the United States needs ammo to arm Taiwan with and, potentially, to use in a war defending Taiwan’s de facto independence.
It is thus no small surprise that Select Committee Chair Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) expressed dismay when told Wormuth’s plan for modernizing the U.S. arsenal would take 15 long years.
“Fifteen years is too late,” Gallagher told the Epoch Times.
“I think that five years is too late.”
To that end, Gallagher referred to a tranche of ten policy recommendations that the panel adopted on May 24; Policies that it says will help deter the CCP from invading Taiwan if adopted by Congress.
Gallagher said the report, titled “Ten for Taiwan” (pdf), underscores that the United States has just two years, not 15, to rebuild its arsenal and arm Taiwan if it is to avoid a catastrophic conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
“If you look at our recommendations, it’s what we can do in the next two years to really meaningfully enhance our deterrent posture in the Indo-Pacific,” Gallagher said.
“If we want to have a hope of stopping World War III, we need to arm Taiwan to the teeth right now.”
Gallagher is well aware of the problem, of course, that one cannot arm Taiwan if one does not have the munitions to begin with. To overcome that hurdle, he said, the United States would need to field aging or otherwise obsolete ammunition to new effect.
“That’s why you see some creative recommendations in [our report] on taking certain missile systems that we were going to put into deep storage and potentially MacGyvering those and giving those to the Taiwanese,” Gallagher said.
“It’s why you see a request for multi-year appropriation for critical munition systems, which I think is absolutely essential.”
In other words, until the United States can rebuild its critically depleted stores of munitions, it will have to get creative with what it has.
Above all, he said, the Department of Defense (DoD) will need to seriously convince the private firms responsible for manufacturing its precision munitions that it needs them, and will need them for years to come.
“More than anything, we just need to get the demand signal for DoD [right],” Gallagher said.
“We want to test the limits of what industry is capable of.”
Even then there are bound to be difficulties, however. Ensuring that the United States continuously invest in and deliver new munitions on time over the course of years will be difficult. Particularly so given a deeply divided Congress willing to haggle over just about any part of the federal budget.
“It’s worse for critical munitions because critical munitions always get shortchanged for other items,” Gallagher said.
“They’re not as sexy sometimes as ships and planes and things like that. But, I think if you had the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary of defense saying hey, we are going to rebuild our arsenal of deterrence … I think you could really start to increase production.”
US Lacks Industrial Capacity for One Week of War with China
The CCP claims that Taiwan is part of its territory, though the regime has never actually controlled the island. CCP leadership has likewise vowed to unite Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary, and its frequent acts of military intimidation against the democratic island have drawn international condemnation.
Thus, it is vital to understand that the United States’ ongoing shortages of munitions, and its inadequate capacity to manufacture them at scale, is not limited to artillery rounds, but also include those munitions likely to be used heavily in an amphibious war.
According to a Pentagon fact sheet obtained by the Epoch Times, the United States has delivered 1,600 Stingers surface-to-air systems and 38 HIMARS rocket launchers to Ukraine, both of which would be vital to maintaining Taiwan’s defense should the U.S. join the fray.
Beyond that, there is also the deeper issue of the nation’s current inability to actually produce the munitions it would need, with many systems requiring years of advance notice before acquisition.
To that end, a report released in January by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank found that the United States would quickly run out of critical munitions during a war with China over the future of Taiwan.
“The U.S. defense industrial base lacks adequate surge capacity for a major war,” the report said.
While the United States has ample amounts of small arms ammunition, low stockpiles, and slow acquisition and manufacturing processes would likely lead to a shortage of critical munitions like long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) in less than one week of war, the report found.
“The U.S. defense industrial base is not adequately prepared for the competitive security environment that now exists,” the report reads.
“In a major regional conflict—such as a war with China in the Taiwan Strait—the U.S. use of munitions would likely exceed the current stockpiles of the U.S. Department of Defense, leading to a problem of ‘empty bins.’”
That finding has since been replicated in another wargame conducted by none other than the Select Committee on the CCP.
Conducted in May, the panel’s wargame quickly devolved into “catastrophic results,” with the U.S. side (played by Select Committee members) quickly running out of munitions and being rendered incapable of resupplying Taiwan with the weapons it needed to defend itself.
“I know the members of this committee will dig into the lessons we can learn from what may be some sobering outcomes of this game,” Gallagher said at the time.
“Deterring war is the only path to peace and stability, and it is incumbent upon elected officials to take decisive action to do so before it’s too late.”