Weapons of War: The Race Between Russia and Ukraine

Weapons of War: The Race Between Russia and Ukraine

An employee handles 155 mm caliber shells after the manufacturing process at an ammunition plant in Scranton, PA.
An employee handles 155 mm caliber shells after the manufacturing process at an ammunition plant in Scranton, PA. Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

The new U.S. aid package will reestablish a critical flow of weapons to Ukraine’s military, but the war will hinge greatly on which side can ramp up and sustain its firepower and troop numbers in the months ahead.  

April 24, 2024 6:23 pm (EST)

An employee handles 155 mm caliber shells after the manufacturing process at an ammunition plant in Scranton, PA.
An employee handles 155 mm caliber shells after the manufacturing process at an ammunition plant in Scranton, PA. Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images
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After a shamefully long delay, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that includes $61 billion for Ukraine on Tuesday, only days after CIA Director Bill Burns warned that Ukraine was in danger of “losing” the war this year without U.S. assistance. This aid should help fill critical ammunition shortfalls and allow the Ukrainians to hold the lines in the face of a looming Russian summer offensive.

But the long-term outcome of the war remains very much in doubt. That will depend in part on the race to produce weapons and ammunition, pitting Russia and its allies (Iran and North Korea) against Ukraine and its allies (principally, the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]). There is also a concurrent competition by both Russia and Ukraine to field enough troops. This is a brief examination of where the two sides stand in mobilizing some of the key “sinews of war”.

Artillery

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Artillery has been known as the “king of battle” for centuries, and this largely remains true today. In the Russia-Ukraine war, artillery fire accounts for about 80 percent of the casualties on both sides. That makes it all the more ominous that in recent months, following the U.S. aid cutoff, Ukraine went from being outgunned five to one in artillery fire to ten to one.

The resumption of U.S. aid should reduce but not eliminate Ukraine’s disadvantage. According to NATO intelligence estimates, Russia is on track to produce nearly three times as many artillery shells this year—about 3 million—as the United States and Europe combined (about 1.2 million). Russia has also reportedly received more than one million rounds from North Korea.

That’s a dismaying and inexcusable disparity given that Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is barely larger than Canada’s. But being a dictator has its privileges: President Vladimir Putin has successfully placed Russia’s economy onto a wartime footing and has roughly doubled the country’s military budget since 2021. While eighteen NATO members are projected to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense this year, Russia is poised to earmark 6 percent of its GDP for defense expenditures. When it comes to artillery production, the United States and Europe are projected to manufacture 2.6 million rounds per year by 2025, underscoring that Western nations need to invest even more in this industry.

Ukraine is also gearing up to produce its own artillery ammunition, but it will take time to get its production lines cranking. (The Czech Republic is helping by rounding up a coalition of nations that has bought approximately five hundred thousand artillery rounds for Ukraine.) Ukraine’s best hope is that Russia will be hard-put to keep up its breakneck production of military equipment amid looming shortfalls of labor and raw materials.

Drones

Drones are a new—and vital—addition to the military arsenal. They range from small, commercially available drones to larger, more sophisticated, military-grade drones; they are used for both reconnaissance and strikes. Ukraine’s early lead in drones—especially in small first-person view (FPV) drones that provide a video feed to the controller—has partially made up for its artillery shortfalls, even though most drones cannot do nearly as much damage as an artillery shell.

More on:

Ukraine

Russia

Military Operations

Wars and Conflict

Ukraine has a robust, home-grown drone industry that, according to its Strategic Industries Ministry, could produce 2 million drones by the end of the year—many of them using cheap drones or drone parts made in China. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Ukraine’s partners plan to supply another one million drones in 2024. Some of Ukraine’s domestically produced drones are capable of flying hundreds of miles and have recently been used to target oil production facilities deep inside Russia, eroding the country’s refining capacity. But Ukraine is losing a reported ten thousand drones a month, since many fly one-way strike missions and others are brought down by Russian air defenses.

Russia, for its part, initially relied on Iran to supply Shahed kamikaze drones but has now built a factory capable of producing 400 to 500 of its own Shaheds per month. There are no good figures available on overall Russian drone production, but it is clear from battlefield reports that Russia has at least reached parity with Ukraine in the quality and quantity of its drones. This is an area where the United States has been of little help:  the Wall Street Journal recently noted that, “in the first war to feature small drones prominently, American companies still have no meaningful presence. Made-in-America drones tend to be expensive, glitchy and hard to repair.” The United States urgently needs to kickstart its drone industry.

Missiles, Bombs, and Air Defenses

Air defense is one area where U.S. technology is top-of-the-line—in particular, the Patriot system has been highly effective against Russian cruise and ballistic missiles. (Patriots can also target drones but this is not considered cost-effective.) The problem is that Ukraine has only three Patriot batteries and their ammunition was badly depleted during the long delay in passing another U.S. aid bill. Ukraine has many other air-defense systems, including from France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Sweden, but the Patriot is the most capable and longest-range system. That’s why Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has asked the West to provide twenty-six Patriot batteries. This summer, Ukraine should also receive its first F-16s. These aircraft can be useful for air defense, particularly for targeting the Russian bombers that have been dropping heavy “glide bombs” (old Soviet dumb bombs equipped with guidance kits) that have been devastating frontline Ukrainian positions.

While the glide bombs are Russia’s most effective aerial weapon for targeting Ukrainian troops, Russia employs a variety of drones and missiles to target Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. Since the start of the war, the Kremlin has increased production of Iskander-M ballistic missile from 7 per month to 30 per month and of the Kh-101 cruise missile from 13-30 per month to 100-115 per month. Russia has also bought Fareh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles from Iran. “Russia isn’t going to run out of missiles,” as the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted. It’s imperative that Ukraine not run out of air defenses—as it was close to doing before the passage of the new U.S. aid bill.

Military Personnel

Even amid the growing importance of missiles and drones, war is still fought by people. Russia has suffered staggering casualties—some 315,000 soldiers killed or wounded—but it has managed to actually increase the size of its military since the start of the war. U.S. General Christopher Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, testified in Congress on April 10 that in the past year Russia has increased its frontline troop strength in Ukraine from 360,000 to 470,000 troops, and British intelligence reports that Russia is recruiting 30,000 additional men per month.

Ukraine has an estimated 600,000 active duty military personnel, but only 200,000 or so are deployed at the front, and many of them have been there since the start of the war. Ukrainian units have been badly depleted by casualties and report a critical shortage of infantry. (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the war, but the real figure is likely much higher.)

Before he was relieved of command, Ukraine’s former commanding general, Valery Zaluzhny, said Ukraine needed to mobilize four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand new soldiers, but Zelenskyy resisted his advice because it would be so costly and unpopular to implement. This month, Zelenskyy finally signed a new law overhauling the conscription process and lowering the draft age from twenty-seven to twenty-five. It will still take many months, however, to substantially expand Ukrainian ranks. The West can help by moving its military trainers—or at least contractors—to Kyiv so that Ukrainian troops do not have to go to other countries to be trained.

The Bottom Line

Ukraine and its Western backers are still struggling, in the third year of the war, to keep up with Russia’s advantages in troop and weapon numbers. Ukraine, to be sure, has advantage of its own: its forces are better motivated and better able to improvise, but Russia has been closing the qualitative gap. Ukraine would have a much better chance to prevail if the United States and its European allies did more to ramp up defense production to keep pace with Russia’s wartime output—and if they donated more of their defense equipment to Ukraine, including the long-range strike weapons that Ukraine needs to target Russian bases in Russia-occupied Crimea. Stepping up to save Ukraine is the smart strategy, since Ukrainian resistance protects NATO from Russian aggression at relatively low cost to the West.

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