New Delhi: The United States is set to buy 100,000 rounds of Howitzer artillery from South Korea, as the biggest arms manufacturer in the world – the US – tries to maintain its munition stockpiles amid growing demand for weapons assistance from Ukraine.
The United States and South Korea have been working on an ammunition deal to buy 155 mm howitzer munition to shore up US weapons inventory that has come under pressure from continuing military aid to Ukraine.
“The US will buy 100,000 rounds of howitzer artillery from South Korean manufacturers to provide to Ukraine”, a US government official said on Thursday.
The agreement comes against the growing demand for weapons from Ukraine as it seeks to yield the most out of the ongoing counter-offensive against Russian troops in southern and eastern Ukraine to take back areas captured by Russia in the early days of the war that began on 24 February 2022.
The Ukrainian forces have been using the 155 mm howitzer munition at a heavy rate in the counter-offensive. Last week US defence officials said that around 7000 of this munition were being fired by the Ukrainian forces daily, against 20,000 by the Russian forces.
The South Korean Defence Ministry acknowledged ongoing talks with the US for the 155 mm artillery shells. However, it said that the deal was being carried on under the presumption that the US would be the ‘end user’, as the country has maintained a policy of only supplying non-lethal aid to Ukraine. It has in fact turned down Ukraine’s request for anti-aircraft weapons earlier this year.
The 155 mm ammunition is NATO standard medium calibre ammunition. This is used by the M777 howitzer artillery. The US has supplied over 120 of these big guns to Ukraine and it can provide it with more of these. However, the limit of ammunition, 155mm rounds, it could spare for Ukraine without affecting its own warfighting capacity is close to exhaustion.
However, since it’s the standard NATO calibre, this ammunition is available with other countries using similar weapons systems. The US, if it must keep supporting Ukraine with this, will have to buy from others to keep its own inventory from being depleted.
The Cost of supporting Ukraine
Ever since the beginning of the war, the US has committed over $18 billion for military and other aid to Ukraine.
However, this has come at a dear price for the US. Not just monetary but also military and strategic.
According to a Centre for Strategic and International Studies report in September, most of the weapon systems and munition the US has been giving to Ukraine are available only in a limited capacity in the US inventory.
The HIMARS or the MLRS, credited for the success of the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive so far, fire either M31 rockets, suited for targeting precise targets, or M30, suited to attacking a spread-out target. Both are very effective. However, they are only limited in numbers in the US inventory. According to a CSIS report in September, the availability of these rockets was “OK in the short term” but “limited in the medium term”.
The US has around 30,000 of these rockets in its inventory, from around 55,000 produced so far. Even if the US sends a third of these to Ukraine, they would not last for over more than several months. After that, there is no alternative available. The production for these is around only 5000 a year. Though the US has recently tried to level up production, it would take years before the annual production goes up.
Around 450 HIMARS launchers have been produced to date. The production of this weapon system nearly ceased in 2021. Although the US has recently taken steps to ramp up production, it will take years before that realises. Even if the US sends the multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) — which is similar to the HIMARS — that still won’t be very effective as the ammunition used by these launchers are only available in limited quantity.
The same is the case with the Javelin missiles that the Ukrainian troops used to target Russian tanks and jets in the early days of the war. One-third of the US inventory of these has already been shipped off to Ukraine. And there are concerns already in the US defence military for having enough in the inventory for other conflicts. The annual production capacity for these is around 1000. Ramping up production for these will also take years to realise.
With Ukraine seeking to ramp up its counter-offensive in the coming months and Russia preparing to put up a defence this winter and hoping for an opportunity to cease the initiative in the coming year, the Ukrainian demand for weapons is likely to grow steeply. Keeping up this demand will keep putting more pressure on already strained US inventory and risk its own war potential should another conflict were to arise with China over Taiwan or the South China sea.
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