How to re-arm NATO for the post-Ukraine future

How to re-arm NATO for the post-Ukraine future

A Ukrainian soldier launches a hand-held drone in 2015 (Petro Zadorzhnyy/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy of historical proportions. It’s also offering strategists a glimpse of the future of modern warfare, from which countless lessons have already been learned. In the op-ed below, Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress’s Joshua Huminski says one lesson not to be missed is that NATO’s strategic procurement shouldn’t just focus on what has been given to Ukraine, but what’s proven effective there.

As the war in Ukraine approaches its second year, the pressures on the weapon stockpiles of the West and NATO will continue, if not expand. This presents not just a challenge, however, but an opportunity.

It’s no secret that the industrial base of several countries is feeling the strain of producing weapons to be transferred to Kyiv, and meeting Ukraine’s demands while ensuring that the NATO alliance is well-armed and provisioned for other possible contingencies remains of paramount importance.

But the continued expenditure of Western arms on the battlefields of Ukraine and the lessons drawn from the fight is a chance to reassess NATO’s longer-term planning and its longer-term acquisition of weapons systems. A dual approach is critical as NATO must ultimately balance the meeting of Ukraine’s needs today (and in the mid-term) with the longer-term force modernization efforts.

Most pressingly, the provision of arms and munitions to Ukraine must continue if Kyiv is to sustain its offensive, defend itself against anticipated counter-offensives from Russia, and build its military from one primarily defense in nature to one that finds itself in a longer-term deterrent position. These are neither small, nor cheap tasks.

In January of this year, the Biden administration approved the 29th aid package for Ukraine, which included over $3 billion in security assistance. While not going into a full itemization of this aid package, it notably includes 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles with 500 TOW anti-tank missiles; 18 155mm self-propelled Howitzers and 18 support vehicles, with 70,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition, and 500 precision-guided artillery shells; among other items. Suffice it to say this is not an insignificant amount of material.

Germany, for its part, announced that it would also supply 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles and France pledged to provide AMX-10 RC armored reconnaissance vehicles. The United Kingdom and Poland confirmed that they will send main battle tanks—Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks, respectively — to Kyiv. This marks a continued shift in the West’s level of comfort in what it provides to Ukraine.

Meeting Ukraine’s operational demands has increased strain on America’s stockpiles that has not yet been met by concomitant increases in the defense industrial base. The normal production levels for 155mm artillery rounds in the United States, for example, is roughly 30,000 rounds per annum — Ukraine expends that in roughly two weeks’ time. In August alone, the United States sent 1,000 Javelins to Ukraine, which is equivalent to the annual production rate of the highly-effective anti-tank weapon.

The United States is in a better position to absorb drawdowns of its stockpiles, the same could not be said for Eastern European members of NATO, which have smaller arsenals, fewer existing and operational production lines, and, at the same time, greater pressures resulting from the perceived and real threat posed by Russia.

While the United States and NATO may not be in a vulnerable position militarily, the drawdowns on stocks and the unmet, unfunded requirements for increased production do increase risks in the longer-term, not the least of which is when looking at the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, according to reports, Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, expressed frustration at the pace of deliveries saying, “We’re talking about war fighting and nation security and going against a competitor here and a potential adversary that is like nothing we’ve ever seen and we keep dilly dallying around with these deliveries.”

At the same time, the war in Ukraine presents a novel, if unexpected, opportunity to modernize Western arsenals, increase interoperability and standardization, and build for the future. The war in Ukraine has already provided a proving-ground of sorts for emerging technologies and battlefield concepts. The widespread use of commercial off-the-shelf drones, for instance, and military-grade systems is demonstrating the utility and diversity of these platforms—both in the air and in the water. The loitering munitions and “kamikaze drones” are also showing the efficacy of these comparably cheap platforms against complex air defense networks. It is also reinforcing already known lessons about modern warfare.

In light of these lessons, it does not make sense to simply purchase more of existing arms or restarting supply chains for previous generation weapons. Here, there must be a dual-track approach to acquisition—expand Javelin production to meet Ukraine’s needs and American mid-term requirements, while expanding the development of the baguette-sized “Switchblade” loitering munition and similar classes of munitions.

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the threat of these same munitions against fixed and mobile forces. While theater-level air defense systems will retain their importance, increased investment in short-range point defense systems—electronic countermeasures as well as kinetic systems—must be prioritized. Here again, investment in a Stinger-like platform for Ukraine is necessary, but its successor must be given longer-term priority. Indeed, this is recognized by the United States Marine Corps in its Force Design 2030 [PDF].

Squad-level intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) must also be a priority. Uncrewed ISR systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper and others are immensely valuable, but devolving these capabilities to small units with direct connection to indirect fire support is proving devastating to Russian forces on the battlefields of Ukraine. These Ukrainian soldiers are, in many cases, using commercial off-the-shelf platforms. Finding American or European vendors for similar off-the-shelf systems should be a priority.

This is not to suggest that NATO wholesale jettison systems or concepts that work, simply based on preliminary lessons from the war in Ukraine. Despite the debate on social media, the tank is not obsolete; combined arms do still, and will continue to, matter. Indirect fire support — both conventional and rocket artillery — is proving invaluable on the battlefield. Air support and helicopter operations are particularly challenging and dangerous in a contested environment — something the United States did not encounter in Afghanistan. Many of these systems will serve the United States (and NATO) well in the event of Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

The path forward, ultimately, must be a blend of both, but perfect must not be the enemy of the good. Waiting for the lessons to be clear before investing is not an option, yet investing rashly based on incomplete analysis is equally fraught with peril. Doubling down on investing in the production of kit that works will meet Ukraine’s immediate needs, but concurrent, sensible investments must be made by NATO partners on the technology of tomorrow proven on the battlefield of today.

Failing to do so risks near-term strategic vulnerability in other domains, not the least of which is in the Indo-Pacific. Making the right investments today, or failing to do so, sends signals to Beijing—it is critical that the right signals are sent.

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.