Ukraine does not want to be dependent on the West and is taking arms production into its own hands: ‘The death of the enemy starts with us’

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The Ukrainian army had only one Bohdana gun in its arsenal when Russia invaded the country two years ago. Yet that one weapon, built in Ukraine in 2018 and capable of firing NATO-caliber bullets, proved so effective in the early days of the war that it was shipped to battlefields across the country, from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the southwestern coast along the Black Sea and places in between.

Now Ukraine’s arms industry is building eight of those Bohdana self-propelled artillery systems a month, and while official sources won’t say how many they’ve made in total, the increased production signals a potential boom in the country’s domestic weapons production.

Workers check 82-millimeter mortars at a factory in Ukraine.Image AP

This increase in production comes at a crucial time. The Russian war machine works 24 hours a day and all arms production has quadrupled. Ukrainian forces are losing ground in some key areas, including the strategic eastern city of Avdiivka, from which they withdrew in February. A US aid package has still not been approved by Congress. And while European defense companies are cautiously setting foot in Ukraine, major American arms manufacturers have not yet committed.

General consensus is that Ukraine needs to rebuild its own defense industry so that its military is not dependent on the West in the coming years. After all, the West has sometimes hesitated to send advanced weapons systems, including anti-aircraft defenses, tanks and long-range missiles. But it remains to be seen whether that can happen in time to change the course of a war, one that would become even more difficult without more US military help.

A Ukrainian soldier from an artillery unit fires in the direction of Russian positions outside Bachmut.Image AFP

But Ukraine’s military engineers have already shown what they can do when it comes to adapting older weapons systems to more modern firepower. According to Ukrainian government documents, in the past year alone, Ukrainian defense companies have built three times as many armored vehicles as before the war and production of anti-tank missiles has quadrupled.

Research and development funding is expected to increase eightfold this year – from $162 million to $1.3 billion – according to an analysis of Ukraine’s military budget to 2030 by Janes, a defense research firm. Military purchases are expected to peak at nearly $10 billion in 2023, up from about $1 billion a year before the war.

“We say that the death of the enemy begins with us,” Alexander Kamyshin, Ukraine’s Minister of Strategic Industry, said in an interview last month in his office in a nondescript brick building in Kiev, hidden among restaurants and apartment buildings. “It’s about showing that we are not waiting for you to come and help us. It’s all about starting to build ourselves.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire a French-made self-propelled 155-millimeter cannon toward Russian positions on a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.Image AFP

Some weapons prove more difficult to produce in Ukraine than others. Consider 155-millimeter artillery shells, which are desperately needed on the battlefield, but depend on imported raw materials and licensing rights from Western manufacturers or governments. Kamyshin said domestic production of 155-millimeter shells is “on the way,” but declined to say when.

Ukraine’s defense industry, once a key supplier to the Soviet Union, has shrunk after three decades of budget cuts after the country declared independence in 1991. The government in Kiev now plans to spend about $6 billion this year on weapons made in Ukraine, including a million drones, but, Kamyshin said, “we can produce more than we have available in funds.”

The long period of decline may be difficult to overcome. For example, to restart production of the 2S22 Bohdana artillery gun, officials had to track down the weapon’s original designers and engineers, some of whom had been assigned to insignificant military duties across Ukraine.

A worker drags a cart with mortar shells at a factory in Ukraine.Image AP

In June 2022, Ukrainian forces used the Bohdana’s 30-mile range to attack and destroy Russian air defenses in the successful Battle of Snake Island in the Black Sea. “It was a big surprise for the Russians,” said Major Myroslav Hai, a special operations officer who helped liberate the island. “They couldn’t understand how anyone could use artillery for this distance.”

In Europe, political and business leaders are encouraging military production companies in Ukraine. While the first group is mainly concerned about the crumbling American support, the second mainly sees new economic growth opportunities. Whatever the case, it could take years before those weapons or equipment reach the battlefield.

German arms giant Rheinmetall and Turkish drone builder Baykar are building factories in Ukraine. France’s defense minister said in March that three French companies producing drones and land warfare equipment were on the verge of signing similar deals. Last month, Germany and France announced a joint venture through the defense conglomerate KNDS to build parts for tanks, howitzers and eventually entire weapons systems in Ukraine.

A mortar shell on a lathe at a factory in Ukraine.Image AP

According to experts, the Ukrainian military has deployed air defense systems around some of its most critical weapons factories. The foreign-backed factories are likely to be built largely in the west of the country, far from the front lines but also protected by anti-aircraft defenses.

Christian Seear, Ukraine operations director for Britain-based military contractor BAE Systems, says even the fledgling moves by foreign manufacturers “send an essential message – that you can go into Ukraine and set things up.”

Although BAE Systems plans to produce weapons in Ukraine in the future, Seear says, the company is currently focused on a “fix it forward” approach, repairing combat-damaged weapons at factories in Ukraine so that they can be delivered more quickly can return to the front lines. Many of the weapons in Ukraine’s ground war – including M777 and Archer howitzers, Bradley and CV90 fighting vehicles and Challenger 2 tanks – are made by BAE Systems.

A Ukrainian soldier from an artillery unit throws an empty grenade as they fire towards Russian positions on the outskirts of Bachmut.Image AFP

“We want those things to keep fighting and it’s becoming increasingly clear that you can’t keep maintaining them in neighboring countries,” Seear says. “It is not acceptable for a prolonged war of attrition to have hundreds of high-quality, reliable howitzers travel hundreds of miles.”

So far, no major U.S. weapons manufacturer has announced plans to open production lines in Ukraine, Ukrainian and U.S. officials say. A number of executives have visited Kiev in recent weeks to meet Kamyshin and other officials. The Biden administration also organized meetings in December to bring together Ukrainian leaders and U.S. military producers.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a Pion artillery system at Russian positions near Bachmut.Image AP

Helping Ukraine rebuild its defense industry has become even more important now that Republicans in Congress have blocked $60 billion in military and financial aid to Ukraine.

But a web of bureaucracy in Kiev threatens to slow down at least some investors in their efforts to shepherd proposals through three ministries: Defense, Digital Transformation and Strategic Industries.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how this all fits together and how they work together,” said William B. Taylor, a former ambassador to Kiev who is leading an effort to connect U.S. and Ukrainian defense companies.

“American companies have many opportunities to invest in other places around the world,” says Taylor. “This is one where American national interests are at stake, so that’s why we’re going the extra mile to help make these connections.”

With an urgent need for 155-millimeter artillery ammunition, Taylor suggested that an initial joint venture between Ukrainian and American companies could focus on ramping up its production. European producers are already venturing into that market.

“If the Europeans are involved in its development in the quantities they promise, I think we will solve the problem of ‘grenade hunger’ over time,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said in an interview in Ukrainian state media.

Although Ukrainian manufacturers are banned from exporting weapons until the war is over, Kamyshin sounds eager to compete with foreign arms makers.

A Ukrainian artillery squad from the Bureviy Brigade fires from a frontline position in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.Image NYT

Kamyshin is a powerful speaker with a goatee and a top-knot hairstyle traditionally worn by Ukrainian Cossacks. He is one of what Taylor described as a new generation of leaders in Ukraine – at the age of 39, he has risen quickly through the government ranks.

After his appointment as minister, in March 2023, Kamyshin visited almost every weapons factory in Ukraine and said he found an industry in dire need of an overhaul. In some places, workers worked in damaged factories; in other places, rockets were built by hand.

Although he says production is running smoother now, he still receives daily updates on critical assembly lines to quickly identify and resolve faults quickly.

“We make things faster and cheaper and, importantly, they work,” Kamyshin said in an interview that was as much a sales pitch for domestically built weapons as a discussion about foreign investment. “One day we will join you and NATO. So when you buy from us, you build capabilities that will one day become part of the joint capabilities. So why not invest in your joint capabilities?”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Ukraine dependent West arms production hands death enemy starts

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