Leading NATO official says the alliance is coming close to scraping 'the bottom of the barrel'
A leading NATO official and Canada's top military commander have both warned allies within the past week that their ammunition shortages have reached a crisis state, and are calling for urgent action to boost production of critical artillery rounds.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff, recently told a House of Commons committee that if Canadian troops were called upon to fire their big guns at the same rate as Ukrainian troops fighting to repel the Russian invasion, their supply of shells would last for only a few days.
At the Warsaw Security Forum this week, Admiral Rob Bauer, the head of NATO's military council, warned that "the bottom of the barrel is now visible" in terms of how much ammunition the alliance has available to transfer to Ukraine.
Most allies sign munitions deals
Most of Canada's major allies have in recent months signed agreements with munitions suppliers to increase the monthly output of artillery rounds — mostly 155 millimetre ammunition, the kind used by Canada's M-777 howitzers.
The federal government has yet to reach its own deal to boost the supply of shells, the Commons defence committee was told Thursday.
"I am very concerned about our ammunition stocks," said Eyre. "NATO high-readiness forces ask us to have what's called 30 days of supply.
"If we were to consume munitions [at] the same rate that we're seeing them [fired] in Ukraine, we would be out in some cases in days and it would take years to restock."
This week in Warsaw, Bauer said production needs to ramp up among allies because decades of under-investment left some ammunition warehouses half-full — or emptier — following donations to Ukraine.
Although estimates are hard to obtain, Ukrainian forces are reportedly firing as many as 5,000 rounds of artillery per day to beat back the Russian invasion.
Canada produces 3,000 of the 155 millimetre artillery shells per month under a framework called the Munitions Supply Program. It's a standing arrangement with five private sector companies — the most prominent being General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems Canada (GDOT-C) — to maintain stocks and provide surge capacity in times of crisis.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Eyre said, production has not increased.
"We have not produced one additional round of ammunition in this country since February of 22," he told the committee. Eyre called for a heightened sense of urgency and said more production lines should be opened as soon as possible.
"This is something that greatly concerns me," he said.
Canada needs better ammo, Eyre says
The defence chief also said Canada needs to be producing the more lethal and accurate 155 millimetre round known as the M-795 variant. It has a longer range and a greater blast radius than the M-107 rounds currently produced under the federal government's framework.
During the same committee hearing, Deputy Defence Minister Bill Matthews said discussions are ongoing with the companies involved in the Munitions Supply Program. One of the topics of those discussions, he said, is the fact that Canada does not produce "the most desirable variant" of 155 millimetre shells.
"It's a long process that requires investments, and there are discussions underway about potentially investing to upgrade production, but it is not a quick fix," said Matthews.
Whether those investments would come from the companies or the federal government isn't clear.
Since February 2022, the Pentagon has signed contracts worth $2.26 billion US to produce 155 millimetre shells. The agreements have helped to boost U.S. production from 14,000 shells per month before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine to about 20,000 per month today. In August, senior U.S. Defence Department officials said the intention is to increase production further to 100,000 per month by 2025.
'Why is there no urgency?'
Opposition critics said they're mystified by the fact that Canada hasn't already made a deal to accelerate production with GDOT-C, which has three plants in Quebec and 1,500 employees.
"This is the hottest, perhaps the hottest military commodity in the world right now," said Conservative MP Pat Kelly during last week's defence committee hearing. "Why is there no urgency on getting the production ramped up?"
Christyn Cianfarani is president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI). She told the Commons defence committee this week that while she is aware of proposals to increase shell production, no legally binding agreement has been signed to date.
"I have not seen these proposals, but I do understand from companies that proposals have been put into the Government of Canada to increase shell production to modify the [production] lines, particularly for 155 [shells]," Cianfarani said.
Late Thursday, testifying before the same committee, the defence department official in charge of procurement, Troy Crosby, said the federal government had received proposals almost a year ago from two of the companies that are part of the ammunition framework.
He said they proposed setting up a production line to manufacture the M-795 variant of the shell — a $200 million plan was approved and recommended to government.
"Since that time, the industry estimates have doubled to $400 million, and we are now re-looking at that investment," Crosby said, noting the money would be for setting up the production lines only, not the purchase of the shells.
He offered no timeline for a decision on the revised proposal. Once approved it would apparently take three years before the factories could begin turning out ammunition, Crosby said.
Earlier this year, the European Union set aside $2.2 billion US for the joint procurement and delivery of up to an additional one million rounds of artillery ammunition for Ukraine by early 2024. It also plans to spend an additional $550 million US to boost EU defence industry capacities in ammunition production.
There have been extensive discussions of munitions production at the working level among NATO allies, said Crosby.
Since the full-scale invasion began, Canada has delivered to Ukraine five separate shipments of 155 millimetre artillery ammunition — a total of 40,000 rounds. Half of it was purchased from the U.S. government, while the other half came from the inventory of the Canadian military.
Canada also has donated 1,800 rounds of 105 millimetre tank rounds.
The U.K. defence ministry says it has given Ukraine more than 300,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and in a recent statement said it is committed to giving "tens of thousands more" by the end of the year.
The United States has donated more than two million rounds of 155 millimetre ammunition to Ukraine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Senior reporter, defence and security
Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.
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