Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signaled this week that the US and its western allies are struggling to keep up with Ukraine’s demand for the advanced weapons it needs to fend off the Russian invasion. This signal reflects dwindling supplies for Ukraine and fears in the White House of an escalation that could lead to war between the US and Russia.
The risk of reduced US stockpiles of high-value ammunition has been reported almost since US contributions to Ukraine’s defense began. Now, almost eight months into the war, experts polled by Fox News Digital say the US is at or very close to the end of its capacity to give.
They agreed that Austin’s comments indicated that the initial onslaught of high-end munitions such as HIMAR missile launchers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft Stingers and M-777 howitzers is over. These sources said there may be two factors at play contributing to this reality.
One factor is the problem Austin raised head-on this week — the US is running out of equipment to turn over to Ukraine.
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At a news conference on Wednesday, Austin was asked if the US and other nations are concerned that domestic supplies of critical ammunition are running low enough to help Ukraine. Austin dodged the question by stressing that there is a desire to get what Ukraine needs, but left unsaid whether Ukraine’s allies can actually deliver.
“Well, it’s certainly not a lack of will,” Austin replied.
Austin had just finished a meeting with officials from dozens of countries on Ukraine’s ammunition needs. Describing that meeting, he again spoke of willpower, but hinted at a strained capacity to provide more to Ukraine, which is using up ammunition faster than the world can supply it.
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“We will produce and deliver these highly effective capabilities over the coming months — and in some cases years — even as we continue to meet Ukraine’s most urgent real-time self-defense needs,” Austin said of the recent commitment to Broadcast HIMARS, Vehicles, Radar Systems and other devices.
Mark Cancian is a senior consultant at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who has worked on DOD procurement issues for the Office of Management and Budget for seven years. His assessment, based on stockpiles, industrial capacity, and information from the Biden administration, is that the US has “limited” supplies of HIMARs, Javelins, Stingers, and M-777 howitzers.
“There are some areas where we’re basically at the bottom,” he told Fox News Digital.
In some cases, this means that the US will likely start accommodating Ukraine’s desire for weapons by sending lower-priced substitutions, such as lighter howitzers that are serviceable but not what Ukraine is looking for. In other cases, the US may not have much to give – Cancian said that while there is talk of the US providing more air defense equipment, the US does not have much to give in this area.
Cancian said he read Austin’s comments as a sign that the days of the US giving Ukraine its best things are over.
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“It confirmed what I believe that we will continue to support Ukraine, but we have to do it in other ways, like providing replacements, or we may have to buy stuff from other people, or it will take longer,” he said said. “That it won’t be quite the same.”
He said this risks creating a “petting zoo for NATO gear” in Ukraine — a relatively small number of many types of gear that could cause compatibility issues.
Some on Capitol Hill read Austin’s remark differently, leading to much the same conclusion — that the Biden administration is deliberately slowing the transfer of critical munitions to Ukraine because of growing fears of stumbling into a direct conflict with Russia.
A congressional aide with working knowledge on these issues told Fox News Digital that while officials are pointing to limited supplies, there is still room for more, and that the slowdown was due to a different calculation by the Biden administration.
“They are afraid of an escalation,” said this helper.
Just last week, President Biden spoke candidly about the “Armageddon” scenario that could unfold if Russia attempted to win the war with a tactical nuclear strike. The congressional aide interpreted Austin’s comments as a sign that the administration is increasingly concerned about crossing a line that could force that outcome.
Another sign of US caution, the adviser said, is that a few weeks ago, at the end of fiscal year 2022, the government expired nearly $2.8 billion in powers to supply arms to Ukraine. Some on Capitol Hill read this as an indication that the government is finding its own level of comfort when it comes to arming Ukraine, and that level falls short of what Congress has authorized.
“Congress gave the administration more than it wanted,” the adviser said. The Department of Defense declined to respond to questions from Fox News Digital about the expiration of that authority.
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There is a similar view in Congress that while US stockpiles of certain ammunition have clearly been reduced as the US was sending items to Ukraine, this reduction poses no security threat to the United States itself. The adviser explained that many of these items were stored primarily for use in a possible conflict with Russia, and that the conflict is already unfolding with Ukraine at the forefront.
This conflict is reducing Russia’s military capacity, meaning that a corresponding drop in US inventories will not bring the US anywhere near a supply crisis.
In other words, the Biden administration has more flexibility to give more to Ukraine, but chooses not to.
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The evolving US stance comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ramps up pressure on Western nations to provide more arms. Just this week, Zelenskyy called for air defense systems that could repel Russia’s recent missile strikes on the Ukrainian capital.
“The 229th day of a full-fledged war,” he said. “On the 229th day they try to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the earth.”