It’s going to take years for Europe to build up the arms and ammunition production capacity needed to both aid Ukraine and reequip national forces, Belgium’s former deputy chief of defense said.
“It’s not a joke, we’re in deep shit,” Marc Thys, who retired in 2023 with the rank of lieutenant general, told POLITICO. “Especially in Belgium, but we’re not the only ones.”
With Ukraine running into severe shell shortages as Russians push into key cities like Avdiivka, and growing concern over the reliability of Europe’s traditional alliance with the United States, the worry is that time is running out to ramp up arms production on the Continent.
Thys said top commanders warned at the outset of Russia’s war on Ukraine in early 2022 that it would take “five to seven years” to tool up the bloc’s industry to reach the kind of industrial capacity necessary to sustain a credible deterrence.
“Ammunition is a symptom of a cultural problem within Europe,” said Thys, pointing to reliance on the U.S. security umbrella as an excuse for decades of underinvestment in the bloc’s own production capacity.
While the EU will fail to send a million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine by the end of March, as it had promised, it now claims it’s on track to deliver 1.1 million shells by the end of the year.
Defense investment is moving rapidly up the political agenda, both in national capitals and in Brussels.
On Feb. 27, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is due to set out a fresh strategy aimed at securing sustained investment for defense.
The kind of money needed is eye-watering.
Thys has previously said that it would require investment in the order of €5 billion to €7 billion in Belgium alone to make enough shells to fight a two-month conflict.
European Council President Charles Michel said Wednesday at the European Investment Bank Group Forum: “We could invest at least €600 billion in defense over the next 10 years.”
The EU already offers limited subsidies to boost joint procurement and help build out production lines, but Thys says such initiatives take time to deliver even modest returns.
“You’re talking from an industrial point of view of building a supply chain of two to three years,” he said, adding that Russia was proving faster at ramping up its production of shells and weapons.
While European arms-maker KNDS plans to open a new production line for 155 millimeter artillery ammunition in Belgium, it will take two years just to install and set up machinery to build the round casings, let alone begin production.
Even when up and running, the factory will only produce 30,000 rounds a year, a fraction of the 200,000 shells a month the Ukrainian military says it needs to fight Russian forces along a 1,000-kilometer front.
“There’s a lot of wishful thing … People underestimate the time needed to realize projects,” said Thys. “The industrial fabric in Europe isn’t strong enough to support Ukraine.”