by Austin Bay
November 29, 2023
2023 isn't 1914 and 1915. In two contemporary wars -- Ukraine versus Russia and Israel versus Hamas/Hezbollah/Houthi Iran -- history is not repeating World War One's first two appalling years. The slaughters on Europe's eastern and western fronts -- and later in the Middle East -- were so immense our moment on the planet still confronts their history-shaping consequences.
Time to paraphrase the ironic aphorism attributed to Mark Twain: Though we don't have historical repetition, we definitely have a case of a deadly historical rhyme, one with real world peril for Ukraine and Israel.
The artillery shell shortage of late 1914 sounds like obscure logistical history but there's a reason great generals master logistics. Armies run on beans and bullets; tank and aviation fuel equals beans, shells and even ICBMs are bigger bullets.
The 1914 shortage affected all belligerents, western allies, Russia and the Central Powers. Though the big guns didn't fall silent, as their rounds became scarce they sputtered. Major operations ceased as soldiers entrenched and then built bunkers.
In Britain the munition shortage lead to an internal political clash historians call The Shell Crisis of 1915. As historian Hew Strachan writes: "In 1914, quick-firing field artillery could fire more shells than domestic industries, geared to peacetime consumption levels, could supply. Armies, although recognizing the dangers, had underestimated them. By late autumn (1914) they were having to limit the number of shells each gun was permitted to fire each day. Industry's conversion to wartime production would not be complete until 1916, and in 1915 the shells crisis had political consequences for most belligerents."
Pre-war planners also stockpiled lots of shrapnel (fragmentation) shells to use against infantry in the open. Destroying trenches and bunkers took high explosive rounds -- and there weren't enough.
The NATO Shell Crisis of 2022-2024 began with necessary action followed by good intentions. Ukraine needed support of all types, but the first month of combat told Kiev it needed 155-millimeter artillery pieces and rounds. 155 mm is the NATO standard tube artillery piece. NATO and EU defense officials began "cascading" weapons and rounds from allied reserves and stockpiles -- robbing Peter to supply Paul.
What does Peter do? He scrounges for immediate needs and ramps up production for the long term. Scrounge example: the U.S. got South Korea to dip into its own stockpiles and partially replenish U.S. munition reserves sent to Ukraine. Ramp up: In Fall 2022 the U.S. Army ramped up production of munitions -- especially 155mm.
Now review Strachan's comment on industry conversion to wartime production. It was slow in 1915 and it's still a slow process.
As for good intentions, in March the European Defense Agency promised to supply Ukraine with one million rounds of artillery ammunition by March 2024. As of mid-November, only 300,000 rounds have been delivered.
In an interview with Politico, Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics said that "...if there is not enough ammunition, or there is not enough equipment in the EU, then let's buy it somewhere else and give it to Ukraine. It is now important that Ukraine keeps fighting and Ukraine gets what they need."
Why are stockpiles running out? In 1914 none of the belligerents got the war they expected. Ammunition expenditure greatly exceeded estimates. In 2022 Russia's blitz invasion failed; 20 months later the war continues. Russia didn't get the war it expected. Nor did the U.S. -- recall President Joe Biden thought Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy should run.
Zelenskyy said he didn't need a ride, he needed ammo. He still needs ammo. In a Nov. 16 press conference Zelenskyy told reporters "warehouses are empty" in nations that supply Ukraine with munitions. And since the Israel-Hamas War ignited supplies have "really slowed down."
The Jerusalem Post reported that since Oct. 7 Israel has fired over 90,000 shells on Gaza, and some 10,000 against Hezbollah on the northern front. Not all are 155mm, but fair bet the majority are.
The U.S. gave Israel American munitions stored in Israel. That was a pre-war plan.
Israel needs new supplies, air defense and anti-projectile missiles. Complex missile systems take time and money to produce.
Alas -- eventually Peter has nothing left to supply Paul.
The Free World Shell Crisis of 2022-2024 has embarrassing but instructive echoes of 1915 that ignorant politicians will ignore but wise leaders will heed.