Europe needs to do more militarily to support Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Europe has provided a tremendous amount of support to Ukraine, flooding the country with much-needed military equipment. However, the taps are now being tightened. The ad hoc nature of Europe’s military support is hitting a wall. The continent’s weapon stockpiles are running low just as Ukraine’s military needs are growing and becoming more expensive. Meanwhile, the increases in defense spending throughout Europe are unlikely to be enough to both modernize Europe’s woeful militaries and support Ukraine as it tries to single-handedly match a global military power.
Defense ministries across Europe now face a trade-off between supporting Ukraine by parting ways with expensive and precious equipment, maintaining their national militaries, and for some, complying with other export contracts. Inevitably, in trying to strike a balance between these competing priorities, a degree of hesitation has crept into decisionmaking related to Ukraine. This could prove devastating to Ukraine’s military prospects, especially as the war has slipped from the headlines. Less public attention means less pressure on politicians to act, which means political leaders put less pressure on their bureaucracies to move fast. This also means public support for further increases in national defense spending will be limited.
Thus, Europe needs to act boldly now, while there is still public support, to allocate the necessary resources to support Ukraine. Wars are incredibly expensive to wage and ad hoc arrangements are no longer adequate, as it is clear this war will be a long slog. It also should not just be on the shoulders of the United States to support Ukraine militarily.
Europe needs an equivalent to the United States’ $40 billion Ukraine assistance act, which gives the United States the financial wherewithal to rapidly aid Ukraine, and will ramp up the defense industrial base to meet large-scale demands. This is a job for the European Union, which, in response to Covid-19, demonstrated it could mobilize the necessary resources. An EU Ukraine assistance act would provide EU member states the financial support to keep military equipment flowing to Ukraine and to fully activate the European defense industrial base. Without such financial support, Ukraine will be in dire straits.
Ukraine’s Growing Needs
Ukraine’s needs are enormous because it is fighting a global military superpower on its own. Kyiv’s needs have been exacerbated by the fact that the conflict has turned into an artillery war: Russia has shifted to using heavy artillery to defend its initial territorial gains and launch an offensive in the Donbas region. This has given Russia an advantage, as Ukraine is running out of ammunition for its Soviet-era systems and is awaiting more Western systems. Russia is firing around 60,000 artillery shells and rockets every day against Ukraine’s 5,000 to 6,000, an inevitable outcome given a Ukrainian official’s observation that Ukraine had only “one artillery piece to 10 to 15 Russian artillery pieces.”
Ukraine’s military demands therefore have grown—from seeking less expensive small arms and anti-tank weapons to much more expensive artillery and tracked vehicles. Ukraine says it needs 200 tanks, 250 multiple rocket launchers (MLRS) and 750 155 mm howitzers in addition to what has already been committed. For context, the entire German army has only 100 howitzers and about 40 MLRS; it is giving 7 PzH 2000 howitzers to Kyiv. Buying new howitzers is not cheap—almost $10 million per unit for France’s advanced CAESAR 155 mm howitzer. Thus, coming close to meeting Ukrainian needs will entail significantly depleting stocks of vital and expensive equipment. The war may also evolve, leading Ukraine to shift its requests and needs.
U.S. Support and the Ukraine Assistance Act
In the early phase of the war, the United States took billions of dollars worth of U.S. equipment from U.S. forces and sent it to Ukraine. The United States has provided $4.2 billion in equipment to Ukraine using the president’s “drawdown authority.” This is an extraordinary sum. The urgent need to support Ukraine meant that virtually no generals objected to the U.S. military giving away so much equipment. The usual concerns about the impact on force readiness, who would pay to backfill the equipment, and how long it would take for procurements to get to their units were brushed aside, as in many European countries, to help Ukraine survive. As the war became more prolonged and less existential to Ukraine, concerns began to bubble up within the Pentagon over the broader impact on U.S. forces.
But in May, the United States, recognizing the long-term need to support Ukraine, passed a massive $40 billion support package for Ukraine. This came on top of the $13.6 billion Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act that passed in March. The new $40 billion funding package gives the Biden administration the financial flexibility to robustly support Ukraine militarily through the fiscal year. The bill provides roughly $10 billion in security assistance and $16 billion in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. The security assistance funds allow the United States to buy weapons from defense contractors for Ukraine. But that process often takes time, as equipment has to be manufactured and roll off the assembly lines. Thus, perhaps more crucially, the legislation also provides the U.S. military with $9 billion to replace equipment that it has given to Ukraine and gives the president the authority to “drawdown” up to $11 billion in equipment from the U.S. military. In other words, the act ensures that the U.S. military can buy equipment to replace what it gave to Ukraine while continuing to pull from equipment from its vast equipment stocks. Without this funding and the assurance it provides, obstacles within the Pentagon would surely mount. This legislation, however, gives the U.S. military the assurance that if equipment is taken off the shelf, there is money to order replacement equipment.
Europe Needs Its Own Ukraine Assistance Act
European countries need their own Ukraine assistance act. With inflation increasing and with governments having already announced defense spending increases (intended for national defense), it is highly unlikely that many European countries will be able to move the money needed to support a massive Ukrainian armament campaign. After all, increasing defense spending only to spend it on replacing equipment sent to Ukraine would leave European forces just as hollow as they were before Russia invaded. What is really needed is a collective effort to finance such a campaign.
Fortunately, Europe has a union. The European Union can provide the financial resources to keep aid to Ukraine flowing. At an upcoming EU summit, the European Union could agree to borrow (just as it did for Covid-19 recovery) or reallocate tens of billions of euros to incentivize its European militaries and industries to give advanced equipment to Ukraine. This would give the European Union the financial firepower and flexibility to keep up support for Ukraine, while also strengthening and integrating European defense.
The European Union could implement this program in one of two ways. First, the European Union could simply allocate massive additional sums to the new European Peace Facility (EPF). The European Union has already used the EPF to provide Ukraine with 2 billion euros of lethal military assistance. This money was directly allocated to EU member states, providing them resources to replace equipment sent to Ukraine, just how “drawdown authority” is being used in the United States. The EPF could simply play this role on a much larger scale. A member state would provide Ukraine with equipment it needs and then essentially send the European Union the bill for replacement equipment. However, this step would require expanding the EPF’s budget. Aid to Ukraine has already consumed nearly half of the facility’s 5.7 billion-euro budget for the 2021–2027 period. The European Union would need to dramatically increase the EPF’s budget, which it could do through additional borrowing along the lines of the NextGenEU program.
A second approach would involve the European Union being afforded the funds to act as joint procurer. Although this is more complicated than just bolstering the EPF, it has greater potential long-term benefits. The European Commission has already announced an innovative 500 million-euro program to incentivize EU members to make joint procurements. While this is an important step, the European Union should think bigger. The European Union could be given the resources to put in orders with European companies for massive quantities of equipment to replace equipment sent to Ukraine by EU member states. While there are often claims that the European Union is not allowed to buy and own military equipment, there is nothing in the EU treaties that explicitly prevents this. One of the union’s founding treaties does limit its ability to use its budget for military operations; however, in this case, the European Union would not be conducting operations. It would be buying equipment for its members. There are also ways around getting mired in arguments around treaty limitations, such as creating off-budget programs like the EPF or using alternate legal justifications. For instance, the European Union has used border management as a justification to arm and equip its 10,000-strong border and coast guard agency, Frontex. Similarly, this joint procurement approach could also be based on the same legal basis that allowed the creation of the European Defense Agency.
The European Union’s response to Covid-19 could also provide a model. The European Union conducted joint procurements of Covid-19 vaccines and personal protective equipment to ensure that each member state had equitable access to vaccines instead of competing against each other. Brussels invoked the “Emergency Support Instrument” and mobilized billions in budget resources to do joint procurements on behalf of member states. Now, EU member states are in a similar procurement situation, as states are giving away the same types of equipment to Ukraine, and will therefore need to procure similar replacements. They will end up competing for replacements, thereby allowing defense companies to raise prices and prioritize deliveries to the highest bidders.
The European Union should avoid unnecessary and inefficient competition by providing financial and acquisition support to its member states. This would not only give ministries of defense confidence that they can replace equipment sent to Ukraine, but also incentivize them to do so, as they would receive brand new systems in return.
It is worth looking at how this could work in practice. For example, knowing Ukraine needs artillery, the European Union could pledge to backfill EU member states and essentially take orders for replacements. The European Union could put in orders with European manufactures for huge quantities of artillery, creating significant economies of scale and lowering per-unit costs. Some defense ministries may balk at losing control of the procurement process and insist that they have unique requirements and specifications for each system. They can opt out if they desire—no country is required to participate or accept EU-procured weapons. But this intense specialization by national militaries (i.e., every country operating different equipment) hinders NATO’s interoperability, creating significant logistical headaches. Joint acquisitions would therefore help ameliorate one of the main challenges facing European defense. According to a report from the Munich Security Conference, while the United States operates two different types of 152 mm/155 mm howitzers, Europe operates 27. As Europe divests its many different types of howitzers, it should rebuild its equipment stocks with fewer variants, leading to a more interoperable NATO force and paving the way for a true European pillar of NATO. Additionally, joint Europe procurements would fully activate Europe’s defense industrial base, which means if Ukraine is still in need as new equipment is produced, some of that stock could be redirected to Kyiv.
However, in expanding the donations to Ukraine, European militaries will have to manage a gap in military readiness, as there will be a time lag from giving equipment to Ukraine to new equipment coming off the production line. Decades of underinvestment has left European forces with limited stocks of equipment. Hence, unlike the United States, European militaries have less they can give away before becoming simply unable to operate. For example, in Libya, Europe ran out of precision-guided munitions because it had failed to stockpile enough equipment. This is true for even Europe’s more robust militaries. France is giving Ukraine 18 of its highly advanced CAESAR self-propelled howitzers, which makes up nearly a quarter of its total stock. This is worrying for France, as the production cycle to receive new CAESAR howitzers is 18 months long. Nevertheless, the purpose of the donation––supporting a country fighting Europe’s main adversary––mitigates the readiness gap it creates. Giving European militaries confidence that they will be able to fill that gap will increase their willingness to support and accept some readiness risks. Nevertheless, this will have to be managed with operational needs, as European forces are also deploying eastward, reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank.
Importantly, the massive infusion of funds should give the clarity and confidence to the European defense industries to increase their defense production. The European Union should also explore ways of assisting Europe defense companies, as it is facing manufacturing challenges, supply shortages, and difficulty accessing the necessary raw materials. Some member states, like France, are considering mobilizing civilian companies and components to help support the defense sector. Such initiatives could be replicated at the EU level.
Europe has absorbed tremendous economic costs in seeking to rapidly decouple from Russia, shocking many around the world at the bold steps it has taken. It therefore makes little sense for Europe to accept such tremendous economic pain, but not devote the relatively small amount of resources necessary to support Ukraine maintain its fight for freedom. Moreover, it should not just be on the shoulders of the United States to aid Ukraine militarily. This must be a shared transatlantic responsibility, especially since supporting Ukraine is vital to European security. Europe should act now to provide the resources needed to support Ukraine over the long term.
Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Naz Gocek is an intern with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.