Europe’s efforts to make weapons for Ukraine have been hampered by a shortage of explosives, which industry insiders fear will set back efforts to increase shell production by up to three years.
Scarce supplies of gunpowder, plastic explosives and TNT have prevented the industry from responding quickly to expected EU orders for Ukraine, no matter how much money is spent, say officials and producers to the problem.
Supply chain constraints underscore how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has severely exposed Europe’s inadequate arms stockpiles and weak domestic production capacity, plagued by decades of under-supply. investment.
“The fundamental problem is that the European defense industry is not in good shape for large-scale war production,” said a German official.
Europe is trying to meet Kiev’s wartime needs by pumping money into the defense sector, particularly to encourage the expansion of 155mm artillery production. There is an urgent need for shells, both to replenish the national armories and to maintain the supply of the Ukrainian forces.
But growers, industry executives and EU officials warn that rising demand can only push up prices which have already jumped by a fifth in the past year.
“It is very difficult to increase the production of artillery ammunition, especially large-caliber heavy ammunition, in a short time,” said Jiří Hynek, chairman of the Defense Industry Association and the security of the Czech Republic. “A new artillery factory is very easy, but how to produce more artillery projectiles without raw materials?”
The comments come ahead of a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers in Brussels on Monday to discuss a set of two billion-euro proposals to speed up immediate 155mm shipments to Ukraine. and to encourage countries to enter into joint artillery purchase contracts.
Defense industry officials say Europe has a limited supply of explosives such as gunpowder, TNT and nitrocellulose which are needed to produce shells. “The bottlenecks in our capacity are mainly [explosive] powders, which are rare throughout Europe,” said one.
“It is not possible to increase, in a short time, the nitrocellulose[production]. . . In Europe there are no significant producers of the raw materials we need,” Hynek said, referring to a main ingredient in gunpowder. “If I want to increase gunpowder production, I probably need three years.”
Explosia, a Czech state-owned manufacturer that is one of Europe’s largest suppliers of explosives to munitions factories, told the FT that its production of propellants used in 155mm artillery is “running at full capacity” and would not be increased until 2026.
“Investments are underway to further increase our production capacity, but this is a three-year project, not a few months of work,” said Martin Vencl, company spokesman.
This week, the Romanian government said it was in talks with American and South Korean companies to build a gunpowder factory in the country. Its last such factory was closed in 2004.
Even EU officials who have defended financial incentives in private admit that European artillery producers have made it clear to them that increasing production will not be an easy task.
“We are in favor of strengthening the defense industry. But if the result of this EU initiative is that you have a second bidder for the same scarce resource, it will have an impact on the price,” a German official said. “And the arms companies are already getting rich enough.”
“We have to move forward with caution. . . Nobody wants to subsidize companies that are already inventing it,” he added.
Fábrica Municiones de Granada (FMG), one of Spain’s two producers of 155mm artillery, has been operating at full capacity since last October, producing shells for a trading company that resells them to Ukraine. But Antonio Caro, chief executive of FMG, said it took four to five months to scale up due to the difficulty of obtaining basic materials and components.
“Our main problem is raw materials,” Caro said. “Ammunition supplies are very tight around the world because all the factories, like us, are at 100%.”
“There are not too many factories [producing materials like TNT and nitrocellulose] in Europe and they are 100% as well, so we have to start looking in India, Korea, other countries further afield,” he said.
Gianclaudio Torlizzi, an adviser to the Italian Ministry of Defence, confirmed: “We have to find new sources of supply. . . of countries that we have not traditionally approached,” he said. “Every European country wants to protect its availability of raw materials.”
The cost of basic materials has “doubled and in some cases tripled,” Caro said. These increases and increased demand caused ammunition prices to rise, although the rise was less pronounced. A typical shell now costs €850, about 20% more than before the Russian invasion, he said.
For the moment, FMG, which belongs to the Slovak group MSM, does not plan to increase its capacity further. “I hope the war will be over soon,” Caro said.
MSM also produces 155mm shells in Slovakia and said it “plans to build a new production hall” to increase artillery production, but declined to provide a timetable.
Additional reporting by Raphael Minder in Warsaw and Amy Kazmin in Rome