Ukraine’s arms industry is growing, but is it growing fast enough?

The Ukrainian army had only one Bohdan artillery gun in its arsenal when Russia invaded the country two years ago. Yet that one weapon, made in Ukraine in 2018 and capable of firing NATO-caliber bullets, proved so effective in the early days of the war that it was trucked to battlefields across the country, from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the southwestern coast along the Black Sea and in between.

Now, Ukraine’s arms industry is building eight Bohdan self-propelled artillery systems every month, and while officials won’t say how many they’ve built in total, the increased production signals a potential boom in the country’s domestic arms production.

The boost comes at a crucial time. The Russian war machine already is quadrupling of weapons production in non-stop operations. Ukrainian forces are losing territory in some key areas, including the strategic eastern town of Avdiyivka, where they withdrew in February. The US aid package is still pending in Congress. And while European defense firms are cautiously opening operations in Ukraine, major US arms manufacturers have yet to commit to setting up shop in the midst of war.

It is widely agreed that Ukraine needs to rebuild its domestic defense industry so that its military does not have to rely for years on the West, which has at times been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons systems — including air defenses, tanks and long-range missiles. It remains to be seen whether this can be done in time to change the course of a war that would be even weaker without additional US military assistance.

But Ukrainian military engineers have already shown surprising skill in retrofitting older weapons systems with more modern firepower. And in the past year alone, Ukrainian defense companies have made three times as many armored vehicles as they produced before the war and quadrupled production of anti-tank missiles, according to Ukrainian government documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Research and development funding is projected to increase eightfold this year — to $1.3 billion from $162 million — according to an analysis of Ukraine’s military budget through 2030 by Janes, a defense intelligence firm. Military procurement jumped to a projected 20-year high of nearly $10 billion in 2023, compared to a pre-war figure of about $1 billion a year.

“We say that death to the enemy begins with us,” Alexander Kamishin, Ukraine’s strategic industry minister, said in an interview last month in his office in a nondescript brick building in Kiev, hidden among restaurants and apartment blocks.

“It’s about showing that we’re not sitting and waiting until you come to help us,” Kamishin said. “It’s about trying to make things ourselves.”

Some weapons have proven to be more difficult to produce in Ukraine than others. They include 155mm artillery shells, which are badly needed on the battlefield, but depend on imported raw materials and licensing rights from Western manufacturers or governments. Mr Kamyshin said domestic production of 155mm grenades was “on the way”, but would not say when.

Once a major supplier of the Soviet Union, the defense industry of Ukraine reduced more than three decades of budget cuts since the country declared independence in 1991. The government in Kiev now plans to spend about $6 billion this year on weapons made in Ukraine, including a million drones, but, Mr. Kamyshin said, “we can produce more than we have available funds.”

A long period of decline can be difficult to overcome. To restart production of the 2S22 Bohdan artillery gun, for example, officials had to track down the weapon’s original designers and engineers, some of whom had been assigned to menial military assignments across Ukraine.

By June 2022, Ukrainian forces used Bohdana’s 30-mile range to target and destroy Russian air defenses in the successful Battle of Snake Island in the Black Sea.

“It was a very big surprise for the Russians,” said Major Myroslav Hai, a special operations officer who helped liberate the island. “They couldn’t understand how anyone could use artillery at this distance.”

In Europe, political leaders worried about eroding US support and business executives who see new market opportunities are promoting military production ventures in Ukraine, even if it could be years before any of those weapons or materials reach the battlefield.

The German arms giant Rheinmetall and a Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar are in the process of building production facilities in Ukraine. The French defense minister said this in March three French companies which make drones and ground warfare equipment were close to similar agreements. Last month, Germany and France announced a joint venture through defense conglomerate KNDS to make parts for tanks and howitzers in Ukraine and, eventually, entire weapons systems.

Experts say Ukraine’s military has installed air defense systems around some of its most critical weapons factories. Power plants supported by foreign countries are likely to be built mostly in the west of the country, far from the front lines, but also protected by anti-aircraft defenses.

Christian Seear, Ukrainian operations director of British military contractor BAE Systems, said even the initial moves by foreign manufacturers send “a critical message – that you can go to Ukraine and set things up”.

While BAE Systems is looking to make weapons in Ukraine in the future, Mr. Seear said, the company is currently focused on a “fix it forward” approach, to repair weapons damaged in the fighting at factories in Ukraine to get them back to the front lines faster. Many of the weapons in Ukraine’s ground war — including the M777 and Archer howitzers, the Bradley and CV90 combat vehicles and the Challenger 2 tanks — are manufactured by BAE Systems.

“We want those things to be wrinkles, and it’s becoming quite clear that you can’t keep those assets in neighboring countries,” Mr. Seear said. “It is not acceptable for a protracted war of attrition to have hundreds of high-quality, reliable howitzers traveling hundreds of miles.”

To date, Ukrainian and U.S. officials said, no major U.S. arms manufacturer has announced plans to open production lines in Ukraine. However, some senior executives have visited Kiev in recent weeks to meet with Mr Kamyshin and other officials, and the Biden administration hosted meetings in December that brought together Ukrainian leaders and US military contractors.

Helping Ukraine rebuild its defense industry has become even more important as Republicans in Congress have blocked $60 billion in military and financial aid to Ukraine. (However, Speaker Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, has recently signaled that he is looking for politically acceptable ways to bring the aid package to a vote.)

But a web of red tape in Kiev threatens to slow down at least some investors as they seek to push proposals through Mr Kamyshin’s three ministries of defence, digital transformation and strategic industries.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how these all fit together and how they work together,” said William B. Taylor, a former ambassador to Kiev who is leading efforts by the U.S. Institute of Peace to help connect U.S. and Ukrainian defense firms.

“American firms have many opportunities to invest elsewhere around the world,” said Mr. Taylor. “This is an issue where American national interests are at stake, so we would take an extra step to help establish these ties.”

Since 155 mm artillery rounds are desperately needed, Mr. Taylor suggested that an initial joint venture between Ukrainian and American firms could focus on increasing their production.

European manufacturers are already entering that market.

“If the Europeans are involved in its development on the scale they promise, I think we will eventually solve the problem of ‘shell hunger,'” Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, told Ukrainian state media. interview published on Friday.

Although Ukrainian manufacturers are banned from exporting arms until the war ends, Kamishin sounds eager to compete with foreign arms makers.

A strong speaker with a goatee and the traditional knotted hairdo Ukrainian CossacksMr. Kamyshin is one of what Mr. Taylor described as a new generation of leaders in Ukraine – at 39, a young gun who has risen quickly through the government ranks.

After his appointment as minister in March 2023, Mr Kamyshin visited almost every arms factory in Ukraine and said he found the industry in need of an overhaul. Workers worked in damaged factories in some places; in others, rockets were built by hand.

While he said production runs more smoothly now, he still receives daily updates on critical assembly lines to quickly identify breakdowns and fix them quickly.

“We’re moving things faster and cheaper, and they’re working,” Mr. Kamisin said in an interview that was as much a sales pitch for domestic weapons as a discussion of foreign investment.

“We will join you and NATO one day,” he said confidently. “So if you’re sourcing from us, you’re building capabilities and that will one day become part of the shared capabilities. So why not invest in your shared capabilities?”

Vladislav Golovin and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed to the reporting.

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