Europe needs a wake up call, says a top executive in the defence sector.
Wes Kremer, head of Raytheon’s Missiles & Defense division, says the ongoing war in Ukraine has revealed how vulnerable NATO, and particularly European militaries, are to running out of critical munitions in the event of a high-end conflict.
“The most significant lesson of the [Russian] invasion is that you must have a credible deterrent capability, but also sufficient magazine depth,” Kremer said on 19 July at the Farnborough Airshow.
Kremer notes that the revelation should not come as a surprise. Previous military actions in Libya and Syria revealed that European countries have “thin inventories” of precision munitions like air-to-surface missiles.
Kremer asserts that western allies ultimately ended up largely relying on the USA to restock their supplies of critical weapons, as has Ukraine in its current struggle against Russian invaders.
The major risk, Kremer notes, is that it takes time for the suppliers of weapon systems, such as Raytheon, to ramp up production – time military commanders may not always have.
The former US Air Force Boeing F-15 weapons systems officer gives the example of the FIM-92 Stinger man-portable anti-aircraft missile, which was produced by Raytheon primarily in the 1980s and 1990s.
The heat-seeking weapon was in high demand by Ukrainian defenders at the start of the war, but the last time Raytheon’s Stinger production line operated was in 2002 – the time of the US Army’s last procurement.
With stocks in both Europe and the USA quickly being drawn down to support Ukraine, Raytheon was asked by the US military to produce more Stingers for the war effort.
“Stinger [production] has been the most challenging,” Kremer says of the company’s effort to increase production of war stocks, along with the popular Javelin anti-tank missile.
He explains that while the Stinger line has restarted, several of the system’s sub-components have reached obsolescence. He likens the effort of producing 1980s-era technology with modern machines to trying to make an eight-track tape.
“It’s not just getting the assembly line going,” Kremer says, noting that some Stinger sub-contractors operated under lifetime purchase agreements and stopped producing components decades ago.
Raytheon itself, and other defence suppliers, do not maintain vast and costly stocks of their own products, rather producing the quantities required under each contract.
Kremer says with the world facing a hot war in Europe and the lingering shock of a global pandemic, “it shows you the fragility of these supply lines and the industrial base”.
Calling that a modern reality that we must face, Kremer’s prescription is for NATO countries to prioritise building up their own stores of weapons before conflict erupts. He calls this a critical aspect of deterrence, noting that the western allies’ capability advantage means a lot less if it cannot be sustained.
However, there have been encouraging signs. Kremer says the recent NATO Summit in Madrid produced commitments to increase defence spending and build up inventories.
“Replenishment doesn’t happen overnight,” Kremer warns.