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What happens when Israel runs out of ammo?

With US arsenals stretched to the limit and other allies lining up for their share, it's time to forge a new defense supply channel
A steel worker moves a 155 mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2023. (AP/Matt Rourke)
A steel worker moves a 155 mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2023. (AP/Matt Rourke)

According to US intelligence analysis, the Israeli Air Force dropped more than 29,000 bombs on Gaza in the first two months of the war alone. The international media has seized on this figure as a symbol of the unprecedented destruction Israel is wreaking on Gaza. But for Israelis, it should be a wake-up call. Assuming that intensive bombardment on such a scale is necessary to dismantle the terror infrastructure of Hamas, the question arises: how certain are we that munitions of this scope will be at our disposal in a future war?

This is not just an Israeli conundrum. The fighting in Gaza, despite its unique characteristics, is merely the latest illustration of the dizzying pace of ammunition consumption in modern warfare. This is certainly true of the asymmetric fight against terrorist armies: in 2016, the US is estimated to have dropped more than 24,000 bombs on Syria and Iraq as part of the campaign against ISIS. Yet conventional ground warfare has become an ammunition sinkhole as well. The Russia-Ukraine war is the most prominent example. Less than a year into Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russians were forced to open 40-year-old ammunition depots and turn to Iran and North Korea for help to maintain the furious pace of artillery and rocket fire.

The Ukrainians, by contrast, were heavily reliant from the start on the supply of weapons from the West, especially the United States. Some numbers by way of illustration: so far, the US has supplied Ukraine with more than 2 million 155 mm artillery shells, 1.8 million 25 mm rounds, and 400 million rifle rounds and grenades. This comes in addition to advanced weapons systems, such as long-range rockets and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, which are all vital to repelling the Russian army.

At this time, all eyes in Kyiv (and indeed in Jerusalem) are on Washington, where a political stalemate in Congress has held up the decision on a desperately needed $60 billion aid package for months. Yet even absent political constraints, the most generous American policy imaginable would fall short of providing all of Ukraine’s needs. In December 2022, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines revealed that Ukraine consumed five years of production of Javelin anti-aircraft missiles in the first 10 months of the war.

Nor is the gap between supply and demand limited to advanced weaponry. Artillery is a prime example. In the spring of 2023, the Ukrainian army’s rate of consumption of 155 mm shells stood at 6,000 to 8,000 per day, whereas American production output was about 15,000 per month. Since then, the US has ramped up production significantly, but even so, it is not expected to exceed 100,000 shells per month by October 2024. As it turns out, the artillery forces of the United States and its allies are almost completely dependent on the output of a single factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

These constraints explain why, in January 2023, the administration asked Israel to transfer 300,000 artillery shells from American stockpiles located in Israel to Ukraine. Of course, Israel herself now needs those stocks. Not to mention Tamir interceptors for Iron Dome, which are also manufactured in small quantities in the US, bombs, and spare parts for aircraft, tank shells, and so on. One does not need a security clearance to conclude that Israel’s military dependence on the United States is nearly absolute.

Sigh of relief?

Israelis will never forget the steadfast support of the United States in their difficult hour of need on October 7th and after. The airlift, the aircraft carriers, the presidential visit — all these will go down in history as testimony to the depth of America’s commitment to Israel. But the collective sigh of relief at the steadfastness of US support in the present crisis should prompt us to reconsider the assumption that we can or should rely on it in the future.

Reconsideration is due on three counts.

  • First, even when it comes to Israel’s most devoted friend — and it is hard to think of a more pro-Israel president than Joe Biden — dependence is dependence. And it comes at a price. When the US secretary of state lands at Ben Gurion Airport in wartime, above the list of demands he bears from the president hovers, unspoken, a threat to slow, suspend, or end the supply of armaments essential to the continued fighting. The Israeli government’s freedom of action is necessarily diminished as a consequence. That was true under a Republican president in 1973 and remains true under a Democratic president in 2023.
  • Second, even the greatest power on earth, the “arsenal of democracy,” in President Roosevelt’s famous words, will not always be in a position to provide fully for the needs of its allies — whether because of its own needs or because of the competing needs of allies like Israel and Ukraine.
  • The third cause for skepticism about Uncle Sam’s future generosity is that his continued support for his Jewish “nephew” can no longer be taken for granted. A poll taken in December revealed a troubling increase in the support of young Americans for Hamas and the Palestinians. The Democratic Party is already divided over support for Israel, with a sizable progressive faction increasingly alienated from Israel and its policies and already calling for the reduction of support for Israel. Meanwhile, the isolationist wing of the Republican Party is gaining strength, leading allies from London to Tokyo to wonder whether and when the US could abandon them.

It must be emphasized: Israel has no substitute for its alliance with the United States. Nevertheless, the present war forces upon us the question: is there a way to decrease Israel’s military dependence on America? This question can only be addressed seriously as part of a comprehensive post-war reflection that results in a revised security doctrine and a new grand strategy for Israel.

Meanwhile, here is one idea to kickstart the discussion. Israel can certainly do a better job of stockpiling munitions. It can also boost production of certain armaments. Israel alone will not be able to bear the costs of establishing an independent ammunition production capability, certainly not one capable of meeting all of the IDF’s needs in a future war — but Israel is not alone. Ukraine, as we have seen, is in the same boat. And not just Ukraine. In January 2023, when the US asked Israel to open emergency stockpiles for Ukraine, it made a similar request to another embattled democracy: South Korea. Although it is North Korea’s nuclear weapons that usually dominate the headlines, the immediate threat posed by Kim Jong Un is in the form of 6,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul and capable, according to estimates, of killing tens of thousands of civilians in the first hour of a war. Sound familiar?

As every Israeli understands, eliminating such a threat would require a massive air campaign sustained over the course of many weeks if not months. In other words, South Korea’s reliance on the US in a future war with their northern neighbor is absolute, just like Israel’s. And if you suspect this is the end of the list of democracies in a similar predicament, think of Japan, Taiwan, and Poland. There are others. But just the six countries mentioned above represent a cumulative GDP of over seven trillion dollars. What prevents a group of them from coming together — perhaps under US auspices — to build a joint defense production capability, complementary to the American one, in which each contributes its share and benefits from the fruits of the joint investment in times of crisis?

We can hope that the US continues to serve as the arsenal of democracy for many decades to come. We can pray for the future of bipartisan support for Israel. Indeed, we should do everything in our power to ensure it. But we must not bet on it. It is time for Israel to convene America’s allies and figure out together how to reduce their shared dependence on Uncle Sam.

About the Author
Dr. Jesse Ferris is Vice President for Strategy at the Israel Democracy Institute and author, most recently, of How Israel Can Survive in a Nuclear Middle East.
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