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Explosives Shortage Threatens EU Arming Ukraine

Story Highlights
  • There aren't many factories in Europe that make things like TNT and nitrocellulose, and the ones that do are at full capacity
  • MSM also makes 155mm shells in Slovakia, and the company said it "plans to build a new production hall" to make more artillery, but it wouldn't say when.

Europe’s efforts to make weapons for Ukraine have been slowed down by a lack of explosives. Industry insiders worry that this could delay efforts to make more shells for as long as three years.

Officials and producers say that the lack of gunpowder, plastic explosives, and TNT means that industry can’t meet EU orders for Ukraine quickly, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem.

The problems with the supply chain show how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that Europe doesn’t have enough weapons and can’t make them well enough on its own because it hasn’t invested in them for decades.

One German official said, “The main problem is that the European defence industry is not in good enough shape to make a lot of war stuff.”

Europe is trying to meet Kyiv’s needs for war fighting by pouring money into the defence sector, especially to boost the production of 155mm artillery. Shells are desperately needed to restock national armies and keep Ukrainian forces supplied.

But producers, business leaders, and EU officials say that more demand may only push up prices, which have already gone up by a fifth in the past year.

Ji Hynek, head of the Defense and Security Industry Association of the Czech Republic, said, “It’s very hard to increase production of artillery ammunition, especially heavy, large-calibre ammunition, in a short amount of time.” “It’s easy to build a new artillery factory, but how can I make more artillery projectiles if I don’t have raw materials?”

The comments come before a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers on Monday in Brussels. They will talk about a package of two €1 billion proposals to speed up immediate 155mm shipments to Ukraine and encourage countries to make joint contracts to buy artillery.

Defence industry officials say Europe has a limited supply of explosives such as gunpowder, TNT and nitrocellulose which are necessary to produce shells. “The bottlenecks for our capacity are mainly [explosive] powders, which are in short supply all over Europe,” said one.

“It’s not possible to make more nitrocellulose in a short amount of time. Hynek said, “There aren’t any big producers of the raw materials we need in Europe.” He was talking about a key ingredient in gunpowder. “If I want to make more gunpowder, it will probably take me three years.”

Explosia, a Czech state-owned manufacturer that is one of Europe’s largest suppliers of explosives to ammunition 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 under way to further increase our production capacity, but this is a three-year project, not a few months’ job,” said Martin Vencl, the company’s spokesperson.

This week, Romania’s government said it was in talks with US and South Korean companies about building a gunpowder factory in the country. It shut down its last plant like this in 2004.

Even EU officials who have pushed for the financial incentives privately admit that European artillery makers have made it clear that increasing production won’t be easy.

“We like the idea of making the defence industry stronger. But if this EU initiative leads to a second bidder for the same limited resource, that will affect the price,” said a German official. “And the arms companies are already making a lot of money.”

“No one wants to give money to companies that are already making a lot of money,” he said.

Fábrica Municiones de Granada (FMG), one of Spain’s two 155mm artillery producers, has been operating at full capacity since last October, producing shells for a trading company that sells them on to Ukraine. But Antonio Caro, the general manager of FMG, said that it took four to five months to scale up because it was hard to get basic materials and parts.

Caro said, “Our main problem is the raw materials.” “There aren’t enough bullets in the world because all the factories, including ours, are running at full capacity.”

“There aren’t many factories in Europe that make things like TNT and nitrocellulose, and the ones that do are at full capacity, so we need to start looking in India, Korea, and other faraway places,” he said.

A consultant for Italy’s defence ministry, Gianclaudio Torlizzi, agreed. “We need to find new sources of supply… from countries we haven’t usually gone to,” he said. “Every country in Europe wants to make sure it has enough raw materials.”

Caro said that the cost of basic materials had “doubled and sometimes even tripled.” Because of these changes and the rise in demand, the prices of weapons have gone up, but not as much as before. He said that a typical shell now costs €850, which is about 20% more than it did before the Russian invasion.

FMG, which is owned by the Slovak company MSM, has no plans to add more capacity at this time. Caro said, “I hope the war will end soon.”

MSM also makes 155mm shells in Slovakia, and the company said it “plans to build a new production hall” to make more artillery, but it wouldn’t say when.

Raphael Minder in Warsaw and Amy Kazmin in Rome also wrote about this.

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