The Ukrainian defense industry is growing, but is it growing fast enough?

When Russia invaded the country two years ago, the Ukrainian military had only one Bohdana artillery cannon. But this single weapon, built in Ukraine in 2018 and capable of firing NATO-caliber cartridges, 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 of the Black Sea and points in between.

Ukraine’s defense industry now builds eight of the Bohdana self-propelled artillery systems every month, and while officials won’t say how many they have made in total, the increased production suggests a possible boom in the country’s domestic weapons production.

The ramp-up comes at a crucial time. Russia’s war machine is already here Quadrupling weapons production in round-the-clock operation. Ukraine’s armed forces are losing territory in some key areas, including the strategic eastern city of Avdiivka, from which they withdrew in February. A US aid package is still in Congress. And while European defense firms are cautiously opening operations in Ukraine, major American arms producers have yet to commit to setting up shop in the midst of war.

There is widespread agreement that Ukraine needs to rebuild its domestic defense industry so that its military in the coming years will not have to rely on the West, which has at times been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons systems – including air defense, tanks and long-range missiles. It remains to be seen whether this will happen in time to change the course of a war that would be all the more delicate without more U.S. military aid.

But Ukraine’s military engineers have already demonstrated surprising skills at manipulating older weapons systems with more modern firepower. And last year alone, Ukrainian defense companies built three times as many armored vehicles as before the war and quadrupled production of anti-tank missiles, according to Ukrainian government documents reviewed by The New York Times.

According to an analysis by defense intelligence agency Janes of Ukraine’s military budget through 2030, funding for research and development is expected to increase eightfold this year – from $162 million to $1.3 billion. Military procurement rose to a projected 20-year high of nearly $10 billion in 2023, compared with a prewar level of about $1 billion a year.

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

“It’s about showing that we won’t wait for you to come and help us,” Mr. Kamyshin said. “It’s about making things yourself.”

Some weapons are more difficult to produce in Ukraine than others. These include 155-millimeter artillery shells, which are urgently needed on the battlefield but rely on imported raw materials and licensing rights from Western manufacturers or governments. Mr. Kamyshin said domestic production of 155-millimeter grenades was “on track,” but declined to say when.

Once the main supplier the Soviet Union, the defense industry of Ukraine shrank There were budget cuts for over three decades after the country declared independence in 1991. The government in Kiev now plans to spend about $6 billion this year on Ukrainian-made weapons, including a million drones, but Mr. Kamyshin said: “We can produce more than we have funds available.”

The long period of decline will be difficult to overcome. For example, to restart production of the 2S22 Bohdana artillery cannon, officials had to locate the weapon’s original designers and engineers, some of whom were assigned to minor military tasks throughout Ukraine.

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

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

In Europe, political leaders who fear American support may be waning and business executives who see new market opportunities are promoting military production projects in Ukraine, even though it may take several years for those weapons or materials to come into play.

The German arms giant Rheinmetall and the 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 Manufacturers of drones and land warfare equipment were moving toward similar agreements. Last month, Germany and France announced a joint venture via the defense company KNDS to build parts for tanks and howitzers in Ukraine and ultimately entire weapon systems.

Experts said the Ukrainian military has deployed air defense systems around some of its key weapons factories. It is likely that foreign-backed facilities will largely be built in the west of the country, far from the front lines but also protected by air defenses.

Christian Seear, head of Ukraine operations at Britain-based military contractor BAE Systems, said even emerging moves by foreign manufacturers sent “a crucial message – that you can go to Ukraine and set things up there.”

While BAE Systems wants to manufacture weapons in Ukraine in the future, Seear said the company is currently focused on a “fix it forward” approach to repairing battle-damaged weapons in factories in Ukraine to get them back to the front lines more quickly. Many of the weapons in Ukraine’s ground war – including M777 and Archer howitzers, Bradley and CV90 fighting vehicles, and Challenger 2 tanks – are manufactured by BAE Systems.

“We want these things to continue to fight, and it’s becoming very clear that you can’t continue to maintain these assets in neighboring countries,” Mr. Seear said. “It is unacceptable that hundreds of high-quality and reliable howitzers must travel hundreds of kilometers in a long-term war of attrition.”

So far, Ukrainian and U.S. officials said, no major American arms manufacturer has announced plans to open production lines in Ukraine. However, some senior leaders have visited Kyiv in recent weeks to meet with Mr. Kamyshin and other officials, and the Biden administration hosted meetings in December to bring together Ukrainian leaders and U.S. 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. (Louisiana Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, however, recently signaled that he is looking for politically acceptable ways to get the relief package to a vote.)

But a web of bureaucracy in Kiev threatens to slow down at least some investors who want to push their proposals through three ministries: defense, digital transformation and Kamyshin’s strategic industry.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how it all fits together and how it works together,” said William B. Taylor, a former ambassador to Kiev who leads a U.S. Institute of Peace initiative to support the connection between the U.S. and Ukrainian defense companies.

“American companies have many opportunities to invest elsewhere in the world,” Taylor said. “There are U.S. national interests at stake here, so we would take an additional step to help make those connections.”

With 155-millimeter caliber artillery shells urgently needed, Mr. Taylor suggested that an initial joint venture between Ukrainian and American firms could focus on increasing their production.

European manufacturers are already venturing into this market.

“If the Europeans participate in development to the extent they promised, I believe we will solve the problem of ‘shell hunger’ over time,” said Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in an interview with the Ukrainian State media Interview published on Friday.

Although Ukrainian manufacturers are banned from exporting weapons until the war is over, Mr. Kamyshin appears eager to compete with foreign arms producers.

An energetic speaker with a goatee and a topknot hairstyle worn traditionally Ukrainian CossacksMr. Kamyshin is part of what Mr. Taylor described as a new generation of leaders in Ukraine – at age 39, a young man who has risen quickly through the government ranks.

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

Although he said production is now running more smoothly, he still receives daily updates on critical assembly lines to quickly identify and quickly resolve failures.

“We move things faster and cheaper, and they work,” Mr. Kamyshin said in an interview that was as much a selling point for domestically made weapons as a discussion of foreign investment.

“One day we will join you and NATO,” he said confidently. “So when you buy from us, you build skills and these will one day be part of the shared capabilities. So why not invest in your shared skills?”

Vladyslaw Golovin And Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed to the reporting.

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