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

The Ukrainian army only had one Bohdana artillery cannon in its arsenal when Russia invaded the country two years ago. However, that single weapon, built in Ukraine in 2018 and capable of firing NATO-caliber rounds, 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 southwest coast along the Black Sea and points in between.

Now, Ukraine’s arms industry is building eight Bohdana self-propelled artillery systems each month, and although officials will not say how many they have made in total, the increase in production indicates a potential boom in the country’s domestic weapons production.

The increase comes at a crucial time. The Russian war machine is already quadrupling weapons production in round-the-clock operations. Ukrainian forces are losing territory in some key areas, including the strategic eastern town of Avdiivka, from which they withdrew in February. A US aid package is still hanging in Congress. And while European defense companies are cautiously opening operations in Ukraine, major American arms producers have not yet committed to setting up shop in the middle of a war.

There is widespread consensus that Ukraine needs to rebuild its national defense industry so that its military does not have to rely for years on the West, which has at times hesitated to send sophisticated weapons systems, including air defenses, tanks and long-range missiles. missiles. It remains to be seen whether that can be done in time to alter the trajectory of a war that would be even more tenuous without more American military aid.

But Ukraine’s military engineers have already demonstrated surprising skill in equipping older weapons systems with more modern firepower. And over the past year alone, Ukrainian defense companies have 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.

Funding for research and development is expected to increase eightfold this year (from $162 million to $1.3 billion), according to an analysis of Ukraine’s military budget through 2030 by Janes, a defense intelligence company. Military procurement has risen to a projected 20-year high of nearly $10 billion in 2023, compared with a prewar figure of about $1 billion a year.

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

“It’s about showing that we don’t sit back and wait until they come to help us,” Kamyshin said. “It’s about trying to do things ourselves.”

Some weapons are proving more difficult to produce in Ukraine than others. They include 155 millimeter artillery shells, which are urgently needed on the battlefield but rely on imported raw materials and licensing fees from Western manufacturers or governments. Kamyshin said domestic production of 155-millimeter shells was “on the way,” but did not say when.

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

The long period of decline can be difficult to overcome. To restart production of the 2S22 Bohdana artillery cannon, for example, officials had to track down the weapon’s original designers and engineers, some of whom had been assigned to minor military duties throughout Ukraine.

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

“It was a very big surprise for the Russians,” said Maj. 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 who fear eroding American support and business executives who see new market opportunities are promoting military production ventures in Ukraine, even though it may be several years before any of those weapons or materiel reach the field. of battle.

German arms giant Rheinmetall and Turkish drone maker Baykar are in the process of building manufacturing plants in Ukraine. France’s defense minister said in March that three French companies that produce drones and ground warfare equipment were close to similar deals. Last month, Germany and France announced a joint venture through defense conglomerate KNDS to build parts for tanks and howitzers in Ukraine and, eventually, complete weapons systems.

Experts said Ukraine’s military has placed air defense systems around some of its most critical weapons factories. Foreign-backed plants are likely to be largely built in the west of the country, far from the front lines but also protected by air defenses.

Christian Seear, director of Ukraine operations for British-based military contractor BAE Systems, said even the nascent moves by foreign producers send “a critical message: that you can go to Ukraine and get things ready.”

While BAE Systems is looking to manufacture weapons in Ukraine in the future, Seear said, the company is currently focused on a “future fix it” approach, repairing battle-damaged weapons at factories in Ukraine to bring them back to the lines. from the front. faster. Many of the weapons used in Ukraine’s ground war (including the M777 and Archer howitzers, Bradley and CV90 fighting vehicles, and Challenger 2 tanks) are manufactured by BAE Systems.

“We want to keep those things fighting, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that you can’t continue to keep those assets in neighboring countries,” Seear said. “It is not acceptable for a long-term war of attrition to have hundreds of high-quality, reliable howitzers having to travel 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 top executives have visited kyiv in recent weeks to meet with Kamyshin and other officials, and the Biden administration hosted meetings in December to bring together Ukrainian leaders and American military contractors.

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

But a network of bureaucracy in kyiv threatens to stop at least some investors trying to push proposals through three ministries: Defense, Digital Transformation and Kamyshin Strategic Industries.

“We’re trying to get a sense of how this all fits together and how it works together,” said William B. Taylor, a former ambassador to kyiv who is leading a U.S. Institute of Peace effort to help link the United States. and Ukrainian defense companies.

“American companies have many opportunities to invest elsewhere in the world,” Taylor said. “This is an issue where America’s national interests are at stake, so we would take an extra step to help make these connections.”

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

European producers are already entering that market.

“If the Europeans participate in its development in the volumes they promise, I believe we will solve the ‘shell hunger’ problem over time,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, told Ukrainian state media in a interview published on Friday. .

Although Ukrainian manufacturers are prohibited from exporting weapons until the war ends, Kamyshin appears eager to compete with foreign arms producers.

Kamyshin, a forceful speaker with a goatee and a bun hairstyle traditionally worn by Ukrainian Cossacks, is one of what Taylor described as a new generation of leaders in Ukraine: at 39, a young man who has risen rapidly through the ranks of the government.

After his appointment as minister, in March 2023, Kamyshin visited almost all of Ukraine’s arms factories and said he had found an industry in urgent need of reform. In some places workers worked in damaged factories; in others, rockets were built by hand.

Although he said production is moving 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 it works,” Kamyshin said in an interview that was as much a sales pitch for domestically built weapons as it was a discussion of foreign investment.

“Someday we will join you and NATO,” he said confidently. “So if they acquire from us, they are developing skills, and that will become part of the joint capabilities one day. So why not invest in their joint capabilities?”

Vladyslav Golovin and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reports.