The struggle to rearm Ukraine is changing NATO in ways that would be difficult without Putin’s help

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with British Royal Navy personnel at Bardufoss Air Base in Norway on March 25.

Annika Byrde/Getty Images

  • NATO countries are scrambling to re-arm and re-equip Ukraine as it battles Russian aggression.
  • These countries are also buying new equipment to replace the weapons they sent to Kiev.
  • This new equipment will further align NATO’s armies and further unite the alliance.
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After Russia launched its offensive on February 24, billions of dollars in military equipment and other security aid from NATO countries — $18.6 billion from the United States alone — have flowed into Ukraine.

NATO is not directly involved in the war, but its support for Ukraine helps create a more cohesive alliance, both politically and militarily.

As countries sent Cold War-era weapons, most of them Soviet-made, to Ukraine, many bought new equipment to replace it. As a result, the alliance is increasingly integrated, relying not on incompatible Soviet-era stockpiles, but on modern weapons that are often more interoperable, even from different sources.

The shift toward greater uniformity among NATO militaries is something that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not expect to lead to war, and would have been difficult to achieve without his invasion of Ukraine.

Soldiers of six NATO countries held a joint terminal attack monitor exercise in Latvia on April 6.

U.S. Army/Sgt. Preston Malizia

Vasabjit Banerjee, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, said the need to replenish supplies sent to Ukraine would create a more unified NATO fighting force “never seen before.”

Banerjee pointed to the transition from the Soviet-standard 152 mm howitzers used by Ukraine before the war to the 155 mm howitzers in standard use among the NATO military.

“Training if you’re going to use them [and] the equipment must obviously be the same. The maintenance, the maintenance has to be similar,” Banerjee said. “So all of that — and especially when you’re talking about the higher-end stuff, from the MiG-29 to the F-16 — all the training, the support components, everything. now it will be integrated, which is fantastic.”

Germany has agreed to send some old Soviet-made tanks and armored vehicles to countries that send them to Ukraine. Reacting to the growing tensions in Europe, other countries are choosing to buy new material. Poland has made some of the most notable acquisitions.

In March, Warsaw offered Ukraine its entire fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s in exchange for US aircraft with similar capabilities, such as the F-15 or F-16. The US refused, but in July Poland agreed to buy $14.5 billion worth of tanks and aircraft from South Korea, including FA-50 fighter jets.

A B-52H along with two US Air Force Polish MiG-29s and two US F-15Es on February 24.

US Air Force / Airman 1st Class Zachary Wright

Korea Aerospace Industries developed the FA-50 in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, and in addition to quickly modernizing the Polish Air Force, the jet could make it easier for Polish pilots and crews to work with NATO allies that use other Lockheed aircraft, such as the F. -16 or F-35.

With better coordination on equipment, tactics “will be the same” and training on that equipment will be “fully integrated,” Banerjee told Insider.

Banerjee added that weapons interoperability and alignment on tactics “will make it truly impossible for these countries to leave NATO.” “Weapons are from NATO, they will be from NATO, they will be rebuilt, and these components will be from NATO countries.”

The use of Soviet-made equipment by NATO members meant that they still relied on Russian firms for maintenance and spare parts. Banerjee believes that greater commonality in equipment also reduces Russia’s leverage.

“It will take away and therefore undermine the option of thinking that Russia is an option in terms of providing the best equipment. [up] Banerjee added: “If you think we have an alternative supplier, then you have a little more leverage against NATO.”

Industrial battle

US soldiers remove fuel kits at a forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

U.S. Air Force Central Command/Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

The intensity of the fighting in Ukraine and the speed at which both sides are running out of equipment and ammunition there have drawn new attention to the need for a robust defense industry.

Retired Australian Army Major General Mick Ryan said the war in Ukraine and the future of the war will depend on how key players mobilize their defense industries.

Ryan compared the fighting in Ukraine to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We weren’t using a lot of ammunition and we weren’t moving at this speed,” Ryan said of the wars in the Middle East. “We’re in a different era now and we’re operating on a larger scale, using more ammunition, and we’re going to lose more equipment and people.”

Ryan, who served in Pakistan’s Afghanistan Coordination Cell at the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2010-2011, added that the “rhythm of combat” seen in Ukraine will require industries to more closely match World War II production levels.

“World War II saw the mobilization of nations, so that’s going to be necessary,” Ryan told Insider, alluding to winning future wars. “It’s not just about building a few more factories. You’re going to see nations have to invest more of their national wealth in things like people, munitions and infrastructure.”

Ryan noted that Putin’s troop mobilization announcement also included a call to mobilize Russia’s defense industry.

“Everybody’s focused on those people, but he talked about industry,” Ryan said, “The Russians are building their industrial capacity now, and the Chinese have been doing it for a while.”

Ryan contrasted this approach with that of the United States, which established itself as an industrial power in the 20th century but whose defense officials are trying to rebuild stockpiles after an attempt to arm Ukraine.

“The U.S. government has been good at investing in the defense of other countries throughout its history because the defense of the continental United States starts at sea,” Ryan said. “But governments have yet to make a compelling case for such investment against the fiscal imperatives they have domestically.”

The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is being assembled at Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding in July 2019.

US Navy/Huntington Ingalls Industries/Matt Hildreth

U.S. defense budgets have grown in recent years, but policymakers face competing pressures and there have been calls to reevaluate how the U.S. spends on defense.

Despite these obstacles, Ryan said supporting the defense industry and related sectors should also be a priority.

“Industrial mobilization is not just” as part of our response to wars, he told Insider, “as part of a traditional deterrence regime to try and prevent these kinds of things.”

If China or Russia see Western industrial capacity expand, “that might give them pause before they start doing something pretty catastrophic,” Ryan said.

Rachel Nostrant is a US-based journalist whose work has appeared in New York magazine, VTDigger, Military Times and Defense News. He has covered topics such as pollution outside military bases, the murder of US Army soldier Vanessa Guillen, rising tensions between China and Taiwan, and the war in Ukraine.