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Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas Wars Reveal the Importance of Weapons Production

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Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas Wars Reveal the Importance of Weapons Production

Current conflicts offer a reminder to China and the U.S.: Arms do not deliver victory only through technological advantage but also through availability.

Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas Wars Reveal the Importance of Weapons Production
Credit: Depositphotos

Historically, sustaining war required training personnel and manufacturing military equipment. Contemporary conflicts are no different. The destruction of thousands of pieces of equipment in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Israel-Hamas War of 2023 punctuates their role in modern conflict. The prolific rate of military means used in these conflicts elevates a critical, but largely forgotten feature of war: weapons production rate affects battlefield outcomes. 

The rate of production of weapons affects military strategy and operational effectiveness. Arms do not deliver victory only through technological advantage but also through availability.

Currently, attrition accompanied by low weapons production rates is affecting the value arms market from which low- and middle-income countries procure weapons that Russia supplies and Israel services. Moreover, it is also revealing a major drawback of the United States’ second offset strategy, which emphasized high military spending to develop precision and stealth to counter Soviet advantages in conventional forces during the Cold War. The second offset strategy delivered overmatch capabilities but also created a military largely dependent on high-cost, numerically limited platforms. Production of munitions also declined, imperiling military operations. 

In the current conflicts, Russia’s demand for military means exceeds its production capacity and Israel’s invasion of Gaza following Hamas’ terrorist attacks on October 7 has stretched Israel’s weapons production rate. Both cases exemplify how contemporary conflicts absorb significantly more capabilities than military planners expect. The importance of the rate of production has implications for both China and the United States – which itself has struggled to manufacture weapons at the rate Ukraine utilizes them.

Weapons Production Rate in the Context of Contemporary Conflict

The weapons production rate affects contemporary conflicts by shaping belligerent strategies and affecting international markets. While Russia and Israel both export high-end, high-cost military means, they are also key suppliers in the international value arms market. The “value arms market” consists of smaller transaction values of older technology-based, non-top of the line, and/or second-hand equipment, which are acquired by lower- and middle-income states. 

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of value arms and its inability to supply its domestic needs cascades across international markets, impairing client importers and opening market opportunities for states such as China. Israel, meanwhile, provides essential services refurbishing equipment from both NATO and Russia arsenals.

Russia’s current rate of production prioritizes frontline operations in Ukraine. From the Cold War era, Russia’s heavy reliance on dated equipment reflects its decades-long “evolutionary” acquisition strategy to save costs, wherein newer components are combined with legacy ones. Oryx cataloging of equipment loss during the war demonstrates Russia’s reliance on its value arms heritage to field contemporary operations. Of the approximately 2,500 Russian tanks destroyed in the conflict, Newsweek estimates less than 100 destroyed tanks are of the T-90 variants – Russia’s most advanced tank.

Despite the evolutionary strategy, Russia is having to move older and refurbished equipment into Ukraine. Moreover, the combination of domestic demand, industrial limitations, and Western sanctions has reduced Russia’s ability to fulfill international demand for high-end arms. Prominent examples from Russia’s top client for high-end weapons include the Indian Air Force not expecting to receive deliveries of spare parts and services, which may have spurred discussion of Russia-Indian collaboration to manufacture aircraft weapons in India. 

In terms of value arms, manufacturers from Eastern European countries are already taking advantage of Russia’s absence. Algeria, one of Russia’s premier high-end and value arms clients in North Africa, has agreed to procure the NORA B52 Self-Propelled Howitzer from Serbia. Overall, Russian arm sales plunged 26 percent in 2022 in response to the invasion.  

As an aside, it is important to mention that U.S. policies supporting destruction or returning of Russian weapons held by Ukraine as a form of debt payment starting in the 1990s has enabled Russia to utilize Tu-160s, including at least one owned by Ukraine at one point, to launch missiles from within Russian airspace. While the Russian economy has buckled under Western sanctions, it will likely not run out of missiles, but the lack of production capacity affects when and how frequently they utilize missile strikes against Ukrainian targets.

In the case of Israel, its invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas militants’ attacks is already stretching Israeli weapons production capacity to its breaking point. Although insignificant compared to Russia, Israel has had 10 Merkava tanks, and more than 30 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (Namer and Achzarit), as well as eight M113 Bradleys, captured by Hamas. Israeli conversion of old T-55 tanks into personnel carriers highlights limitations in weapons stockpiles and production capacity, even before Hamas started capturing the vehicles. Israel’s industrial base and prior inventory was unprepared for the demand for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), resulting in massive importation of commercial drones from the United States and China.

A longer or expanded conflict would also further tax Israel’s industrial base and allies who are supplying Israel. Israel’s domestic demand is outpacing production, which will affect its own operations and its ability to export to clients. Hauntingly, echoing World War I trench warfare, researcher Pierre Boussel, analyzing the Israeli industrial base, argued that “low-cost weapons are needed to saturate trenches and exhaust the enemy.” While this dire prediction is an overstatement, fundamentally the importance of weapons production as a pillar of military planning is a consideration Israel and other states must integrate in contemporary conflicts. 

While Israel participates in the high-end market selling advanced capabilities, Israel has also become a key supplier in the value arms market over the last decade. These exports are now jeopardized by the war with Hamas in Gaza, especially if it should spread to the West Bank and/or southern Lebanon in a conflict with Hezbollah. Israel is already short of weapons both because of usage in the war and scarcity of skilled labor due to the war. At present, Israeli businesses face a 18 percent drop in workforce availability, which includes the high-tech sector critical to defense manufacturing that faces a 20 percent shortage of workers. Given the types of goods and services that it offers, Israel’s removal from the value arms market will cripple both Russian equipment and NATO equipment.  

Israel’s production of original military capabilities and upgrading of NATO and Russian equipment extends its value arms market presence, of which India is the biggest consumer. In the absence of suitable U.S. weapons and services, Israel is a major non-NATO ally that continues to supply this market. This indirectly assists U.S. leverage over recipient third countries via needed components and its broader defense and diplomatic links with Israel.

The disruption to the value arms market has global implications for Israel, partner nations, its clients, and competitors. First, Israel and Ukraine’s reliance on external industrial support to produce military means reinforces the old principle that military might is conditioned by production capability. Second, the disruption to the value arms market will most hurt importing states, such as India that relies on both Russian and Israeli imports and sustainment. 

Implications for China and the United States

The reduction of Russian defense equipment and related services exports to value arms clients will advantage their Chinese counterparts because Russia and China were the two major producers selling to this market. China has the potential to generate high rates of production of value arms and the willingness to sell to anyone will pose a strategic liability for the U.S. and its partners. 

The absence of Israel’s complementary goods and services for Russian equipment will further accentuate China’s advantage. Moreover, Israel also upgrades legacy weapons manufactured by NATO member states, sells refurbished NATO member states’ equipment, and sells equipment with components made in NATO member states. Given that the United States is already facing problems simultaneously supplying Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel with arms, Israel’s withdrawal from this market would also reduce the availability of remaining U.S. and possibly NATO products in the Value Arms Market.      

Reflecting initial motivations for the standardization of NATO equipment – in a quote often misattributed to Stalin – the title of Thomas Callaghan, Jr.’s 1979 essay summarized the importance of weapons production rates: quantity has a quality all its own. The U.S. must develop a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s advantages in the value arms market. Indeed, even Washington identified that the rate of production of certain UAS and ammunition cannot meet surge demands and necessitates a different industrial policy to achieve low-cost, mass produced, distributed weapons production rate. 

Because U.S. firms do not participate in the value arms market, the U.S. should pursue lowering production costs via international collaboration, wherein manufacturing of legacy equipment or discontinued lines can be set up in states with lower labor costs. Doing so would also entail lowering ITAR restrictions on transfers of older technology. The U.S. should also streamline the foreign military sales processes, which will retain oversight capacity but decrease the ponderous approval process, particularly for allied states. 

Finally, because the United States does not compete in the value arms market, it is unlikely to match China’s capacity for mass produced, affordable weapons. Consequently, the U.S. should support the efforts of value arms manufacturers like NATO allies Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, Turkey, non-NATO ally South Korea, and strategic partner India to expand their market share. This can be done via offering second-hand Soviet-Russian equipment, supplying locally made versions of Russian components, and sustaining Russian equipment, as well as offering NATO and locally-made alternatives to Russian and Chinese equipment. 

Additionally, the U.S. government and contractors should invest in machine tool production and manufacturing in sections of the country with comparative advantages in the cost of labor, which may make exports more affordable to allies and partners. While Lockheed Martin’s export oriented F-16 production line in Greenville, South Carolina, is perhaps the most successful example, orienting heavy industry manufacturing, such as Ingalls Shipbuilding in Gulfport, Mississippi, towards export oriented manufacturing of U.S. defense products solidifies domestic production necessary to achieve production of weapons rate necessary for contemporary conflict.