Since the Russo-Ukraine war started in February 2022 those of us who follow the conflict closely have noted, and commented upon, the colossal amount of materiel that it has consumed.
In particular, peacetime estimates of how much ammunition armis would need to engage in modern conventional warfare have proved to be widely off the mark. At the height of fighting the Russians may have been expending as many as a quite staggering 80,000 rounds of artillery ammunition per day, with the Ukrainians lagging behind but still firing vast quantities.
These rates of expenditure have proved to be unsustainable, which is hardly surprising, and now both sides are scrambling to restock their armouries.
By way of background, western artillery systems tend to use the 155 mm and 105 mm calibres, whereas Russia and its allies have favoured 122 mm and 152 mm natures. Ukraine inherited Russian standard weaponry on gaining its independence, and those systems formed the bulk of its military inventory when the war broke out.
As Ukraine has gradually re-armed with western artillery pieces it has had to look increasingly to NATO countries for ammunition, and western countries have almost exhausted their stocks they can afford to release without compromising their own national security. Factories in the USA, UK, and elsewhere are now ramping up production as fast as they can.
Similarly, Russia has had to increase its own ammunition production to sustain its armies and also look elsewhere for stocks it can buy from other nations. This is where North Korea comes in.
North Korea competes with Iran to be the world’s most despised pariah state and, like its fellow miscreant, has been subject to international sanctions for decades. But, importantly for Russia, it also has an army largely equipped with legacy Russian military equipment, and much of its artillery ammunition stocks are of calibres compatible with Russian artillery pieces currently employed in Ukraine.
Despite sanctions, North Korea has been able to retain the ability to manufacture large quantities of ammunition and over time has amassed significant stockpiles. This appears to have been something the ruling regime has prioritised.
No surprise, therefore, that Russia has turned to North Korea for ammunition resupplies. This month US sources have suggested that as many as 1,000 North Korean shipping containers bearing “equipment and munitions” had been sent to Russia. Satellite imagery recently released by the White House has revealed roughly 300 of these containers located in Najin, a port in north-east North Korea, to be delivered via sea and rail to a depot near Tikhoretsk in south-west Russia, about 180 miles from the Ukrainian border.
This US-provided information has been corroborated by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank that last week published a report that concluded: “Russia has likely begun shipping North Korean munitions at scale.” The RUSI report confirms that three Russian cargo vessels had been making the voyage between North Korea and the secretive port of Dunai in Russia’s north-east, with at least five round trips competed so far.
It has been estimated that the 1,000 sea containers reportedly shipped so far to Russia held a total of 300,000-350,000 artillery rounds. The current daily consumption of artillery ammunition by Russian troops in Ukraine is roughly 10,000 rounds, well down from the figures from earlier in the year, so this amount would be enough to last around one month.
Tellingly, the supplies from North Korea would appear to indicate that Russia plans to continue its war in Ukraine for a long time and is taking concrete steps towards being able to do so.
There are some questions, however, with regards to the quality of the munitions being supplied by Pyongyang. Back in 2010 the North Koreans fired about 170 shells at Yeonpyeong in South Korea, of which more than half fell in the waters around the island.
It looks like the poorly made ammunition provides an inconsistent performance, but given the very large expenditure involved in the Ukraine war, a lack of precision and occasional misfires is unlikely to make a massive difference. As I have written oftentimes before, mass matters.
Typically, the Kremlin has repeatedly refuted western accusations that it has been buying North Korean weaponry and ammunition, but to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, “It would say that, wouldn’t it?”
The main take away from all of this is that both sides in the conflict are struggling to maintain their efforts and are looking to source supplies from wherever they may be found. Developments in 2024 will perhaps give us a better idea of how long they can last before a cessation of hostilities comes about, as it inevitably will.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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