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Lessons from Ukraine: Securing the Munitions Supply Chain

Though Kyiv’s repeated requests for advanced weaponry – like new main battle tanks (MBT) or F-16 multi-role combat aircraft – populate news headlines, its call for ammunition is just as important, if not more so for the day-to-day maneuvers of its main operations, like the ongoing counter-offensive.

Remarkably, Ukraine’s need for an enduring supply of ammunition to replenish its inventories is proving a challenge for the West. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production.”

Basically, the current production output for ammunition in the West is “under strain.” Though surprising, it is not unexpected in that the Russia-Ukraine War has been the longest full-scale conventional conflict between two states in the modern age, certainly since the Second World War. Be it in the West or the East, it is unlikely any major power would have anticipated wartime production requirements reaching the level Kyiv is seeing today. In a post-WW2 age, this conflict has been exceptional on many counts, be it in terms of its scale, its length, its complexity, and the fact that it is occurring in Europe.

However, one can argue that the Russia-Ukraine War has also forced defence planners in other regions of the world to rethink their assumptions about a modern conventional or state-versus-state conflict. This is as true for Pakistan as it is for most other countries with large militaries and even larger adversaries.

Pakistan might have gotten a sense of some of these trends as early as 2019 when it responded to India’s incursion across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. Under Operation Swift Retort, for example, Pakistan’s air force sent 18 to 24 of its fighter aircraft plus an assortment of specialized assets. This was a significant investment for one operation which, had cooler minds not prevailed on both sides of the border, may have spiralled into a greater crisis. The risk of India engaging in another cross-border strike exists and, in turn, Pakistan’s imperative to respond will also exist. But now, Pakistani defence planners have to account for a scenario of an evolved full-scale conventional war, one centered on a heavy dependence on sophisticated guided munitions, advanced air and surface-based platforms, electronic warfare, and other dynamics.

Swift Retort and the Russia-Ukraine War have likely alerted Pakistani planners to the need for maintaining a large inventory of advanced munitions, such as (among others): Beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), within-visual-range air-to-air missiles (WVRAAM), ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM), air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), guided rockets, guided artillery shells, precision-guided bomb (PGB) kits, anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM), and surface-to-air missiles (SAM).

For Pakistan, one of the new lessons is that even a single major operation would likely require the use of a significant number of guided munitions, like PGBs, ALCMs, and other stand-off range weapons (SOW). In one sense, this may sound surprising as the point of guided munitions is to maximize the impact of a ‘few’ weapons by leveraging accuracy. By increasing the accuracy and range of a munition, they would generate a higher chance of striking their target, thereby reducing the need for a larger number of munitions. This can be a realistic perspective, but there is a caveat: While one could achieve their goals with fewer guided munitions compared to unguided bombs, they may still require many guided munitions.

In 2022, a U.S. official stated that Russia had “blown through” its guided munition stores. While Russia has evidently replenished its inventory, one can make a key observation from the early days of the war. It was not uncommon for militaries to keep relatively small stocks of guided munitions. Before the Russia-Ukraine War, the bulk of air operations around the world had been against insurgents or non-state actors, and the militaries involved did not need deep guided munition stores.

This was likely the same for Pakistan – until Swift Retort. If the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) wanted to build the capacity to undertake operations of that scale in frequent succession and, possibly, simultaneously across different operational theaters, it would need a large number of platforms and a deep inventory of guided munitions. For a cash-strapped country like Pakistan, both sides of the equation (i.e., platforms and guided munitions) must be relatively low-cost and scalable. From a platform standpoint, the PAF is inducting the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3; and for its guided munitions strategy, it has the AZB.

The AZB is series of ‘range extension kits’ for MK-80-series general purpose bombs (GPB). Like the Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition, the AZB converts unguided GPBs into precision-guided bombs (PGB). Hence, the point of this approach is to reduce the cost and time of adding guided munitions. The PAF would likely maintain a large inventory of GPBs; so, the warhead element already exists, it just needs a scalable solution to make those GPBs accurate and longer-ranged.

However, it seems that the PAF is also actively working to complement the lower cost AZB with a higher-cost, but far more capable ALCM element via the Ra’ad-series (which includes the export-bound Taimoor).

By marketing the Taimoor ALCM for export, it seems Pakistan may have attained the ability to mass-produce ALCMs, thus making a conventional use of these munitions feasible. Functionally, both the AZB and Ra’ad/Taimoor will likely supplant the Raptor-based H-2 and H-4 by delivering the long-range and heavyweight warhead capacity of the latter. In turn, this shift would also relieve the legacy, but upgraded, Mirage III/5 from the bulk of the PAF’s strike operations.

Similar lessons are likely in play for the Pakistan Army (PA) and Pakistan Navy (PN). If the two service arms want to maintain extensive precision-strike capabilities, they need both low-cost platforms and a scalable guided munitions solution. For its part, the PA is investing in guided artillery shells as well as guided Fatah-series rockets. Likewise, the PN is investing in locally producing subsonic and supersonic ASCMs while also collaborating with Türkiye on an original frigate, while also working with China on a mainstay submarine.

Interestingly, the three service arms also have one common munitions channel that they could potentially jointly invest in: SAMs. Though Ukraine fields cutting-edge SAM platforms, like the Patriot, it has to worry about limited missile inventories and replenishment. Just as Pakistan’s offensive capabilities have greatly improved thanks to guided munitions, the nature of the threats it faces have also significantly evolved. In turn, the process of defending against these threats (e.g., enemy cruise missiles) necessitates modern SAM systems. However, as one’s adversaries will engage in more frequent stand-off range, guided strikes, one will also expend their SAM stores more rapidly to counteract those threats.

Pakistan’s push to locally manufacture SAMs – especially the LOMADS, which is slated to have a range of up to 100 km – is likely a move to mitigate use depletion. By locally producing advanced SAMs, Pakistan is in a position to manufacture the missiles for a potentially lower cost, thus building larger stores. It could also avoid the risk of regulatory scrutiny that might occur from importing missiles. Pakistan would not have the industrial capacity to produce SAMs in large numbers during a conflict, so the key would be to build a large inventory and refurbishment/life-extension capability in peacetime.

Overall, the indigenous SAM projects indicate that Pakistan is aiming to procure a large number of these missiles. This could be to build a more extensive land-based air defence environment and to ensure the availability of enough missiles to intercept the greater array of threats (especially cruise missiles, loitering munitions, and drones). Both elements (i.e., a more pervasive air defence environment and ample missile stores) have made a difference for Ukraine; Pakistan is likely aiming to emulate it.

Ultimately, while Pakistan is evidently aiming to manufacture munitions, there are still a number of caveats to its strategy. As Pakistan lacks the industrial capacity to manufacture key inputs (like electronics), it will still be reliant on foreign suppliers, especially China and, to an extent, Türkiye. Thus, its strategy is not entirely independent, nor is it immune to potential supply-side obstacles and restraints. However, Pakistan can potentially build upon the expertise it is gaining through licensing and technology-transfer agreements to design its own critical inputs and, in turn, drive public and private sector investment in key industries.

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