Looking for weapons for Ukraine, Pentagon buyers scour Eastern European factories

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IN POLAND, NEAR THE UKRAINE BORDER — Near a runway at a Polish airport, forklifts busily unloaded an Air Force C-17 transport plane of its payload next to a much smaller civilian propeller-driven aircraft, moving pallets of green boxes full of ammunition from each to a nearby asphalt parking lot that is full of many dozens.

Some carried American-made weapons, while others had a variety of ammunition made in Eastern Europe — all representative of Ukraine’s highest priorities for military aid that would soon be loaded into a fleet of waiting semi-trailer trucks loitering nearby for the trip to Ukraine.

The Pentagon gets many of the American-made weapons from its own stockpiles to Kiev, but relies on American defense contractors to scour eastern European munitions factories for newly-made weapons designed by the United States’ former adversary, the Soviet Union, to honor President Biden’s commitments to increase military aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine still uses many weapons common to the Russian military, such as modern Kalashnikovs. And while Ukraine’s advocacy for more advanced weapons — such as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — has attracted much attention, the country’s military is in dire need of a wide variety of ammunition, including tens of millions of cartridges for Soviet-era weapons that are not on the cutting edge, but are staples of the Ukrainian military.

The Pentagon calls such weapons, including rockets, artillery shells, and machine gun and assault rifle ammunition, “non-standard ammunition” — as the ammunition is incompatible with the ammunition used by the United States and many allied countries, which are widely known as NATO standard ammunition.

And since the September 11 attacks, the Pentagon has purchased large quantities of such weapons through a variety of US defense companies to supply customer armies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries that still rely on Soviet-designed weapons. .

One such company is the Ultra Defense Corp. in Tampa, Florida, which has approximately 60 employees and has built a thriving business with factories in Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

Those countries supply about 90 percent of the non-standard ammunition purchased by the Pentagon, according to Matthew Herring, the company’s owner, even though his company only supplies a fraction of the Pentagon’s total orders.

Mr Herring, who bought the company in 2011 when it was a three-man company supplying Russian helicopters to Afghan troops, is now in Poland to meet with Ukrainian officials to find out what else his company can do to provide them with Eastern Bloc ammunition.

“A month ago, when Kiev was surrounded, it was, ‘What do we need in the next 48 hours?'” said Mr. herring. “But now the Ukrainians are digging in for a long fight and it’s, ‘How do we get enough to support us in this fight?'”

“So it’s a longer look at what they need now,” he added.

The Pentagon’s non-standard ammunition program was built in direct response to a 2008 New York Times investigation that revealed the illegal sale of Chinese-made weapons to the US military in Afghanistan, which became the subject of the film. ‘War Dogs’ from 2016.

According to Mr. Herring, after that scandal, the Pentagon signed contracts with major defense companies to supply non-standard ammunition for Afghanistan and later allowed small companies like him to bid for the same types of services.

Whether certain European countries that still make Soviet-designed munitions will sell their wares to Ukraine is a political decision — a decision that may depend in part on whether they value maintaining good relations with President Vladimir. V. Putin of Russia.

Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado, a former military officer who serves on the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, said in an interview last week that much of Ukraine’s non-standard ammunition “will run out very quickly” because of the current rate of battles with Russia.

The Ukrainian military will eventually have to switch to NATO-standard weapons in the future, he said, so that it can further take advantage of the West’s vast stockpiles of ammunition held in bunkers in Europe and the United States.

That move is already underway, in part by supplying five battalions of 155mm howitzers to meet Ukraine’s urgent needs for what it calls long-range firing, which are comparable in capacity to the Soviet-designed 152mm weapons that Ukraine has. against Russia.

So while companies like the Ultra Defense Corp. continue to purchase as many 152 millimeters of artillery shells as possible for Ukraine’s old artillery weapons, the Pentagon is aggressively selling 184,000 shells from its stockpile in Europe for the 155 millimeters of howitzers it has pulled from United States Army and Marine Corps stocks. States and shipped to Kiev.

At a news conference last week, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said non-standard ammunition remains an important part of the arms shipments the United States supplies to Ukraine.

“It is the lifeblood of the Ukrainian armed forces here,” said Mr. Kirby about the ammunition supply given to Kiev. “We don’t talk much about small arms ammunition. It doesn’t make the headlines, I get that, but every discussion we have with the Ukrainians, they talk about how important that is.”

Since the invasion, he said, the United States has coordinated and supplied more than 50 million small arms ammunition to Ukraine, much of which was designed by the Soviet Union. Mr Kirby said the United States “continued to talk with allies and partners about its stockpiles of non-standard ammunition” in a bid to get more ammunition to Ukraine.

“It has a really significant impact on the battlefield,” he said of the Soviet-designed ammunition. “They use that ammunition literally every day to defend their country.”

John Ismay reported from an undisclosed location in Poland near the Ukrainian border and Eric Schmitt from Washington.



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