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Is the Free World Ready for a War of Attrition Against Dictatorships?

To deter China from invading Taiwan and creating a third theater of war, Western allies must urgently align on bolstering their dwindling arms and ammunition.



The curtain lifts on what looks set to be a tumultuous year, including multiple theaters of war. 

Since 2022, the American Biden administration has supported Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression in the first theater of war. In addition, the United States has also supported Israel since October 2023. Israel has been fighting back against the Islamic fundamentalist organization Hamas in what has become the second theater of war. 

Furthermore, as 2024 commences with Taiwan's presidential election on January 13, the US must bolster deterrence against China. Otherwise, the Taiwan Strait may become a third theater of war.

Organizing the Logistical Support

Washington prompted a provisional easing of tensions with the US-China summit in November 2023. But much like the détente thawing of US-Soviet tensions during the Cold War, this could only postpone the inevitable crisis. Now that the Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te (William Lai) has won Taiwan's presidential election, China will likely intensify its military provocations against the island nation. Continuing Chinese intimidation will also increase geopolitical risks, including between the US and China.

In this case, the key to avoiding a new conflict is strengthening US deterrence and support for its allies. Failing to supply its allies with an adequate supply of ammunition and other military assistance could damage US credibility. Delays in US supplies of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine and Israel could cause Xi Jinping to doubt America's "resolve to deter." 

Ammunition and weapons shortages faced by the Western allies have surpassed initial expectations. They simply did not expect the Ukrainian military to fire up to 6,000 shells daily in its counteroffensive. Nor did they anticipate that Israel would run out of precision-guided munitions in mere months in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

Israeli soldiers prepare shells near a mobile artillery unit, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel, January 2, 2024. (©REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

In 2023, a US think tank conducted tabletop war games simulating a US-China war in the Taiwan Strait. It concluded that the US military would run out of long-range precision-guided munitions and other critical ammunition eight days into the conflict. The US military's dire circumstances also extend to the global preeminence of its naval forces. 

Robert O'Brien, a former Trump administration presidential aide, wrote about the US Navy's declining trajectory in the National Review. "It endangers national security," he warned. 


America's general military decline is due to the weakening of the US defense industrial base. This stems from the "peace dividend" of the end of the Cold War.

Top Strategic Priority

As noted above, the United States and the Soviet Union reached a détente during the Cold War. However, this collapsed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

From the (Jimmy) Carter administration to (George Herbert Walker) Bush Senior's administration, the US rejected Soviet demands to cut off aid to Afghanistan. Washington declared it would continue providing assistance until the Soviet Union had withdrawn all its troops from the country. Eventually, this convinced the Soviet leadership that it would be difficult to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan. 

Biden's current policy towards Russia lacks the clear resolution of successive US administrations in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union completed its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan and collapsed less than three years later. 

Artur Kalandarov, an international analyst at Stanford University, believes that US military support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was exemplary. He argues it should be used as a blueprint to devise a strategy for the Ukrainian conflict. Biden's policy does not include "the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Ukraine's territory," he notes. Kalandarov suggests that this should constitute a central strategic goal of Washington's policy towards Russia. 

As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated, the US is instead aiming to "weaken" Russia so that "it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine." But if the US doesn't provide military support for a victory that includes the withdrawal of Russian troops, Ukraine will struggle to sustain a defensive battle, let alone win.

Continuing Arsenal of Democracy

Today, no nation can cope without the support of allies, no matter how powerful it may be. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has begun the daunting challenge of rebuilding its defense industry. In reinforcing its trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific defenses, NATO is preparing for the possibility of a third war. 

The US Defense Department and NATO's military committee are changing their ammunition production model. They are moving from "a just-in-time, just enough economy model to a peak demand model." It seems the old saying "logistics wins wars" still lives on. 


During World War II, the US supplied the Allies with what it called the "arsenal of democracy." Following the end of WWII, America downsized its defense industry. With the end of the Cold War, pressure to further downsize increased. 

A Ukrainian serviceman takes a 155-mm artillery shell at a position near a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine January 14, 2024. (©REUTERS/Stringer)

America's defense industry subsequently stagnated as companies merged and production lines shrank. Now, the recent refusal of the US to approve a defense budget that includes $60 billion USD in aid for Ukraine hints at uncertainty about the future.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon is working through this situation. It is building a production facility for 155mm artillery shells in Texas. Boeing is also expanding its capacity to manufacture sensors for Patriot interceptor missiles at its Alabama plant.

In Europe, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have become major munitions producers. Germany also approved orders for 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine from a French company on two occasions at the end of 2023.

Furthermore, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have initiated joint procurement of 155mm artillery shells. Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson expressed his determination to fight against the "cruel war of attrition." He stated, "These serious times require clarity of vision, capacity to act, and persistence."

Ukraine's Lessons for Japan

As the third year of Russia's invasion approaches, Moscow is also ordering ammunition from North Korea. It is also receiving drones from Iran. However, Russia has a vast stockpile of older weapons with anti-corrosion protection. Drawing on these weapons in a war of attrition enables Russia to continue fighting. 

North Korean President Kim Jong Un visited a key munitions factory on January 8-9. (©KCNA via Korean News Agency)

Kunio Orita, a former Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) general and visiting professor at Reitaku University, points out the lessons for Japan. 

Japan's Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) equipment is strictly limited. When it receives new weapons, the old ones are destroyed. As Orita explains, this is absurd. Although an old 20mm machine gun might not be effective against aircraft, it can shoot down drones. Once the JSDF receives the new Patriot Advances Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptor missiles, it will scrap its PAC-2 missiles. PAC-2 missiles might not be as good as ballistic missiles, but the JSDF can still use them as anti-aircraft artillery. If the war of attrition in Ukraine teaches us anything, it is that even old weapons can still serve a purpose. 

For Western allies to align on the arms and ammunition buildup will be fraught with fiscal and political difficulties. Losing the war, however, would be far worse. 


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Hiroshi Yuasa


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