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Javelin missiles are in short supply and restocking them won't be easy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the best weapons Ukraine has in its war with Russia is Javelin missiles. But supplies are low, and restocking them will not be easy. Frank Morris of our member station KCUR explains why.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Every conflict has its iconic weapons - tanks in World War II, helicopters in the Vietnam War. And Mark Cancian with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the war in Ukraine has distinguished an American-made, shoulder-fired, precision-guided anti-tank missile - the Javelin.

MARK CANCIAN: We've seen pictures of Saint Javelin. We've heard Javelin songs.

MORRIS: That's right. T-shirts, murals, even songs, venerating a missile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Javelin, Javelin - (singing in non-English language).

MORRIS: This video shows familiar images of Ukrainian soldiers firing Javelins, Russian tanks exploding and burned-out wrecks smoldering. But Cancian says the U.S. has stopped shipping the celebrated missile.

CANCIAN: What you've seen is that in recent aid packages, there aren't any Javelins, and I think that's because the stockpile is getting low.

MORRIS: Cancian figures the U.S. has sent up to 7,000 Javelins to Ukraine, about a third of its stockpile.

CANCIAN: The production problem for Javelins is that we've sent a lot of them, and we are producing them at a very high rate. We've been producing them at about 800 a year, more or less.

MORRIS: Javelins are assembled in a plant in Troy, Ala., out of parts and materials sourced from around the country. Production is picking up, but it's going to be expensive, as President Joe Biden conceded when he visited the plant earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And to make sure the United States and our allies can replenish our own stocks of weapons to replace what we've sent to Ukraine - as I said from the beginning, this fight is not going to be cheap.

MORRIS: Last week, Biden signed a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The Pentagon has ordered another $309 million worth of replacement Javelins. But Mark Cancian says filling that order is going to be challenging because the assembly plant in Alabama can't speed up until all its suppliers - plants that produce the chemicals, 200 computer chips and other highly specialized parts required in every Javelin - speed up first.

CANCIAN: Each element of the missile has challenges in its supply chain. The warheads, for example, come from one plant that makes all of the U.S. warheads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Iowa Army Ammunition Plant has been making large caliber ammunition for the Defense Department since World War II.

MORRIS: As shown on this video, the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant is vast. The complex sprawls out over nearly 30 square miles, producing tank shells and other ordnance, including the explosive part of every single Javelin missile. Notre Dame professor Charles Gholz says it's one of almost two dozen Army-run plants across the country that make and refurbish military hardware.

CHARLES GHOLZ: These, by and large, are very old facilities. Many of them were originally built for World War II and have had limited investment since.

MORRIS: But Gholz, who led a defense supply chain initiative for the Pentagon, says the old, mothballed machinery sitting in these plants still works, and he says that excess capacity is there to be used.

GHOLZ: There are going to be hitches and glitches that you have to work on. There's going to be fixing and improvising and replacing. That's what these facilities are for. That's what they do.

MORRIS: What these plants don't have is a bunch of people sitting around, ready to start working. It will take time to hire and to train. Other stages of the Javelin supply chain, they're going to be strained as well.

GHOLZ: There are lots of possible points of friction. It could be chemical suppliers. It could be casting guys. It could be chipmakers. I don't know which one it'll be. Something will be the slowest to ramp up. People will say, that's the friction point. And they will go put resources to fix it.

MORRIS: The government can basically steamroll most of its supply chain problems with money and its authority to requisition scarce parts. So U.S. factories will soon be producing a lot more weapons, including Javelin missiles, the iconic weapon of the war in Ukraine.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris