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Push to arm Ukraine putting strain on US weapons stockpile

The planes take off almost daily from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — hulking C-17s loaded up with Javelins, Stingers, Howitzers and other materiel being hustled to eastern Europe to resupply Ukraine’s military in its fight against Russia.

The game-changing impact of those arms is exactly what President Joe Biden hopes to spotlight as he visits a Lockheed Martin plant in Alabama on Tuesday that builds the portable Javelin anti-tank weapons that have played a crucial role in Ukraine.

But Biden’s visit is also drawing attention to a growing concern as the war drags on: Can the US sustain the cadence of shipping vast amounts of arms to Ukraine while maintaining the healthy stockpile it may need if a new conflict erupts with North Korea, Iran or elsewhere?

The US already has provided at least 7,000 Javelins, about one-third of its stockpile, to Ukraine, according to an analysis by Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies international security program.

Analysts also estimate that the United States has sent about one-quarter of its stockpile of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to Ukraine. Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes told investors last week during a quarterly call that his company, which makes the weapons system, wouldn’t be able to ramp up production until next year due to parts shortages.

“Could this be a problem? The short answer is, ‘Probably, yes,'” said Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and former government specialist on Pentagon budget strategy, war funding and procurement.

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He said that Stingers and Javelins were where "we’re seeing the most significant inventory issues," and production of both weapons systems has been limited in recent years.

The Russian invasion offers the US and European defense industry a big opportunity to bolster profits as lawmakers from Washington to Warsaw are primed to increase defense spending in response to Russian aggression. Defense contractors, however, face the same supply chain and labor shortage challenges that other manufacturers are facing, along with some others that are specific to the industry.

Military spending by the US and around the world was rising even before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Biden’s proposed 2023 budget sought $773 billion for the Pentagon, an annual increase of about 4 percent.

Globally, total military spending rose 0.7 percent to more than $2 trillion for the first time in 2021, according to an April report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia ranked fifth, as its spending on weapons increased ahead of its invasion of Ukraine.

The war will mean increased sales for some defense contractors, including Raytheon, which makes the Stinger missiles Ukrainian troops have used to knock out Russian aircraft. The company is also part of a joint venture with Lockheed Martin that makes the Javelins.

Biden will visit Lockheed Martin's facility in Troy, Ala., which has the capacity to manufacture about 2,100 Javelins per year. The trip comes as he presses Congress to quickly approve his request for an additional $33 billion in security and economic assistance for Kyiv.

The president is expected to use his remarks to highlight the importance of the Javelins and other US weaponry in helping Ukraine's military put up a vigorous fight as he makes the case to keep security and economic assistance flowing, according to a White House official.

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity, said the Pentagon is working with defense contractors “to evaluate the health of weapons systems’ production lines and examine bottlenecks in every component and step of the manufacturing process.” The administration is also considering a range of options, if needed, to boost production of both Javelin and Stingers, the official said.

Cancian, the former government specialist on defense budget strategy, said the fact that Stingers and Javelins were not included in the most recent tranche of weapons the Biden administration announced it was sending to Ukraine could be a sign that Pentagon officials are mindful about inventory as they conduct contingency planning for other possible conflicts.

“There’s no question that whatever war plan they're looking at there is risk associated with the depleting levels of Stingers and Javelins, and I’m sure that they’re having that discussion at the Pentagon,” he said.

The US military effort to move weaponry to eastern Europe for Ukraine’s fight has been Herculean. From Dover Air Base in Delaware, US airmen have carried out nearly 70 missions to deliver some 7 million pounds of Javelins, Stingers, 155mm Howitzers, helmets and other essentials to eastern Europe since February. Col. Matt Husemann, commander of the 436th Airlift Wing, described the mission as a “whole of government approach that’s delivering hope."

“It is awesome,” said Husemann, whose unit recently provided The Associated Press a behind-the-scenes tour of the massive airlift operation.

The lightweight but lethal Javelin has helped the Ukrainians inflict major damage on Russia's larger and better-equipped military. As a result, the weapon has gained almost mythic regard, celebrated with a Javelin song and images of Mary Magdalene carrying a Javelin becoming a meme in Ukraine.

Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet said in a recent CNBC interview that demand for the Javelin and other weapon systems would increase broadly over time because of the Russian invasion. He said the company was working “to get our supply chain ramped up.”

“We have the ability to meet current production demands, are investing in increased capacity and are exploring ways to further increase production as needed," Lockheed Martin said in a statement.

Pentagon officials recently sat down with some of the leading defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman to discuss efforts to ramp up production.

The big defense contractors face some serious challenges.

Raytheon, for example, can’t simply crank out Stingers to replace the 1,400 that the US sent to Ukraine. Hayes, the Raytheon CEO, said in a recent conference call with analysts that the company has only limited supplies of components to make the missile. Only one undisclosed country has been buying them in recent years, and the Pentagon hasn’t bought any new ones in nearly 20 years.

Sanctions further complicate the picture. Companies must find new sources of important raw materials such as titanium, a crucial component in aerospace manufacturing that is produced in Russia.

Concerns about the Stinger stockpile have been raised by House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama. The two in March wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, describing the stockpile issue as one of “urgency.”

Rogers said he remains concerned that the matter hasn't been properly addressed.

“I’ve been asking the DoD for almost two months for a plan to replenish our Stinger stockpile as well as our Javelin launch units," Rogers said. "I worry that without a readily available replacement or fully active production lines, we could leave Ukraine and our NATO allies in a vulnerable position.”

With about 600 employees and contract workers, the nearly 30-year-old Alabama plant Biden will visit is one of the largest employers in Pike County, home to Troy University and the birthplace of the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

The factory began attracting attention soon after Russia’s invasion because of images shared on social media that showed Javelin missile tubes emblazoned with “TROY, AL” stockpiled for use by Ukrainian forces.

“We want the last thing Putin ever reads to be ‘Made in Alabama,’” Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said in a message shared on social media.

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Taliban hold gathering of 3,000 Islamic clerics, seek advise on running Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country.

Women were not allowed to attend.

At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue.

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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those who addressed the assembly – and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees – were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed.

The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.

“The girls’ (school girls) issue is a challenge and needs to be solved by the government, and the government has the responsibility to listen to the people’s demand,” Mujahid said.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.

However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.

A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation.

The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University.

A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers.

However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

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Germany looks to buy Israeli or US missile defense system

Berlin is considering buying a missile defense system from Israel or the United States to defend against threats including Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday.

The Iskander missiles can reach almost all of western Europe and there is no missile shield in place to protect against this threat, Germany’s chief of defense Eberhard Zorn told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Saturday.

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“The Israelis and the Americans possess such systems. Which one do we prefer? Will we manage to establish an overall (missile defense) system in NATO? These are the questions we need to answer now,” Zorn said.

He did not specify the names of the systems but was most likely referring to Arrow 3 built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the US system THAAD produced by Lockheed Martin.

Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania. A mobile ballistic missile system, the Iskander replaced the Soviet Scud missile and its two guided missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In a landmark speech days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would hike its defense spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output by injecting 100 billion euros ($110 billion) into the military.

Zorn belongs to a group of high-ranking officials consulting with Scholz on how to spend this money.

“So far, only one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there,” Zorn said.

Referring to Germany’s lack of a short-range missile defense, which can be used to protect troops on the move or under threat while deployed, he said Berlin had started looking into the purchase of such systems and it now had to make a decision.

Beyond this, the Bundeswehr will have to invest 20 billion euros by 2032 to replenish its ammunition storages, Zorn added.

Read more: Iran tensions, record gas prices push Biden to recalibrate US policy in Middle East

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Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to block Sweden, Finland NATO deal if expectations not met

Just two days after agreeing to lift deal-breaking objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Turkey’s leader threatened Thursday that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet his expectations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the close of the alliance’s summit in Madrid that Tuesday night’s 10-article agreement with the Nordic pair was a victory for Ankara that addressed all its “sensitivities.”

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He especially stressed Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.

But Erdogan added that if the two Nordic states renege on their promises, Turkey’s Parliament could still not ratify the deal. NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.

“This business will not work if we don’t pass this in our parliament,” Erdogan said. “First Sweden and Finland must fulfill their duties and those are already in the text … But if they don’t fulfill these, then of course there is no way we would send it to our parliament.”

Erdogan claimed that Sweden had promised to extradite 73 “terrorists” to Turkey and crack down on the financing and recruitment activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — listed as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union — and linked groups.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the PKK.

The text of the memorandum sets no specific number on extraditions. It says the Nordic countries will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided” by Turkey in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sweden and Finland’s justice ministries have files from Turkey on 33 people with alleged links to PKK and the network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Journalists at Thursday’s news conference repeatedly pressed Erdogan about the extraditions and whether Sweden had actually promised the number he quoted.

“Of course what we understand is important from our meetings and talks,” Erdogan said. “Sweden promised to give us these 73 people with this text. They may or they may not, we will follow that through the text and we will make our decision.”

Erdogan also said the number of extraditions had been 60 but was updated to 73. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from the Swedish delegation at the summit in Madrid.

The Swedish government has sought to allay concerns that the deal would lead to extraditions to Turkey without due process.

“I know there are some people who are worried that we’re going to start to hunt people and extradite them and I think it’s important to say that we always follow Swedish laws and international conventions, and we never extradite Swedish citizens,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told public broadcaster SVT on Wednesday.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto stressed that Helsinki pointed out that the memorandum does not list the names of individuals.

“In the case of extraditions, we will adhere to our own legislation and international agreements. Ultimately, extradition is a legal discretion which politicians have no right to influence,” Niinisto said.

With the joint memorandum signed, NATO moved ahead with inviting the Nordic countries to the military alliance that seeks to enlarge and strengthen in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The most time consuming part of gaining NATO membership is the ratification of the applicants’ accession protocols by the alliance’s 30 member countries. It’s a process that involves national parliaments — and could take months.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that Germany will launch the process of ratifying the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland this week and will conclude it “very quickly.”

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