Pakistan, Ukraine, And The Race For Third-Party Ammunition

In a plea for assistance in June of this year, Ukraine’s Deputy Head of Military Intelligence, Vadym Skibitsky, told reporters that the conflict with Russia “is now an artillery war that we are losing, [as] Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10-15 Russian artillery pieces and we have almost used up all of our ammunition.” Although the United States and allies in Europe were already delivering shells to Ukraine, they themselves found their stocks also decreasing at an alarming rate. In a surprising development, Pakistan emerged as an important source and an air bridge was established to bring much-needed ammunition to Ukraine.

A Ukrainian Army exercise involving Soviet-era 122mm D-30 howitzers, prior to the latest Russian invasion. Ukrainian Armed Forces.

In a war where artillery has become king, both Russia and Ukraine have been looking for any means to refill their ammunition reserves. Russia’s losses of major weapons storage areas, especially to precision strikes from Ukraine’s U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), only accelerated its need for fresh ammunition.

Ukraine had burned through its Soviet-era artillery stocks just a handful of months into the war and was gobbling up whatever its allies could give it. These concerns seem to have effectively warranted a boost in the capacity and creativity of both manufacturers and states, as both Russia and Ukraine have turned to unforeseen partners for answers.  

For NATO states, employing standard calibers enables them to further share ammunition stores. But several months into the conflict, the West had to think outside the box to replenish Ukrainian artillery stockpiles, which by then comprised of a mix of Soviet-era and NATO calibers and types. 

Beginning on August 6, open-source intelligence began to reveal that a U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) C-17 Globemaster III aircraft (serial ZZ143) was conducting almost daily flights from Romania’s Cluj International Airport or RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to Pakistan’s Nur Khan Air Base. This development came days after Britain announced it would be supplying Ukraine with more than 50,000 Soviet-type artillery shells. Over the course of 15 days, the C-17 Pakistan-Romania airlift effort completed a total of 12 trips, leading many analysts to assume that the United Kingdom was transporting military supplies for the Ukrainians. No flights have been tracked between these destinations since August 22.

RAF C-17 flights tracked from FlightRadar24, marked by N/A or — since the website’s smart algorithm does not include PAF Nur Khan Air Base or RAF Akrotiri in its database. The destinations were marked by OSINT observers and analyst @Gerjon_ FlightRadar24.

While we don’t know exactly what those aircraft were carrying, evidence of 122mm HOW HE-D30 artillery shells manufactured by the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) in Ukrainian hands subsequently emerged. In one video gone viral on social media, seen below, where the POF 122-mm shells are seen being unpacked, it is possible to identify them based on several elements including the specific British-style steel-box packaging typically used by the company and the LIU-4 type fuzes that are also distinctive to POF’s Soviet-type 122mm artillery.

While no flights have been tracked between these destinations since August 22, it appears that the Pakistan-made projectiles are now in the hands of Ukrainian troops. In a video gone viral on social media, where the POF 122-mm shells are seen being unpacked, it is possible to identify them based on several elements including the specific British-style steel-box packaging typically used by the company and the LIU-4 type fuzes that are also distinctive to POF’s Soviet-type 122mm artillery.

Since the appearance of this footage on the battlefield, no formal confirmation has been given by either Pakistani or British authorities. When reached for comment, a senior POF employee told The War Zone that “he was told not to answer any of the questions related to this matter.” Similarly, the only remark the U.K. MoD has given on the issue is that the country “remains steadfast in its support for Ukraine and it is working with a range of allies and partners to ensure it has what it needs to defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.” More recently, the RAF’s C-17 aircraft has been active but only within Europe making regular trips from and to Poland’s Rzeszow Air Base, which serves as an entry point to ship military aid into Ukraine.

credit: @AbraxasSpa.

The POF’s 122mm HOW HE-D30 projectiles are semi-fixed ammunition for howitzers, with a maximum range of 9.5 miles and a muzzle velocity (the speed at which projectile leaves the barrel) of 2,270 feet per second (690 meters/s.) The complete weight of the round, taking into account the projectile and shell, is about 28 pounds.

It is important to note that the entry of Pakistani ordnance into the conflict would never turn the tide of the war, given also that the number of rounds sent remains unknown. But it may have played a significant role in bridging the gap between the delivery of more Western artillery systems and Ukraine’s wind-down of using Soviet-era ones.

credit: Pakistan Ordnance Factories. 

Although it may be surprising to see British authorities turn to POF for these supplies, the two actually share a long-standing history. The POF was established in 1951 by the Pakistani government with collaboration from the British Royal Ordnance Factory (an ensemble of U.K. munition factories established during and after World War II). Public British Parliament documents further show that in the 1970s, under licensed production deals, Britain provided training for the engineers and POF staff as well as a technology transfer for the manufacturing of 105mm L64 Tungsten ammunition. The POF is also one of the main manufacturers still producing large amounts of Soviet-style artillery ammunition.

Umair Aslam, Director of Global Defense Insight, an Islamabad-based security forum, notes that more generally “Pakistan has shared close relations with the U.K. exemplified through regular high-level meetings and joint military exercises, with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff most recently attending on August 22, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) parade as chief guest.” For almost 50 years, the RMAS has been a significant tool to foster deeper U.K.-Pakistani relations as it trains Pakistani soldiers, even previously funding their training. While the central purpose of the POF is to support the Pakistani Armed Forces, the surplus capacity of the weapons and ammunition it produces are also utilized for international exports, including many countries in Europe and the United States.

Pakistan and Ukraine also share important military ties, of which the largest contract was signed 20 years ago, in 1996, for 320 T-80UD tanks built by the Kharkiv Machine Building Design Bureau. Although Islamabad was also reported to be replacing various forms of Ukrainian equipment before the onset of the war, Aslam points out that this is the first time it is supplying Kyiv with this type of ammunition.

In recent years, the South Asian country has attempted to balance its relationship with Ukraine and Russia. However, Pakistan’s economy has also faced significant hardships, which implies that it has increasingly been looking for financial support from various states. According to French media outlets, a trilateral agreement could have been reached between the United States and Pakistan for the sale of ammunition to the United Kingdom over the summer, in exchange for the release of a $1.2 billion loan from the IMF pending from earlier this year. This latest development comes amid the Biden administration’s decision to approve a possible foreign military sale of an F-16 fleet sustainment package to Islamabad. 

Over the last nine months, it has become a pattern for Kyiv to acquire weapons via third-party transfers. However, a more recent and on the rise inclination is for Ukraine to obtain ammunition from third ‘unplanned’ parties. For instance, a number of Iranian-made arms (including Chinese Type-56-I assault rifles and 82mm HM-19 mortars) have found their way into conflict zones in Ukraine. The first evidence of Iran-made ammunition only emerged in early September 2022. As documented by the open-source analyst website Oryx, the artillery shells were 122mm OF-462 types for the D-30 howitzer listed as having been produced in 2022. The possibility has been raised that this ammunition and several other Iranian-made weapons seen in Ukraine could have made their way there through some of the previous seizures made by Western states and their Arab allies and partners of weapons shipments heading to Yemen. 

This same tendency is seemingly being emulated by Russia, in the face of a common problem related to depleting ammunition stocks and international sanctions. Based on declassified intelligence information released by the U.S. government, Moscow is said to be buying ‘millions’ of artillery shells from North Korea in an attempt to replenish its stockpiles. Based on analysis from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), North Korea, with its massive arsenal of approximately 20,000 active artillery pieces, would have what defense and military analysis Joseph Dempsey described as “the single biggest source of compatible legacy artillery ammunition outside of Russia, including domestic production facilities to further supplies.” A commonality between both Iran and North Korea is that they are both widely secluded from the rest of the world, sanctioned by the majority of the West. This implies that they have very little to lose and much to gain doing business with Russia and that their supply chains for weaponry are largely organic or, at the very least, work outside of major trade channels.

The story of Pakistani artillery shells making their way to Ukrainian artillery is something of a metaphor for how the push to supply Kyiv with the weapons it needed to hold off the Russian war machine. These efforts, which appear to have been clandestine, at least in part, look to have been an ‘all hands on deck’ scramble. Old relationships, modern airlifter logistics, plenty of money, and the will to make it happen proved integral in helping save Ukraine from being completely overrun by Russian forces.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a freelance defense reporter based in Milan, Italy. She covers a wide-range of topics related to military procurement and international security, specializing in the aviation sector.

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