By Elizabeth Piper
DORSET, England (Reuters) -Britain has begun to "warm up" its production lines to replace weapons sent to Ukraine and increase production of artillery shells to try to help Kyiv push back Russian forces, defence minister Ben Wallace said on Wednesday.
In an interview with Reuters in southwest England where officers are training Ukrainian crews on Challenger-2 tanks, Wallace said he believed Britain was in a good place to help Ukraine but needed to sustain the provision of weapons.
Fighting remains fierce in eastern Ukraine, where Russia wants to establish control over the whole of the industrial Donbas area after seizing swathes of territory there but Kyiv said it needs more Western weapons to be able to push them back.
Asked about whether Britain had the commercial capacity to continue to provide Ukraine with weapons such as artillery shells, Wallace said: "We have laid contracts ... We've started to already now receive some deliveries of that for our own restocking and also some of it to Ukraine."
He said in the past, governments would have looked in their stockpiles and "blow the dust off" equipment to see what was there, but now the game had changed with "a much more aggressive and dangerous Russia on the edges of Europe".
He said shells could be made fairly quickly but "the key is to make sure that we place the orders, and we've started placing those orders over the last 10 months and that starts to sort of warm up those production lines".
"Absolutely part of the effort this year is sustainability - how can we, the international community, stimulate supply chains, how can we stimulate our own supply chains for our own equipment and that's been one of the changes," he said.
Standing at a tank training ground surrounded by armoured fighting vehicles and tanks, Wallace spoke to Ukrainian soldiers who were training to use Britain's Challenger tanks which the defence minister said would arrive in Ukraine in "the spring".
Britain has already given more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers basic training in drone warfare and has been training tank crews since late January, part of what ministers say is proof of the country's leading role in supporting Ukraine.
Britain and other Western countries have scaled up their pledges of military aid for Ukraine this year, with promises of tanks and armoured vehicles as well as longer-range weapons. London has also offered to train Ukrainian soldiers on war planes rather than delivering fighter jets as yet.
Wallace has frequently said any delivery of fighter jets would be a long-term project, possibly once the Russian war on Ukraine was over, and would not be drawn on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's offer of longer-range weapons.
But the question opposition lawmakers have is how equipment does Britain have. Wallace said Britain could offer additional Challenger tanks to the 14 already promised, but that it would depend on the threat level and also the country's defence needs.
"The key is to make sure we can maintain them through this year. With Russia using the meat grinder tactic of its own where the Russian army doesn't care about its own people, ... we have to make sure that is not able to be successful," he said.
Wallace conceded that all this takes money but would not be drawn on how talks to secure more funds in this month's budget were going, saying only that negotiations were ongoing.
"For now I just need to see if there's any more money I can have ... to get me through inflation and get me through some of the other pressures," he said. When asked whether he felt Sunak understood what was needed, he added: "I am reassured."
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by William Maclean)