US Army/Spc. Joshua Taeckens
- The US, UK, and Germany have agreed to provide their tanks to Ukraine, as have some other countries.
- Those tanks now join hundreds of other armored vehicles delivered or promised to Kyiv.
- That armor will be vital against Russia when fighting intensifies this spring, US officials say.
US-made Abrams tanks will join a wave of Western armor heading to Ukraine in the coming months to equip Kyiv to fend off looming Russian offensives, US officials said Wednesday.
The 31 Abrams tanks the US will send to Ukraine likely won’t arrive for months or longer, but the US and European countries have already committed to sending Ukraine several different types of armored vehicles.
These include the French-made AMX-10 RC armored combat and reconnaissance vehicle, the US-made Stryker armored personnel carrier, and infantry fighting vehicles like the American Bradley, German Marder, and Swedish Combat Vehicle 90. And although Ukraine already had Soviet-era BMP infantry fighting vehicles in its arsenal, it welcomed the transfer of additional vehicles from NATO members like Greece and Slovakia.
A German Leopard 2 in Munster in May 2019.
Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images
The US and the Netherlands are also refurbishing 90 Soviet-era T-72 tanks that they pledged to send to Ukraine in November. “About half of those are arriving on the battlefields now,” a senior Biden administration official said.
“So you’re going to see hundreds of armored vehicles, exceptionally capable vehicles, and tanks arriving in Ukraine, and importantly, they will be arriving with trained crews that are prepared to operate as part of a larger” operation, the official added, speaking anonymously to brief reporters on the US’s Abrams announcement.
The time needed to procure Abrams tanks will allow for training and logistics pipelines to be set up, a second official said, noting that the Leopards will arrive sooner.
“So coupled with this near-term commitment that the Germans have made on Leopard, we think that this contribution by us with the Abrams represents the long-term commitment,” the second official added.
No silver bullets
A Ukrainian soldier checks a wrecked Russian tank outside a village east of Kharkiv in April 2022.
SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images
Alongside official debates about whether to send Western tanks to Ukraine, experts have debated the utility of those tanks in light of the new training and logistics networks that Ukraine will need in order to operate them.
Western third-generation main battle tanks — including Abrams, Challengers, and Leopards — “are formidable weapons systems,” but to use them successfully Ukraine will need new or revised doctrines for training, tank warfare, and fire support, Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said this month.
In addition to different spare parts and ammunition, supplies of which are limited, Kyiv will need repair facilities inside and outside of Ukraine, Gady said, adding that “operating 3 different Western-made [main battle tanks] will be a logistical nightmare (but doable).”
A British army Challenger 2 tank during a live-fire exercise in Germany in December 2018.
Mr Dominic King/Crown copyright 2018
Leopard, Challenger, and Abrams tanks weigh roughly 20 tons more than the Soviet-designed tanks that Ukraine has been using, and “there is little Ukrainian infrastructure along which such heavy vehicles can travel, while their engineering and recovery vehicles are optimised to support Soviet designs,” Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote this month.
“Putting aside the training needed to maintain and fight with NATO-designed tanks, they would also need to be provided alongside combat engineering and mobility support vehicles if they were to be employable at any scale,” Watling added. (On Wednesday, US officials said M88 recovery vehicles would be delivered with the Abrams tanks.)
Experts have also stressed that the battlefield impact of new tanks should not be overstated.
Western-made vehicles will give Ukraine a boost over the Soviet-era tanks that both sides have relied upon, but their utility may ultimately depend on how many are transferred — they won’t be a silver bullet, experts say. Other weaponry, including air-defense systems, artillery, and artillery ammunition, are also high priorities.
The US and Germany have agreed to send M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
But armored vehicles and tanks are vital components of combined arms warfare, which depends on infantry, armor, artillery, and air forces working in coordination to move quickly and overwhelm resistance.
“If you want to conduct offensive operations against entrenched forces, you have to mass combat power, and tanks are more likely to survive than the alternatives,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said this month. “The combination of armor, mobility, and firepower that tanks provide is still important in ground warfare.”
‘Their sovereign territory’
Ukrainian soldiers work on a tank in the Kharkiv region on January 23.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The second administration official said on Wednesday that the decision to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine now, after months of officials saying they weren’t suitable for the conditions Ukraine faced, reflected US efforts “to evolve the capabilities we are providing to Ukraine with the war itself” in order to meet Kyiv’s current and future needs.
“I think we all look at what’s happening now and what we expect to happen in the future, particularly in the Donbas area, [and] the kinds of capabilities that Ukraine really needs are … combined-arms maneuver capabilities, the ability to fight effectively in open terrain particularly,” the official added, “and armored capabilities are a key part of that.”
Asked if the US saw these tanks as a means with which to retake Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea, the second official stressed that the US doesn’t tell Kyiv where to strike or “where to conduct offensive operations.”
“These are their decisions to make,” the official added, “but we want to make sure that they have the right capabilities to not only defend themselves against the Russian onslaught — and we do expect that Mr. Putin and the Russian military will try to go on the offense here in the coming weeks and months as the weather gets better — but also that they have the ability to retake, to reclaim their sovereign territory.”