Agreement to dispatch Abrams and Leopard tanks comes with challenges getting them to battlefield ahead of war’s next phase
The U.S. and Germany outlined plans Wednesday to send dozens of modern battle tanks to Ukraine, marking a significant new infusion in Western assistance for Kyiv while raising challenges about how to get enough of the potent weaponry to the battlefield in time as Ukraine and Russia prepare new offensives.
The White House said that it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, enough for a Ukrainian tank battalion, while Germany said it would provide 14 Leopard 2 main battle tanks and allow other European nations to provide dozens more of the German-made tanks.
President Biden said the tanks would “enhance the Ukrainians’ capacity to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.”
Though the tanks will increase the Ukrainians’ combat power, not all of the armor will arrive in the country ahead of the next phase of the war, setting off a rush to train and equip the Ukrainian military as the fighting intensifies in the months ahead.
“It is like putting together a race car as it is going around the track,” said James Townsend, a former Pentagon official who worked on European security issues. “We have to get the Ukrainians back on the offensive and block the Russians or else they will be on the offensive first. If they won’t get the tanks they need in a timely manner, they won’t have the punch they need.”
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the first goal is to quickly put together two tank battalions’ worth of Leopard 2 tanks from a range of European countries with the initial battalion arriving in Ukraine within three months.
With more European nations showing an interest in sending Leopards, the number that is eventually delivered could be well over 100, some military specialists estimated.
By agreeing to send the Abrams, the U.S. met Germany’s requirement for releasing its hold on the Leopards, as Berlin didn’t want to act before Washington made a similar commitment.
The U.S. tanks, however, won’t provide Ukraine with a near-term capability, according to White House officials. They said the Abrams will take much longer to be delivered than the Leopards because the U.S. tanks are being procured through the defense industry instead of being pulled from existing American defense stocks.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Wednesday there weren’t enough to send from stocks.
“The Pentagon assesses that they don’t have any excess Abrams in their inventory and all of them are gainfully employed, if you will,” Mr. Kirby said. But even if the Pentagon had excess inventory, he said, the Ukrainians need time to train on the tanks, and the U.S. and Ukrainians must create a supply line to maintain them and fuel them.
“It’s not like this procurement process is really costing us any time if we drew them out of our own stocks,” he said. “When they get there we want to make sure they fall on ready hands and the Ukrainians know how to use them.”
But Army officials said Wednesday it hadn’t been decided whether the U.S. would provide remanufactured Abrams or upgraded ones from inventory. “We’re looking at multiple options.” Army acquisition chief Douglas Bush said.
U.S. officials said that 31 Abrams would be enough for a Ukrainian tank battalion and would be sent along with eight M88 armored recovery vehicles to tow and fix damaged tanks.
Biden administration officials declined to say how long it would take to send the Abrams, but some U.S. officials said it could take at least 12 months or longer for the first to arrive. Another official said “months not weeks” before they would get there but declined to be specific.
“The Abrams tanks are the most capable tanks in the world, they’re also extremely complex to operate and maintain,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday, adding later, “Delivering these tanks to the field is going to take time.”
Still, the infusion of armor is meaningful in several respects. First, it will reduce the Ukrainians dependence on Soviet-era tanks and assure them that they will have a long-term supply of armor as the war continues.
“The announcements let Ukraine know that it can afford to risk and expend more of its current arsenal of tanks in counteroffensive operations because it can count on getting replacements for them,” said Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. “It has been clear for many months that the West was running out of Soviet-era tanks to give Ukraine.”
The tanks, together with the armored personnel carriers and artillery Western nations are sending, will also provide Ukraine with what the Pentagon calls a “combined arms” force to bust through dug-in Russian positions and maneuver on the battlefield. The U.S. has already begun training Ukrainian troops in Germany.
“Main battle tanks have been a powerful tool of modern warfare since World War Two, but they can only bring a decisive result if employed skillfully with other combined arms warfare platforms,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies.
Countries such as Poland, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Spain have already signaled that they would supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters on Tuesday that his country was considering sending 18 tanks to Kyiv.
Britain said earlier this month that it would deliver a company of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. France has promised to send AMX-10 wheeled armored vehicles, which are often referred to as light tanks because of their powerful guns, but has yet to pledge its own Leclerc main battle tanks.
Ukraine’s most senior military commander General Valery Zaluzhny has said Kyiv needs 300 tanks to fight against Russia.
“Western tanks have better sighting and maneuverability; They can do a lot of damage,” said Ed Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, adding that they can spot and shoot the Russian tanks before the Russians know they are being targeted.
Mr. Biden’s decision to send Abrams tanks followed debate within the administration, as White House and State Department officials saw the move as a way to overcome Germany’s hesitancy about sending armor. Pentagon officials, though, said the weapons could be difficult for the Ukrainians to support logistically and guzzled too much jet fuel on which they run, which is different from other vehicles.
Asked by a reporter whether Germany forced him to change his mind on sending tanks, Mr. Biden said, “Germany didn’t force me to change my mind. I wanted to make sure we were all together.”
Ben Hodges, a retired three-star general who used to lead U.S. Army troops in Europe, said that the Abrams, once integrated into Ukraine’s military formations and provided with logistical support, would provide Kyiv with significant combat power.
“It indicates a long-term commitment by the U.S. and the West to Ukraine,” he said. “But the amount of time it took to get to this decision and the way it is being implemented do not convey a sense of urgency by the administration to help Ukraine win.”