Will tanks change the course of the war in Ukraine?

The US and Germany agreed late last month to send main battle tanks to Ukraine, marking a watershed moment in NATO’s efforts to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

The NATO tanks being delivered to Ukraine include 14 M1 Abrams tanks from the US and 31 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, signalling a significant shift in German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s hesitation to send heavy armour to Ukraine. The UK had previously agreed to send 14 of its own Challenger 2 tanks.

Many experts agree that Washington’s decision to send the Abrams is an excuse to get Germany on board the agreement. Logistically, it makes little sense to use the Abrams over Leopards in Ukraine. The M1 Abrams main battle tank is one of the most complex pieces of
heavy military equipment currently in use and a symptom of an overcomplicated system of American defence procurement. The maintenance and training required to operate the Abrams eats into time that Ukraine simply does not have.

The Abrams’ turbine engines, similar to the ones used in jets, are fuel-guzzlers, requiring a gallon for every half-mile, and with it comes a supply train that runs all the way back to control bases. They are also far more complex than the Leopards’ diesel engines. Most experts agree that the Leopard 2 tank is the best bet for Ukraine, as it is easier to deliver to the battlefield, and its supply lines need not stretch all the way across the Atlantic.

Even though the newest of the tanks were made in the 1990s, they come as a significant improvement on the Soviet-era battle tanks being operated by the Ukrainian army.

The decision has not been met with silence in Russia. Following the announcement by the US and Germany, Putin warned European countries, “We are not sending our tanks to their borders, but we have ways of responding, and it won’t be limited to using armoured vehicles.”

The tanks on their own will do little to change the war. The key lies in the strategy and logistics of their deployment on the battlefield, as well as the adequacy of training that Ukrainian tank crews will receive. There is also the question of timing—Kyiv expects a large-scale spring offensive from Russia following its assault on Bakhmut. If such an attack does take place, it will probably be before the tanks arrive in Ukraine, the earliest date for which is in March.

Ukraine’s flat terrain makes it ideal for the use of tanks, whose heavy guns and mobility allow the capture of large amounts of territory in quick offensives and also support troops that move in and hold that territory. That said, according to Dutch warfare research group Oryx, Russia has lost 1673 tanks to date, of which 990 are destroyed, and 546 are captured. According to military experts, this has been largely due to leadership and moral problems, combined with advanced anti-tank weaponry supplied by the West to Ukraine.

Therefore, training will perhaps be the greatest factor in determining how tanks alter the course of the war. Ukrainian troops are set to begin training on Leopard 2 tanks this week in an EU-funded training mission. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have already flown to locations across Germany and Poland as part of this programme.

The clamour around the tanks and other equipment being sent to Ukraine is particularly ironic in the UK, whose tank fleet is in a less-than-ideal state. More broadly, military experts began questioning the relevance of the battle tank in the twenty-first century, where battlefields are increasingly dominated by remotely operated drones and cyberwarfare. That was before Ukraine.

With the discussion on tanks moving forward, Ukraine has also recently requested advanced fighter aircraft to aid in defending its airspace, though the US and Germany have ruled out the possibility. For now, the tanks will have to do.

Image Credit: “Een colonne Engelse Chieftain tanks rijdt tijdens een NATO-oefening over een drijvende pontonbrug.” by De Materieelist is licensed by  CC0 1.0.