Modern Tanks for the Ukraine[i]
In recent days there has been significant dialogue within NATO about providing Ukraine with modern tanks. The British have promised. a company’s worth of Challenger II tanks. Other NATO countries were willing to provide German made Leopard II tanks. But to do this they needed German approval.
Bringing an end to a internal NATO row, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally confirmed that Germany will send its own German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other NATO allies to deliver some of theirs.
Scholz even teased further deliveries of air defense systems, heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers and said Germany ‘intends to expand what we have delivered’, a major U-turn on the chancellor’s previous reluctance.
President Biden in turn promised that the US would provide 14 M-1 Abrams tanks. (There was no clarification of which version of the M-1 would be provided. To make it simple the initial M-1 had a 105 mm rifled gun, the M-1A1 that went to the Gulf War had a 120 mm smooth bore cannon, the M1A2 that the Saudis bought had an improved target acquisition system and other improvements. The latest version M1A2Sep5 has many modernized features.) (It should be noted that the Leopard II and the M-1 both have a common ancestry. The both evolved from the US German co-development of what was called the MBT—Main Battle Tank. But in the late 1970s the two went their separate ways,) The Leopard II also has a series of newer versions. Again, we don’t know which version that the Ukrainians are getting. One would hope that there is some consultation between the NATO Leopard II providers so that the versions provided are mostly the same for ease in training and maintenance.
The Ukrainians have offered that these modern tanks with night vision capability, improved armor, and superior fire power with greatly improved target acquisition capability will save lives, improve their ability to destroy Russian tanks and maneuver on the battlefield.
The above is true, but there is a big HOWEVER! The fact that the three tank models in question are not interoperable in terms of ammunition, spare parts or maintenance needs is an obvious huge nightmare. Even more nightmarish is the knowledge that it takes to operate and maintain each system. The train up time for operators will be measured in months, not days or weeks. Probably the training will occur at the joint training facility at Grafenwoehr, Germany where both Abrams and Leopard tanks are readily available. But the Germans will probably need translators to teach in German and get the information translated into Ukrainian. The same will most likely be true of the US trainers. (Such training doubles the time it takes to conduct the training. Then all of the operator and maintenance manuals for the two systems must be translated into Ukrainian. The M-1 has a large system for diagnosing maintenance faults, which could take an extensive training period. To get these modern tanks into the battle this coming Spring is going to require US, German and British maintenance crews to accompany them.
It would be a major omission if the fuel consumption rate of the M-1s was not mentioned. The Challenger and Leopards each have diesel burning engines. HOWEVER, the M-1 has a turbine engine (similar to ones found in aircraft.) It gets about 3 gallons to the mile! Fuel resupply will be both a large issue and a vulnerability of the M-1 battalion worth of tanks that the US has said that it would provide.[i]
It would be a huge escalation of the maintenance crews mentioned above wore the uniforms of their respective countries. There are several large defense contractors who have operated training efforts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who could probably step up to such a task fairly quickly. They use retired military to perform the training and maintenance missions. Who is going to pay for this?
These practical execution issues are not trivial. But what about the Russian reaction to the perceived escalation? Russia warned that Germany’s decision to send dozens of modern tanks to Ukraine is ‘extremely dangerous’ and will ‘take the conflict to a new level’. It branded the move a ‘blatant provocation’ and warned the new NATO supplies will ‘burn like all the rest’, while one raging propagandist called for the German parliament to be destroyed in a nuclear strike.
The Russian reaction should have been anticipated by the west. Another Russian reaction is the vast mobilization of manpower that is currently going on. The Russians are reportedly giving two million men very rudimentary training. Some in military skills and others in skills to free men up from industry to provide additional members of the military.
So, both sides are making lots of escalatory and working very hard to show a willingness to see their way through an extended war. This suggests that it will be internal political reactions in either NATO or Russia that will force this conflict towards termination.
The announcement of modern tanks for Ukraine has certainly raised hopes and raised the propaganda level. Only time will tell, about their effectiveness on the battlefield. We will follow this issue closely in coming months
[i] Colonel (ret) Bruce B. G. Clarke commanded 2/11th Armored Cavalry squadron when it fielded the M-1 tank (53 tanks) in 1983-4. During that time, he also fired a Leopard II. He commanded the 2d BDE, 1st Infantry Division with two battalions of M-1s (88 tanks) and after retiring was the head of the training team in Saudi Arabia training the Saudis to operate and maintain the M1A2 tank (120 mm gun and improved target detection and other advanced features.).
[ii] The one thing I learned as a commander of units with M-1 tanks was that refueling and fuel locations became critical elements of any tactical plan. I am sure that that is still the case.
Bruce, Nice article! Strikes me that the M1 deployment is more a political move than a military one and is aimed at giving EU countries “top cover” for their contribution of Leopards. Shows Solidarity but training, logistics issues with the M1 make it almost impractical – unless the war really drags out.