Russia’s war on Ukraine entered a new phase early in April as Putin belatedly recognized the failure of his assaults on Kyiv. The decimated survivors of that ill-fated campaign are now being transported by rail to eastern Ukraine to pursue what Moscow hopes is a more achievable war aim: the capture of the entire Donbas region of Ukraine and the destruction of the elite Ukrainian mechanized brigades defending it.
Kyiv has won a momentous victory by defeating Putin’s ambition to capture of the Ukrainian capital, decapitate its government, and subjugate all of Ukraine under a puppet regime. But for the Donbas campaign, Kyiv needs mechanized units with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) to seize and defend ground. Infantry on foot, even armed with advanced Western portable missile launchers, cannot accomplish as much in Donbas’s open terrain as in the suburbs and forested areas surrounding Kyiv.
That’s why Ukraine’s President Zelensky has been requesting heavier weapons recently, particularly the hundreds of Soviet-built armored vehicles, notably T-72 tanks, and BMP IFVs, still in service with NATO’s eastern members. These are relatively inexpensive and familiar to Ukraine’s military, and therefore can be integrated immediately.
Through March, NATO leaders were hesitant. Tanks are more expensive, complicated and logistically challenging than portable missiles. Moreover, many feared tank deliveries would provoke Moscow more than anti-tank missiles.
But by mid-April, NATO armor and artillery first began trickling and then pouring in to reinforce Ukraine’s war effort. At least 200 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles have been delivered so far, a number which may rise in the coming weeks.
This article will survey the tanks and infantry vehicles being delivered to Ukraine—or being considered for delivery. Companion pieces will soon detail transfers of artillery and vehicles aimed at enhancing the mobility of Ukrainian forces.
140+ T-72M1s from Poland and the Czech Republic
While Ukraine has traditionally operated indigenous, higher-quality T-64 tanks after Russia’s incursions in 2014 Kyiv began reactivating T-72 and T-80 tanks from storage. Ukraine is even fielding uniquely upgraded T-72 models.
The Soviet-designed 45 to 50-ton T-72 has a crew of three and is armed with a 125-millimeter gun. Ubiquitous across the globe, it’s smaller, lighter, and less heavily armored than Western contemporaries, and thus easier to maintain and deploy. However, it’s prone to catastrophically blowing its top off when penetrated due to shell storage in the turret.
While T-64s and T-80s are scarce abroad, NATO member states happen to have hundreds of T-72s in service and storage which may mysteriously find their way into Ukrainian hands.
The Czechs led the pack furnishing “up to 40” or “dozens” of export-model T-72M1s early in April, out of 66 T-72M1s it held in storage.
But the big news is confirmation that Poland has dispatched at least 100 of its T-72M1s too, including some upgraded T-72M1Rs.
Together, that is more than enough T-72s for four tank battalions, or a full tank brigade.
#Ukraine: The first images of some of the armour that the Polish Government is supplying to the Ukrainian Army- up to 100 T-72M1/M1R (M1R has minor upgrades), quantities of BWP-1 IFV.
Although both of these types are quite old, they are of course superior to no armour at all. pic.twitter.com/OpuD2yyEZq
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) April 13, 2022
The M1R modernization replaces the base T-72M1’s Luna infrared searchlight with a passive (ie. non-detectable) KLW-1 Asteria thermal camera, digital engine controls and communication systems, GPS navigation, and addition of a storage ‘bustle’ on the rear turret. The KLW-1 can acquire targets 7.45 miles away using narrow-field view or 2.85 miles for widefield view.
Poland only began receiving its first M1Rs in 2019, with reportedly 67 delivered by 2021 and entering service with the tank battalion of the 19th Lublin Mechanized Brigade. The total planned upgrade of at least 230 tanks costs 1.749 billion zloty (ie $409.6 million), or $1.7 million per tank.
BMP-1s from Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden and Poland
Infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) are designed to both transport infantry into battle and provide fire support with formidable armament. The Soviet BMP-1, paraded in Moscow in 1967, was the original take on the IFV—a troop carrier bristling with a cannon and anti-tank missiles.
By 2021, Ukraine had 219 BMP-1s and 115 radar-equipped BRM-1K reconnaissance vehicles—and it’s receiving dozens more from four different countries. These outdated vehicles were reintroduced into Ukrainian service in 2014.
Like many pioneering designs, the BMP-1 was a flawed first draft. Limited by excessively thin armor susceptible to machine gun fire and cramped and unsafe passenger accommodations, its armament proved more effective in theory than practice. Its 2A28 Grom low-pressure gun spat out 73-millimeter rocket-propelled shells with limited accuracy beyond 500 meters, while the Malyutka missile-launcher on its turret, capable of long-range (max 3 kilometers) tank busting, was awkward to use.
The subsequent BMP-2 model, armed with a rapid-firing cannon and newer semi-automatically guided AT-4 missiles, proved far more practical. But still thousands of BMP-1s remained in many country’s arsenals when the Soviet Union dissolved.
The Czech Republic license-built thousands of BMPs (which they called BVPs), and in 1991 had 768 BVP-1s in inventory. These were consigned in favor of BVP-2s, 120 of which remain operationally deployed. By 2020, the Czechs had in storage 65 BVP-2s and least 98 BVP-1s. Early in April, Prague revealed it had transferred an unknown number of BVPs to Ukraine.
The Czechs are involved in another BMP-1 transfer also involving Germany and Sweden. Following German unification, Berlin inherited 1,112 East German BMP-1s and BMP-1(P)s. These served in six Homeland Security Brigades formed by Berlin in 1991.
But the Soviet IFVs didn’t meet German safety standards and many were refit to the BMP-1A1 Ost model with new headlights, armaments racks and asbestos removal. These only served for a few years before being retired.
Next, the Swedes snatched up 431 of the cheap ex-German BMPs and paid a Czech company to modify 350 with additional health/safety and ergonomic improvements, and remove the outdated Malyutka missile launchers. Re-designated the Pbv-501 by the Swedes, these also were retired after a few year’s service.
Late in March, Sweden finally secured permission from Germany to transfer 56 of its Pbv-501s to Ukraine out of Czech storage facilities—enough to outfit an entire mechanized battalion.
Poland also retained a whopping 1,100 Czech-built BMP-1s (designated BWP-1s in Polish service) per a 2021 report, and unknown quantity of which have been transferred to Ukraine.
Poland can spare some BWPs as it plans to replace them with new Borsuk IFVs, though it may still interim upgrade some, as the process may take beyond 2030.
Overall, the BMP-1 remains poorly armored, awkwardly armed and ergonomically unpleasant. But it still can blast enemy positions and knock out lighter armored vehicles with its cannon and protect embarked infantry from small arms fire as they move to contact with enemy forces.
Can Ukraine Get Away with Marders?
Meanwhile, German chancellor Scholz has been bellyaching over whether to donate Marder (“Marten”) tracked infantry fighting vehicles, 100 of which have been requested by Ukraine. After successful service in Afghanistan, these were retired in favor of new Puma IFVs.
Scholz argued that sending ready-to-use Marders to Ukraine would deprive the Bundeswehr of necessary ready reserve stocks to meet NATO obligations, though manufacturer Rheinmetall has offered to backfill any Marders delivered to Ukraine with refurbished vehicles by the end of the year.
If Berlin balks at donating its ready inventory of Marders, Rheinmetall has also offered to sell 70-80 refurbished Marders to Kyiv with deliveries completed by the end of 2022.
The Marder has a crew of three, and can carry just six infantrymen. Though similar in concept to the BMP, it weighs nearly twice as much and is better armored, particularly against the BMP-2’s 30-millimeter gun. The Marder’s smaller 20-millimeter RH202 high-velocity cannon can penetration substantial armor for its size and has a high rate of fire, and its MILAN guided missile launcher allows it to threaten tanks at long range.
On the downside, Ukraine’s military has never operated Marders before and only recently acquired a small batch of MILAN missiles from France.
Leopard 1s back in the fray?
The CEO of German manufacturer Rheinmetall told trade journal Handelsblatt it was preparing to deliver 50 retired Leopard 1A5 tanks to Ukraine. If the sale is approved, he claims the first 10-20 Leopards could arrive in Ukraine in six weeks, with the rest following over three months. The CEO claimed Ukrainian personnel could learn to operate the unfamiliar new tank “within a few days.”
The original 40-ton Leopard 1 was designed in the late 1950s when armor-piercing shell technology seemed to hopelessly outpace improvements to armor. Thus, unlike the modern Leopard 2, the Leopard 1 featured minimal armor (maximum of 70 millimeters, slightly less than a World War II Sherman tank) and instead emphasized accurate hitting power and mobility.
Despite weak armor, the Leopard 1 proved popular, and was widely exported. Canada even deployed up-armored Leopards 1s in combat in Bosnia and Afghanistan. The ultimate 1A5 model has moderately improved armor, but more importantly integrates a state-of-the-art EMES-18 fire control computers with day/night thermal imager and laser range-finder.
Undoubtedly, Leopard 1s would remain vulnerable even to light anti-armor weapons, and its rifled 105-millimeter L7A3 guns, though well-respected, may struggle to reliably penetrate the frontal armor of more modern Russian tanks like the T-72B3 and T-90.
Still, any mobile platform that can deliver accurate fire support has intrinsic value; perhaps Ukraine could use these tanks in supporting roles. How readily Ukraine could create the infrastructure to support the Western design, however, is uncertain.
Other potential donors?
Bulgaria in particular has hundreds of Soviet tanks and BMPs in storage it could contribute. Turkey has a huge back inventory of hundreds of dated Western tanks which have been modernized to varying degrees, including M48 and M60 Pattons and Leopard 1s. But those designs would be unfamiliar to Ukraine’s military, are mostly are outgunned by T-72s, and require new supply chains of 105-millimeter ammunition.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.