The Biden Administration is Wrong: Ukraine Needs M1 Abrams Tanks. As Ukraine continues to battle to push Russian invaders out of its territory, Ukraine’s military leadership has requested that the United States provide M1 Abrams tanks, a platform the Biden administration has been reluctant to provide.
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On January 6, 2023, Laura K. Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense, explained at a Pentagon press conference, “We absolutely agree that Ukraine does need tanks,” she said, but argued that the Ukrainians were wrong to seek the Abrams. “We have to be cognizant of maintenance and sustainment considerations with tanks, and certainly we know that the Abrams tank in addition to being a gas guzzler is quite — quite challenging to maintain,” she said to explain why the administration thought Ukraine should focus instead on Dutch-refurbished Soviet or Russian T-72 tanks.
Ukrainians are grateful for American and Western assistance. Speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was effusive. “I want to thank you, all of you. I thank every American family, which cherish the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people,” he said. “I thank President Biden and both parties at the Senate, and the House, for your invaluable assistance. I thank your citizens and your citizens who supported Ukraine this year, who hosted our Ukrainians, our people. Who waved our national flags, who acted to help us.”
While U.S. support to Ukraine is both welcome and wise, constant White House and Pentagon efforts to second guess and micromanage Ukrainian decision-making is counterproductive. No one knows both the battlefield and the enemy better than the Ukrainians. Ukrainians remember that just a year ago, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, based on the intelligence assessments the best and the brightest in the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency produced, recommended that Zelensky evacuate his country against the backdrop of inevitable Russian victory.
Retired generals acting as talking head analysts on cable television spoke about the power and capabilities of the Russian army. They amplified the errors they heard from peers still in uniform or serving in the intelligence community. In hindsight, it is clear they were wrong, and Zelensky was right. Under such circumstances it might behoove the White House to transfer of several dozen or hundreds of Abrams will not decrease the military power of the United States. With humility and treat Ukraine’s own assessments with greater regard.
This is not to say Ukraine cannot use T-72s. Ukraine’s tank cadre is already well-trained and capable of operating not only the T-72, but all major East bloc tank models—T-62s, T-64s, T-80s, T-84s, and T-90s—built upon not only old Soviet stocks, but also more recent Polish, Czech, Ukrainian and Slovene variants. The problem is the numbers of tanks and the ammunition available for them are in increasingly short supply. There is no such shortage of the Abrams and its ammunition. The transfer of even a couple hundred M1 Abrams will not decrease the military power or combat readiness of the United States meaningfully.
The M1 Abrams serve a looming military role. As Ukrainian forces continue to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian forces must once again prepare for urban combat in the cities and towns of Donetsk, Luhansk and, eventually, Crimea. When Russia invaded in 2022, for example, Mariupol was Ukraine’s tenth largest city, approximately the size of Minneapolis. While Russia’s siege and occupation left Mariupol a shell of its former self, Ukraine will need tanks to retake the city and minimize its own casualties.
Certainly, the Abrams have disadvantages and fuel consumption is one of them but Ukraine takes the long view. I asked Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s ministry of defense about Pentagon concerns that the Abrams are gas guzzlers. He acknowledged the issue but commented, “The lives of our soldiers, the suffering of people from the war and in the occupied territories cost more than fuel. The more tanks we get, the fast we win the war and [win] a just peace.”
A quicker Ukrainian victory should be an American national interest. Not only will a speedier victory save lives and restore stability, but a Ukrainian victory will also have more far reaching ramifications. The best way for the United States, European states, and NATO to end Türkiye’s ability to blackmail the defensive alliance will be to end the conflict from which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to profit. Ending the war will also reduce the opportunity for other dictators to take advantage of U.S. and European distraction to settle unrelated scores. This is the case, for example, with Azerbaijan’s ongoing assault on Armenians.
There are other advantages to providing M1 Abrams to Ukraine. Between June 5 and June 12, 1982, against the backdrop of the Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force shot down 88 Soviet-made MiGs. Not only did the Pentagon get to see its equipment in combat against an adversaries, but Israel also provided U.S. military and intelligence analysts access to recovered Soviet-made aircraft. Sak told me that Ukrainian tank operators are ready and want to learn from the Abrams. The use of the Abrams on Ukraine’s eastern front will be a great test for the platform. American designers and military analysts can assess operations under combat conditions and augment their own readiness should the United States ever find itself in a land war. The Pentagon’s ability to observe Israeli F-15s and their Soviet-built adversaries ultimately saved American lives in subsequent conflicts.
The Biden administration has agreed to deliver Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine. These are both important and welcome. They have a landing bay that can transport infantry to the line of fire, but they are no substitute for the M1 Abrams’ greater firepower. The White House should not force a compromise upon the Ukrainians.
It is unfair to Ukrainians who are making tremendous sacrifices not only for their own liberty but for freedom much more broadly for the United States to dither. It is time to train Ukrainians on F-16s that can take out bridges and buildings, provide other aircraft for close air support of infantry in combat, and expedite the delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
Washington should share Kyiv’s goal: unconditional victory.
About the Author: Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Rubin is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.