The front lines of the Ukraine war are largely static today. But, come Spring, both sides will try to redraw them. If Kyiv is to gain the upper hand, leaders in the U.S. and Ukraine assess that the Ukrainians will need more armored vehicles, especially tanks. Thus far, however, the Biden administration has declined to send them the best tank in the world: the M1 Abrams.
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President Zelenskyy has directly requested tanks from Western allies. At a recent meeting at Ramstein airbase, he told Western defense ministers, “Hundreds of thank-yous are not hundreds of tanks.”
The West’s response has been mixed. The U.K. has pledged to send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks. Germany said it would send Leopard 2 tanks only if the U.S. sent M1 Abrams tanks, though Poland said it would be willing to send some of its Leopard 2 tanks.
This is a moment for Europe to demonstrate leadership. Poland and the U.K. are doing just that. Germany, which is dependent on Russian energy, should support Ukraine by sending its own Leopard 2 tanks and confirming it will allow other countries to re-export theirs.
Time for the M1 Abrams
But where does the U.S. stand on the tank question? Some American aid is forthcoming: the U.S. recently announced a new aid package to Ukraine that will include armored personnel carriers and Bradley fighting vehicles.
But when asked why the Pentagon wouldn’t be sending M1 Abrams main battle tanks, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl replied, “I just don’t think we’re there yet … The Abrams is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine.”
Kahl’s reasons are simply not good enough justification. The Abrams is indeed a complicated piece of equipment, but so are many of the other systems already sent to Ukraine, and the Ukrainian military has shown itself highly capable and able to quickly put Western military equipment to use.
Contrary to claims that the Abrams runs only on “jet fuel,” the tank can run on diesel just by swapping out its fuel filter. Maintenance is a challenge, but again, maintenance is an issue for all complex equipment, and Ukraine seems to be doing fine with the other equipment it has received since the war began. The “jet engine” he mentions—the Abrams’ Honeywell turbine engine—is designed to be swapped out, not repaired on-site, meaning its complexity would be a non-issue for Ukrainian maintainers.
Bottom line: Kahl’s excuses for not sending Abrams tanks don’t stand up to close examination. The natural conclusion is that the Biden administration’s reluctance really stems from its continued fear of provoking an escalation with Russia.
It’s time to move past this fear. Russia is killing innocent civilians with indiscriminate missile attacks. The goal must be Ukrainian victory; bringing that about sooner will save lives.
And how might the U.S. help bring about that victory sooner? By sending tanks. Take it from Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, who recently said, “you don’t need armor—unless you want to win.”
The U.S. does not have a ready stockpile of extra tanks. It does, however, have ways it could quickly provide tanks to Ukraine.
The Marine Corps turned in its Abrams tanks in 2020 and 2021, after deciding to narrowly tailor its fighting capabilities to potential conflicts in the Pacific. The Corps’ 447 tanks have already been transferred to the Army, and after some modifications could be redirected to Ukraine.
The U.S. could also strike a deal with one or more of its allies who have export versions of the Abrams tanks. Egypt, Iraq, and Kuwait all have the Abrams. The U.S. could agree to send them replacement tanks in the future in exchange for rapidly delivering their current tanks to Ukraine.
There are multiple ways to get M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine if the U.S. has the will. It is vital that such a transfer should happen before Spring operations commence.
Maiya Clark is a senior research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, focusing on defense industrial base issues. In this role, she researches and writes on the industrial base, military procurement, and acquisition and industrial policy with an eye towards improving the resilience and capabilities of these key areas. Among other topics she has written on naval shipyards, the Defense Production Act, and supply chain management. Maiya Clark’s research and views have been quoted widely in the defense media.