Recent decisions by the U.S. and Germany to release their respective main battle tanks for combat in Ukraine have triggered a media frenzy as to how these perceived “Wunderwaffen” will impact the Russia-Ukraine war.
And no, President Joe Biden blew it when he described the M1 battle tank as purely “defensive systems.”
Clearly, of the two tanks provided to Ukraine, the German Leopard 2 is the simpler combat solution, although both tanks will require a tremendous logistics tail to produce battlefield success. As was already pointed out by countless TV talking heads and media writers, the M1 Abrams will require more training, supporting logistics, and maintenance.
Meanwhile, some of the promised Leopards, especially the ones that don’t come from overhauled German factory stocks, may not be as combat-ready as expected, yet they are better than nothing.
While the pundits classify both tanks as equal in performance, one would have to note further that the German tank is superior in one major aspect. With its diesel engine and design for central Europe, it is capable of deep-fording water obstacles, something the M1 Abrams cannot do. To move M1s across rivers and streams requires complex engineer support and bridging. Logistically speaking, the Leopard 2 is also the better maintenance bet because many other NATO countries can provide close-in repair support.
M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 Tanks: Game Changer for Ukraine?
The ultimate question begs: Will these western tanks make an operational and strategic difference?
In an operational sense, if used appropriately, the western tanks may be able to blunt further Russian offensives, as did well-employed German tank units on all fronts in World War II. In the offensive, the tanks may not fare as well against well-dug-in Russian enemy armor, other anti-tank systems, integrated minefields, plus aerial anti-armor efforts, such as attack helicopters and ground-attack aircraft.
The same holds true for Russia if they go on the attack without main effort focused artillery and air support. I would also suspect that after the political tank redline was crossed, Russia will attempt to kill some of the western tanks during their delivery phase by attacking rail lines and other transport means and hubs.
In the end, I don’t think that either side will go very far operationally. After the mechanized forces of both sides have been depleted and are in need of maintenance, we’ll probably see another stalemate that focuses on small advances with infantry, supported by massive exchanges of artillery fire. Here, the side with the larger ammo piles is at an advantage. Nonetheless, the outcome will still resemble a modern version of Verdun.
What Happens Next in Ukraine?
In the strategic arena, things could become more dangerous should Ukraine decide to attack the Russian cities, either through sabotage or with long-range weapons. Then, Russia will surely attempt to obliterate much of Ukraine’s infrastructure with an even lesser concern about civilian casualties and its global image.
Such Ukrainian forays will also embolden Russia’s radical leadership to demand a full-blown total war effort that may include tactical nuclear weapons, depending on Russian casualty levels. Massive losses at home may also trigger rebellion against the Putin regime, yet not one that western strategists might expect.
Putin could be replaced by a more decisive and radical tyrant, with potentially devastating results for Ukraine and Europe at large.
In the strategic arena, the remaining wild card is China. What will China do if Russia is attacked at home and with the prospect of losing the war? Will it support Russia with logistics and key weapons systems? Could it decide to open a second front via Taiwan, supported by North Korea?
The bottom line here is that things can become quite messy if we miscalculate and place too much hope in merely the miracle of limited numbers of western tanks. We should probably also not treat the Ukraine conflict as de-linked from other potential strategic challenges.
MORE: Why Putin Fears the M1 Abrams Tank
MORE: I Went to War in the Leopard 2 Tank Ukraine Wants
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MORE: A U.S.-China War Over Taiwan Would Be Bloody
R.W. Zimmermann is a former tank battalion commander and 3rd Armored Division Desert Storm veteran. He served as a warfare strategy and leadership instructor for the US military. Zimm’s e-mail is [email protected]
January 26, 2023 at 9:23 pm
All the fuss around the supply of tanks is conceived for one purpose: the development of the American military-industrial complex.
Americans benefit from Russian victories. Soledar and Bakhmut are a wonderful reason to pull out all German, French and British tanks from European warehouses, later replacing them with their own.
The faster the “leopards” and “leclerc” will be burned in the steppes of Ukraine, the more intensively the American military-industrial complex will develop. The more successful the advance on the fronts is for the Russians, the more hysteria will be whipped up: “Now Putin will reach the Polish border, and you have nothing to defend yourself with.” Washington may well push Kiev to try to arrange a breakthrough on Melitopol. In order for the process of recycling European junk to go faster. At the same time, to demonstrate to everyone the complete inability of European tanks to perform their combat and tactical tasks.
Therefore, the United States promises to deliver its Abrams only in six months, explaining such deadlines by the need to train crews and logistics difficulties. In fact, it’s just a way to preserve the reputation and legend that they are the best in the world.
Austin will say: look, “leopards” and “leclerc” are complete shit, but it’s not our fault, so buy “Abrams”, they are a hundred times better, in six months you will see this. And what will happen in six months? In six months, there will be 1000 reasons not to supply tanks to Kiev, but to sell them to Poland or other vassals.
January 27, 2023 at 9:29 am
Author Response 1:
Money and War
Thanks for the comment that offers a perspective that many often avoid for fear of criticism. Indeed, one can’t deny that war profiteering has always existed. President Eisenhower warned us in the 1960s of the undue influence of the [political]-military-industrial complex on foreign policy, while U.S. Marine. Major General Smedley Butler had already done so in the 1930s. It seems that the Ukraine War will offer a magnitude of opportunities to cash-in greater profits than our smaller wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus with less skin in the game, so to speak. However, the prospect of slithering into the war as full-scale participants is becoming more likely by the day, especially if Russia feels threatened in its existence.
You may be on to something that Germany could have hesitated to unleash its Leopards and allowing others do the same, in fear that it would not be able to produce sufficient numbers to replace them, hence giving the U.S. free reign to fill the void. As far as I’ve read, Germany can only produce about two modern battle tanks per month.
Money always plays a major role in war. Thanks for going out on that proverbial limb!