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.
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.
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]