With exuberance building that Ukraine will soon produce major battlefield gains as a result of the recent promise of U.S. Abrams and German Leopard 2 tanks, some in the West are quietly tamping down expectations on what impact those tanks could have. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, warned last Friday that it would be “very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces” from Ukraine this year. As I argued in this space earlier this week, the challenges to successfully employing Western armor are much higher than commonly understood.
In this analysis, I will further explain why just getting modern NATO tanks won’t automatically translate into an increase in combat power for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In previous analysis, I explained how difficult it would be to learn how to use and sustain the multiple versions of armored vehicles provided by different countries. Some might argue that I underestimate the ability of the Ukrainian troops to pick up complex tasks and thus lowball how fast they can put the Western gear to effective use.
In this work, I will explain how complex and time-consuming the process is, even for troopers of the United States Army. What will become quickly apparent is that building genuine combat power, producing well-trained soldiers and units, is mainly a product of time, resources, and experience. It is nearly impossible to produce effective combined arms formations by shortchanging any of the inputs, no matter what the country.
Beyond the Tanks: How Effective Combat Battalions are Built
One of the most basic combat formations that American ground forces employ in war is the combined arms battalion. It is typically task organized for tailored missions, but generally includes tanks, wheeled Stryker armored infantry carriers or Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs), infantrymen, engineers, and support elements (cooks, clerks, mechanics, supply personnel, etc). To form a cohesive unit, all the elements must work as a team, know their own jobs, and understand what the rest of the battalion is doing in support of a given mission.
Every element of the battalion must become experts in their assigned duties, whether it be losistics, infantry, or armor. All have similar requirements for attaining excellence in their tasks. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on how the Bradley platoons and companies in the battalion prepare their soldiers, vehicles, and units to perform their role in the building of the battalion’s combat power. The process for the other elements is nearly the same.
A Bradley crew is composed of three positions: the vehicle commander, the gunner, and the driver. Teaching the driver to operate the vehicle can be done relatively quickly for a driver who is already proficient driving other tracked vehicles, but the U.S. Army requires the senior ranking officer or sergeant of the vehicle (commander) to undergo a seven week course prior to his assignment as BFV commander. Learning turret functions, operating the various weapon systems, using the fire control systems, and understanding how to employ the Bradley is not a simple or intuitive process.
Once individuals are proficient in their jobs and the crew learns to operate as a team, then the soldiers must learn to operate as platoons, companies, and fight within the battalion. This is a laborious, time-consuming process. According to a 2019 Army study, it takes, on average, “a complete annual training cycle to achieve baseline proficiency required to properly manage maintenance, train for gunnery, and understand mounted maneuver tactics (of a BFV infantry battalion).” The same study looked at the additional challenges of forming an effective fighting battalion when leaders or crew members had not previously served in mechanized infantry units.
Criticality of Training Time and Experience
“How can platoon sergeants be expected to lead a platoon through proper Bradley command maintenance when they have never set foot in a Bradley?,” the study’s authors wrote. “How can they be expected to train their crews for gunnery skills testing and crew qualification when they have never shot a gunnery? How can they mentor their platoon leaders on the nuances of mechanized infantry tactics?” Former commander of the U.S. 1st Armored Division, now-retired Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, explained the compounding problem of U.S. troops’ lack of experience owing to years spent in counterinsurgency fights of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is reasonable to assume, MacFarland wrote in 2018, “that someone who has spent a career mastering the unique challenges of dismounted (counterinsurgency) warfare will require additional time to gain needed experience to lead complex mechanized formations. Mounted warriors must be experts in dealing with a unique set of challenges, such as the nuances of maintenance management and gunnery to maximize the lethality of combat vehicles, as well as the ability to maneuver and integrate fires, combat support and sustainment at 10 times the speed of dismounted warfare.”
These are not skills, the general concluded, “one learns in a week, a month or a year. They are learned during repetitive assignments over the course of a career (emphasis mine).” These two leaders emphasize the difficulty of developing quality U.S. combined arms formations and highlight the critical challenges troopers face when they do not have enough experience. The ramifications of these truths for the UAF are substantial.
Even the challenges noted by MacFarland and the Army study’s authors start from the foundation that the soldiers in the unit have had months of individual training in basic combat skills and specialty training. The company commanders have had at least five years’ experience and attended a 22-week commander’s course. The platoon sergeants and company first sergeants have upwards of 15 years of experience, and attended specific schools before assuming their positions. Battalion commanders and sergeants major have often served 20 years. And the Ukrainian troopers?
Ukrainian Challenges for Replicating U.S. Combat Expertise
In 2014 when Ukraine effectively split into warring factions in the east and west, they were “an army in ruins.” Kyiv started an aggressive reform project in 2016 and by any accounting has performed remarkably well over the past year. But that means that the most experienced men and officers have no more than seven years of total experience, and the majority of that was spent in fighting and preparing for positional warfare (of the type more reminiscent of World War I trench warfare rather than the blitzkrieg maneuver of World War II).
But deeply compounding Ukraine’s position is the major number of casualties their troops have suffered since last February. Clearly, the UAF has lost large numbers of its best and most experienced troops. European Commission President Ursula von der Layen apparently let slip late last year that Ukraine had suffered nearly 100,000 killed and possibly three times that many wounded. Ukraine officially denies they have lost so many troops. Whatever the real number, however, the losses have been significant, leaving Ukraine with a growing number of troops with virtually no prior military experience and fewer with even seven years of experience.
According to multiple news reports on Tuesday, both Washington and Berlin are nearing a decision to provide Ukraine with Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks. Without question, those platforms are superior to every Russian tank (with the possible exception of the T90, which is a formidable platform). In addition to the training and experience issues discussed above, there are two additional problems for turning these modern tanks into decisive combat power for Ukraine.
First, as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Colin H. Kahl explained only a week ago, in the months since Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson offensives of last fall, Russian troops have largely solidified the existing line of contact. “The Russians are really digging in,” Kahl said. “They’re digging trenches, they’re putting in these dragon’s teeth, (and) laying mines.” Penetrating an enemy defensive line that has been built up over months may be the most complex offensive operation for any mechanized unit.
To achieve decisive actions against Russian lines, they will have to face the biggest challenge, requiring the most intense coordination between armor, infantry, artillery, engineering support, and air support on their first attempt. Any combined arms offensive is a complex and difficult maneuver. Having to execute the most difficult on day one makes success even harder to find. But there is a second problem Ukraine will have to overcome: timing.
If Washington and Berlin agree to provide Abrams and Leopard tanks in combined large numbers immediately, it would be April or May before the vehicles, and associated ammunition and logistic requirements, arrive in Ukraine in proper numbers. If Ukraine plans to immediately launch operations as soon as the vehicles arrive – without even the emergency-level minimum training at individual, crew, and unit levels described earlier in this analysis – their chances of success plummet even further.
Tanks Matter: But So Does the Training
Just having top NATO armor in their possession does not immediately confer superior capacity. To create the combat power that the vehicles can enable, it will require Ukraine have the discipline and patience to conduct the necessary preparation and training before launching an offensive, six months at a bare minimum. Launch too early, and even with top-of-the-line M1 Abrams and Leopard 2s, and Ukraine could squander what might be their best chance at pushing Russia back.
There is no questioning the courage, patriotism, or tenacity of the entire Ukrainian state and people. There is little they are not willing to sacrifice in the defense of their country and by any accounting, they have performed heroically. But we must guard against the understandable emotional desire to see Ukraine eject the Russian invaders and assume that all they need is more advanced weaponry and they’ll be able to go on the offensive.
Expertise and Experience: A seasoned tank expert having gone to war in the M1 Abrams tank and a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.