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.
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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.
January 27, 2023 at 8:11 am
Abrams and Leopard 2 heavy battle tanks, ?
Whatever happened to the Bulats & the highly acclaimed t-84 super tank.
All gone over to the happy hunting ground.
Those Abrams & leopard 2s will definitely induce or invite massive heavy firepower onto the eastern ukraine battlefield jousting or the donbass battleground fighting.
We’re surely beginning to very very soon witness the start of an all-out ww3 in europe.
Who’d be destined to win. Surely winner must be the side who can bring the ultimate sledgehammer onto the battle.
Are abrams and leopards sledgehammers by any chance ?
In the mideast fighting involving turks, saudis and iraqis, abrams and leopards were seen enveloped in flames.
January 27, 2023 at 9:04 am
Don’t trust Daniel Davis guys,
he’s been trying to undermine help to Ukraine since the beginning.
January 27, 2023 at 9:24 am
There is zero chance that in the short run, Ukraine will be able to build combat groups around the new tanks that would be as effective as American or British forces would be. The real question however is do they need to? Based upon the shambolic nature of the Russian Army’s performance in Ukraine; the lack of experienced troops, poor logistics, low morale, low tactical discipline and lack of a discernible strategy leading to human wave attacks being employed to capture small towns for propaganda and home front morale purposes, the answer is undoubtedly no. Ukraine needs to achieve basic proficiency, not complete excellence in order to wreak havoc on the Russians with these new weapons.
January 27, 2023 at 10:16 am
Davis’ cherry picking is the stuff of legend.
While Ukraine’s winter weather patterns have been very weird this year, IF the warmer weather is due in part to climate change…that would imply a warmer summer…and a higher probability of the spring mud drying a bit early this year.
A decent estimate would be late June or early July when the ground would be dry enough for large scale maneuver warfare with heavy tanks.
As for the defensive lines Russia is building… plenty of videos showing those ‘dragon’s teeth’ decaying already.
Davis still doesnt seem to want to discuss the GLSDB shaping the battlefield before any armored vehicles advance. Airburst mode to hit trenches and penetrator mode for harder targets.
Nor does he want to talk about the notion of F16s or more Mig 29s, etc. 500lb-2000lb JDAMs also shape a battlefield quite nicely. Some JASSMs would be nice for longer range strikes and a nice complement to GLSDB. To be fair, this isnt even a rumor yet, just a hope from me…but JASSM is a logical extension of the f16, and likely more politically tolerable than ATACMS.
As well, while the Ukrainians will certainly require training in the new vehicles, and more training in western style combined arms… the whole discussion of US troops fighting a counter insurgency and then switching to near peer warfare is largely irrelevant. Ukraine will be using the new vehicles to fight the same enemy they have been fighting.
Furthermore, the idea that Ukrainians only have 7 years experience is also false. Case in point is the man who led the defense of Zelensky’s hometown against Russia’s invasion in February. He was a veteran of the Soviet army who fought in Afghanistan.
Rinse and repeat that in many places of Ukraine. The Russians are using their old and standard playbook which many Ukrainians have studied and used themselves when they too were in the Soviet Army.
Davis does make a few valid points about training in the specific new vehicles. But much of that gets lost in his desperate attempts to discount the ability and knowledge of the Ukrainians vs. The Russians.
And finally, the Russians themselves are using a massive amount of recently mobilized men receiving far worse training on far worse equipment. But of course Davis only wants to focus on the supposed shortcomings of the Ukrainians.
Bottom line: another in a long line of questionable-at-best articles from Davis’. He really should just apply for a job with the Kremlin at this point.
January 27, 2023 at 10:47 am
I agree with commenter Cocobware. The Ukrainian forces need not be as good as say American forces, they just need to be good enough to defeat the Russians.
And the Russian soldiers are largely abysmally led, poorly trained and will often lack a clear goal that they value enough to fight for – lyrical praise of the Motherland only goes so far when you are stuck in the mud in Ukraine and your fellow soldiers all grumble (rightfully) about the idiots at the top.
There is also necessity, being the mother of invention. Ukrainian troops do know what they are fighting for, and how vital it is for them to become proficient with these weapons. They will learn and adapt.
They have also proven repeatedly, at Kharkiv, at Kherson, that they can plan good strategic plans and execute them well. They have the patience, the fortitude and the skillsets required for it.
I suspect we will see Ukraine adapt quicker than Mr Davis suspects.
January 27, 2023 at 11:14 am
The Mujahedeen were less needy of equipment and training. I suspect Washington hopes this conflict will last just as long.
January 27, 2023 at 11:45 am
AFU can’t expect RU-army to continue supplying them with soviet era weapons and ammunition forever, so at some point they need to implement NATO equipment, including MBTs. So even if DD probably is highlighting some real challenges here, not transferring tanks, or waiting, makes no sense, unless you want Putin to be victorious in his imperial kleptocratic dream to conquer Ukraine.
DD now states that it will at a bare minimum take 6 months to overcome the education and logistical nightmare he talked about. That is not so bad and maybe he is right for once! Meaning a July-august offensive is within reach. Too bad the decision was not taken 6 months ago…
While we wait for the education and logistics nightmare to be solved by motivated and determined soldiers from AFU and donor countries, the Ramstein donor group together with AFU should investigate which other capabilities AFU should get, to increase the chance of success come summer.
I see some trolls in here ranting about how the tanks never will reach the frontline anyway. The reason apparently is that RU forces will destroy the logistics in Ukraine, like bridges and railways, to a point that transport will be near impossible. I’m no expert on the capabilities of RU-army, but I suspect someone is about to get fired (like by firing squad) if it turns out they had this ability all along but forgot to implement it.
January 27, 2023 at 12:29 pm
Col. Davis is right. Training matters.
How fast can it be done?
Desire for quick train up are limited by the reality that it takes time to learn.
Can learning be accelerated?
Somewhat, under ideal conditions.
But it can only be time-compressed so much.
That’s a fact.
And to learn coordinated action in a cohesive unit takes additional time… how much… we’ll see.
The goal is to create a strategic striking force.
Can that be ‘formed up’ on the fly?
Ukraine has not performed a “combined arms mobile maneuver force” on a strategic level, yet, in this war…Kherson & Kharviv were limited offensives… not full-throated combined armed assaults at the strategic level.
How much time does Ukraine have to form-up this new strategic striking force?
The temptation… trained Nato tank crews ready to go.
With full Nato specialist soldiers; technicians of the relevant weapons systems ready & acting in the field.
So, questions of time are critical.
How much time does Ukraine have left?
Nato crews & logistics specialists arming those weapons systems is a short-circuit to General European War and the Russo-American war of the 21st Century.
How long before that goes nuke… first tactical then strategic?
So, yes, time matters.
Who mans those weapons matter.
Peace seems impossible… but the alternative could be worse.
Where a call for peace seems most futile… is the time when “Peace” must be called out the loudest… to save Europe from death & destruction.
Remember the frog in the warm water… slowly rising to boil… that frog never gets out of the water…
Is that how we go to total war?
Like the frog in the water?
January 27, 2023 at 1:40 pm
There is a lot of talk here about how corrupt Ukraine is and that it is the most corrupt country in Europe, it is not.
Transparency International, the international recognized anti-corruption movement, in its latest annual ranking from 2021, ranks Russia as the most corrupt nation in Europe with only 29 of 100 points, Somalia is worst in the world with 9 points.
Ukraine on the other hand scores 32 points, so not much better, but have scored better than Russia in all rankings since 2017.
But more importantly, the main difference between Russia and Ukraine is, that while the Russian people have resigned to their fate of being robbed clean by their greedy oligarchs and leaders, the Ukrainian people are fighting back. Zelensky became hugely popular in his casting role fighting corruption in the TV-series “Servant of the People” In Zelensky the Ukrainians saw a man who understood the problem and swept him into office on an anti-corruption platform with >70% of the vote. Ukraine for sure still has huge problems with corruption but with a democratic government under scrutiny by the people, a will to change and some angry heat from the population, Ukraine has a fair chance of success. Also, EU is not going to let Ukraine in the door if the corruption issue is not dealt with.
In Russia on the other hand, sadly, corruption is not a rot destroying the state, it is the main pillar the current ruling class have built their power structure on. Given that corruption is the main pillar of Putin’s power base in Russia, he cannot afford to let Ukraine succeed and serve as a positive vision for the Russian people. That would distract the Russian people from their role as cannon fodder in his quest for imperial glory.
January 27, 2023 at 5:34 pm
Doesn’t it seem obvious that the training is largely a non-issue? The only way this works is if there are NATO or US ‘advisors’ to operate and maintain the tanks.
January 27, 2023 at 5:49 pm
The author avoids speaking the obvious solution out loud: Any such weaponry will be accompanied into Ukraine and supported in that country by actual non-Ukrainians. Sending tanks was already a red line and is purely symbolic, as the article demonstrates. Send experienced commanders and support personnel to Ukraine and see what happens.
January 28, 2023 at 12:03 am
Here’s an interesting possibility. What if the Russians have stockpiled a few of their own enhanced radiation warheads, i.e., the now-old-school ‘neutron bomb’, whether as artillery shells or missile warheads? They made such a fuss over them back in the 1970s/80s when the U.S. prepared to deploy them in Europe to counter the mass Warsaw Pact armored formations. But now that shoe is soon on the other foot, in a sense, and the Russian military has had plenty of time since the Cold war days to come up with their own native design for such a device. With current miniaturization technology, they could probably assemble a number of them in relative short time, with just enough yield to take out a formation of, say, 20 to 30 or so Ukrainian western-provided tanks. An actual battlefield detonation (does it include the telltale flash?) might at first be on a scale muted enough to puzzle any observers, as they don’t go boom! as much as they make a big sort of poof! instead, as their purpose is to generate streams of neutron radiation vs. blowing & burning stuff up outright. Given their more limited nature and purpose, they are not quite full tactical nuclear weapons, so the Russians could still claim they were not escalating up to that level, once NATO figured out what was going on. (And that might take a few days, as it would be that long before Ukrainian tank crews might start dropping from radiation sickness.) Admittedly, there would be a question of whether the latter-model U.S. and European tanks have shielding fitted around/in the crew compartments to filter out the effects of such a weapon. Maybe they do, and maybe that is classified. But it would only take one detonation for either side to find/figure out eventually. All in all, it night still be enough of a ‘grey area’ thing for the Russians to give due consideration to. But the U.S. might also do well to pre-emptively warn against use of this possible option.
January 28, 2023 at 4:14 am
I guess the author is not a student of military history….During WWII the United States fielded a highly successful Armored Corps with soldiers who were really fresh recruits who had just completed a very abbreviated training evolution.
January 28, 2023 at 4:23 am
I agree with the comments that state that the UAF just have to be good enough to win. Unlike western countries the UAF accepts tha loss of lives in inevitable. To them there is no choice wether to fight, as they were attacked.
To western countries there was a chance to opt out. But sending tanks signals a new phase. It has become a lot harder to opt out now. When Ukrainian defenses would be overrun (however unlikely) Nato is severely hampered in defending its frontier. So (European) armies will have to address their readiness (esp Germany). In addition the production of arms and ammunition will have to be raised significantly.
So instead of worrying about Ukraine abilities we should start worrying about our own.
January 28, 2023 at 6:50 pm
True they need training and close air support, but they will not get them. As Zelenskyy said this is about big money. Our goal is to keep the battle field balanced. As Biden and his administration articulated several times this is a proxy war to weaken Russia and provoke regime change.
January 29, 2023 at 3:27 am
The United States and NATO are a party to the conflict. When a nuclear war begins in Europe, Russia’s ballistic missiles will strike the United States. 6500 nuclear warheads are waiting to be used.
January 29, 2023 at 10:50 am
I’m grateful that NATO has finally decided to send Modern Tanks to Ukraine. My regret, is that this should have been done in February 2022. Better yet, NATO/US should have seen this coming after Putler took Crimea in 2014.
Now there is talk of sending F-16’s to Ukraine. Again, this is great, but it should have happened after the invasion of Crimea.
For those with short memories: Twenty years ago, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia and the West. Today Kyiv feels betrayed – and not merely by Moscow.
In other words: When Crimea was invaded, The US and UK had a legal responsibility to come to the aid of Ukraine. Clearly, Russia violated The Agreement! Send The Weapons!!!!!
January 30, 2023 at 11:18 am
“ISW continues to assess that Ukraine can liberate critical terrain with the current and promised levels of Western support and that it is a matter of vital national interest for the United States and its Western partners that Ukraine do so.” ISW, RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE CAMPAIGN ASSESSMENT, JANUARY 29, 2023
We should send the rest of what the Ukrainians need to retake the occupied parts of their country back from Russia. That means adding GLSDB, ATACAMS, and F-16 jets, plus more ammo, spare parts and training for everything. Ukrainian Armed Forces can’t train for combined arms offensives if they don’t have the systems to do it.