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Will M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 Tanks Win the War for Ukraine?

M1 Abrams Tank

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Note: This is part II of a three-part series. You can read part I here and part III here. Last Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Western countries for the many armored personnel carriers and air defense missiles their leaders promised during a meeting in Ramstein, Germany, to provide. But “hundreds of ‘thank yous’ are not hundreds of tanks,” he said, urging a speedy delivery of modern tanks to his country’s forces. The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported that Zelensky may get his wish soon, in the form of U.S. M1 Abrams as well as the German Leopard 2.

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The bigger question, however, is whether those tanks, whenever they arrive, will prove decisive on the battlefield.

There appears to be a belief in Kyiv and Western capitals that if Ukraine is given modern NATO tanks, the war on the ground will turn in Ukraine’s favor. These optimists are likely to be disappointed, for simple reasons.

The hard truth, as this analysis will show, is that grafting even modern Abrams and Leopard tanks into Zelensky’s forces presents almost as many challenges as it does opportunities.

The tanks have little prospect of altering the dynamics of the war. 

Why Sending Tanks Is No Slam Dunk

Even if Germany eventually authorizes European countries to release many of their 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks, as now appears likely, it will take months for meaningful numbers of them to arrive in Ukraine, for troops to be trained on how to use them, and finally for those troops to be in position to deploy the tanks to the battlefield. Employing the tanks in an effective way will be more complicated still. The Ukrainian Armed Forces will not only have to train on NATO tanks but also on a wide variety of other tanks and supporting armored vehicles.

Zelensky’s troops will not have a few classes of complementary vehicle classes, but myriad different platforms. They bring with them many distinctive engines, diverse types of weapon systems, unique fire control systems, and individual logistics and maintenance requirements. Complicating the process of building combat power is the fact that Ukraine has to find a way to form coherent units out of a chaotic mix of platforms and troops. Few of those troops have any background in mechanized or mobile warfare. 

There is already a high degree of variation in Ukraine’s army of Soviet tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and howitzers. These operate alongside a hodgepodge of U.S. platforms such as Vietnam-era M113 personnel carriers, MRAP armored trucks, Humvees, M117 scout cars, and other variants. Let us also not forget the unknown number of Polish IFVs, Turkish Kirpi armored trucks, Canadian Senator armored personnel carriers, and Swedish CV90 infantry vehicles on the battlefield. 

To the layman, having a wide assortment of weapons from many countries might seem to be a good thing. Incorporating them into effective fighting units might seem as simple as splitting capabilities among different units to ensure everyone gets some of the good stuff to go along with the legacy equipment. The net effect is that each unit improves. But as one who has experience fighting in large-scale tank battles, I can assure you dealing with multiple weapon systems is a major issue with significant operational implications.

Consider that in the U.S. Army, the vast majority of armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles are variants of two vehicle types: the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) and the Stryker armored combat vehicle. There are many variations of each platform, tailored to perform specific missions. But the operation, functioning, and maintenance requirements for each is largely the same. 

American troopers and support personnel primarily need to know how to operate those two armored vehicle classes, and how to provide their maintenance, ammunition, and supply needs. For tanks, U.S. forces again operate two primary systems: the M1 Abrams family and the Stryker Mobile Gun System. For U.S. Army soldiers, then, there are two primary IFV variants and two primary tank types. (Jeff Jager wrote an excellent description of how U.S. BFV units are formed in these pages last week).

Training Needs

In contrast, we are asking Ukraine, locked in a life-and-death struggle with an invading Russian army, to become proficient with no fewer than seven Western IFV types and at least seven classes of infantry vehicles of Soviet origin. Consider the practical ramifications and the nightmares this would build into their system.

In Washington’s latest package of war support, the U.S. has given Ukraine a total of 109 BFVs (along with 90 Stryker vehicles), and Germany has promised 40 Marder armored vehicles. These are roughly enough to outfit three infantry battalions. But let’s say that the UAF divides the vehicles so that three battalions each have at least some modern BFVs and three with Marders, to go along with the types of vehicle fleets Ukraine currently uses. 

For each battalion to fight effectively, some number of their troops will have to receive separate training on how to operate the Bradley or Marder vehicles, while other soldiers will need to operate the existing Soviet-era fleets. In truth, however, it won’t just be a U.S./German and Soviet-era system that will have to be in place. 

It’s much messier and more complicated than that: it is likely that in any given infantry unit there will also be a mix of Soviet-era vehicles, and other vehicles from any number of different countries. 

Understandably, there are no logistics and maintenance systems for BFVs, Marders or other NATO vehicles in the Ukrainian Army. This means that even basic repairs will require evacuating the vehicle, likely to Poland (as is currently the case for repairing artillery that is damaged in Ukraine). This state of affairs negatively affects a unit’s combat potential.

I fought in the tank battle of 73 Easting during Operation Desert Storm, and I observed how our armored vehicles frequently broke down, needed basic repairs. My own vehicle suffered a blown engine. We had mobile repair shops that deployed with us, staffed by men with many years of training on our tanks, Bradleys and other armored vehicles, and stocked with significant quantities of the most commonly needed repair parts. 

Often our vehicles would go down for relatively minor issues and be brought back online within hours. Even the blown engine on my armored fire support vehicle was replaced within 24 hours. Making such repairs under combat conditions is very difficult, but for the U.S. Army it is doable, because it is a built-in part of our unit organization and staffing. But for Ukraine, even a minor mechanical problem could deadline the tank or IFV, requiring it to be towed back to Poland for repairs – and there certainly won’t be spare engines available. The UAF will have real difficulty keeping these new fleets operational, even if they get fully trained.

The nature and fierceness of combat in Ukraine is substantially more difficult than anything I encountered in the Middle East or endured during training exercises in Germany.  By all accounts, Ukraine suffers significant casualties. If the UAF goes on the offensive, casualties rates will spike, especially during key battles. What happens when the few crewmen who are trained on the Bradley are wounded in battle and need to be evacuated? 

Who will operate the equipment then? Who will fire – without prior training – the BFV’s complex 25mm main gun, its missile launcher, or its onboard machine guns?  The benefit of having modern NATO gear is that it is sophisticated and lethal – but the downside is that it also requires considerable training to operate and dedicated maintenance to keep it in the fight. Many of the systems are not intuitive and cannot simply be “picked up” by the next man in line. 

The UAF are being asked to learn and train on potentially a dozen or more types of IFVs and multiple tank variants, being required to deal with the maintenance challenges, fuel requirements, different ammunition and fire control systems – while fighting daily for their lives. It is very unlikely that in mere months from now the Ukrainian army – or even a Western army for that matter – will be able to fall in on a hodge podge of equipment it has never seen and had limited training, for which it has no existing system of logistics or maintenance, and launch an effective large-scale and successful counteroffensive against an entrenched enemy. 

As the next in this series will demonstrate, it would take closer to a year to produce such a force. There is risk in holding off an offensive until next fall or early 2024, but there may be greater risk for the UAF to rush their troops into an offensive for which they will have likely inadequate training or support systems in place. They must not, as we often say in the U.S. Army, “rush to fail.” 

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Expertise and Experience: 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.

Written By

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 @DanielLDavis1.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. T. Martin

    January 24, 2023 at 3:44 pm

    IMO, Russia has effectively ‘swapped places’ with Ukraine along the ‘eastern front’. This implies that it would take an offensive force(three to one advantage’) to break that line and penetrate into what is now official Russian territory. This implies a full scale US/Nato conventioanal war that can escalate to who knbows where. This is an insane idea (MAD). From my arm chair playing with toy tanks; how does one get them from the US across Europe, through Ukraine, and across the Dnieper (not frozen and how many bridges?) Even if possible, forget doing. that during a warm winter without air cover. Then there is, per von Clauswitz; “the art of war is to get the soldier, equiped, ready, willing, able to fight at the right place at the right time.. easy to say, hard to do.” So how to get qualified personnel from Bakhmut, what’s left of them, or others to train to act in some coordinated fashion. Unfortunately, Ukraine is becoming a disposal proxy and sending tanks will probably only accelerate the process. Note: Germany has 275 tanks and one Leopard tank factory.

  2. Neil Ross

    January 24, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    “Rush to fail”, no one seems to be in a rush to do anything.

    I wonder how much today’s flurry of news stories on western tanks ‘maybe’ going to Ukraine was in direct response to yesterday’s WP article on how Russia and Ukraine were prepared to negotiate back in April, until Johnson and Blinken stepped in.

    Maybe these announcements will motivate Russia to advance its next offensive. Who knows, but it sure looks like Ukraine will now be forced into staying in a defensive role until these promised tanks begin to show up on the front lines.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    January 24, 2023 at 4:50 pm

    It’s an interesting irony to see Davis stress about logistics in this article, but not once ever mention logistics when he was claiming Russia would invade Ukraine from Belarus again to cut of the western border to Poland. How’s that prediction going btw? Yet another epic fail.

    As well, tanks arent the only new tool Ukraine is getting. It looks like now well over 100 new 155mm artillery pieces, GLSDB, and so much more. And lets not forget about the order placed with Lockheed for 18 more HIMARS a few months back. Those should begin arriving soon fresh off the assembly line rather than used from a PDA. GLSDB would put at risk almost every single Russian and all the supply and logistics on Ukrainian soil. There can then be some serious shaping of the entire battlefield.

    To be fair, There are finally a few relevant points raised in this write up about maintenance, and the logistics of sending equipment back to Poland. All the more reason to send extra equipment, and accelerate the training process for Ukrainians.

    Rather than complaining about how many things can possibly go wrong, the allies should be working on how to get as much right as possible…and to beat the Russians back to the internationally recognized border.

    There are plenty of Bradleys, Abrams, and Leopards in stock and in storage. Claiming catastrophe if a few break down and need to be sent back to Poland is absolutely absurd. By par for Davis’ course.

  4. Harmen Breedeveld

    January 24, 2023 at 5:26 pm

    The Ukrainians have surprised us – including Daniel Davis – several times so far. First when they stopped the initial Russian assault on Kiev, then when they defeated the Russians around Kharkiv, and then – to the great surprise of Daniel Davis himself – at Kherson.

    I am no expert in warfare. But I do know something about people. The Ukrainians are motivated, eager to learn, willing to do what it takes to win the war against Russia.

    Now they are getting more and better weapons. I suspect they will learn quite rapidly how to operate and use them effectively. Necessity is a great motivator, and the Ukrainians have shown they can quickly adapt, for instance to using drones, or to using HIMARS or US intelligence information.

    Will the Ukrainians be as good with these weapons as say the US army? In key respects, probably not. Maybe in some respects, they will prove better at it, as their army by now has tons of experience.

    But this does not matter: the Ukrainian army need not be as good as the US army. It only needs to be good enough to defeat the Russian army.

    And the Russian army for sure has huge problems at just about any conceivable level. At the tactical level, they seem unable to go much beyond frontal, uninspired assaults and missile attacks. At the operational level, the massive Russian losses at Bakhmut and Soledar, all for little gain, seem equally unimpressive. And at the strategic level, it seems that Russia no longer has a clear strategy, and maybe hasn’t had one ever since their assault on Kiev failed.

    True, Russia has vast reserves of manpower and equipment. But how good are these reserves? How motivated are the men, how well trained? How well-maintained is the equipment? What impact of the endemic corruption, of the lack of high-quality officers and NCO’s?

    We will see what will happen in 2023. But I for one am optimistic about Ukraine’s chances and pessimistic about Russia’s chances.

  5. Walker

    January 24, 2023 at 5:39 pm

    The reason Davis is here running his gums instead of being there as a real consultant is because he is a Debbie downer.

    Before you can succeed, you have to believe you can succeed. Ukraine is in the position of do or die. And they have been doing pretty well for these conditions. They need more armor to make up the difference between them and the aggressors. They don’t have the luxury to consider the implications of mismatch armor. They have to make it work. And if anyone can, it will be Ukraine. They are still the underdogs, but in this conflict only they have had any real success. They have used smart tactics and surprise to their advantage while Russia has had limited successes using human fire hoses. Russian tactics can not win long term. But it is the only way they can fight at present. Russian tactics make the aggressors even weaker. They can not use this method for long, across a wide area or make substantial gains with it. It also weakens them as they have to concentrate in a small area. This makes them extremely vulnerable in other areas. A fast strike force of western armor can hit almost anywhere. Take huge swaths of land and withdraw leaving a conventional ukranian force along the new line of contact. By the time Russia brings in reinforcements, the strike force can be gone. Do this a few times and Russian taking of Soledar will be a joke. Russia has already lost. Just takes the right tools attitude and training to make it painfully obvious to Russians as well. In the Spring, Russia is likely to try a large mechanized assault. People may expect Ukraine to use these tanks to stop it. But to me that might be a mistake and poor use of this equipment. While we might want to see a large tank battle, that probably isn’t a long term winning strategy.

  6. mawendt

    January 24, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    “The tanks have little prospect of altering the dynamics of the war. ”

    Lousy assessment…. but I read it up to that point, then stopped. Just so blatantly wrong, as just about everything Davis has written about Ukraine’s abilities, tactical skill and strategic excellence.

    I am so embarrassed for 1945 having this guy write for them.

    The article that should be written?

    “Ukraine has done shockingly well with 20 year old Armor. Now we’ll see what it can do with the Good Stuff.”

  7. Donovan

    January 24, 2023 at 9:43 pm

    Friendly reminder that Daniel Davis is a Kremlin sympathizer.

  8. Whodunnit

    January 25, 2023 at 7:25 am

    I don’t read Comrade Davies articles any more but the comments are always entertaining and from a few select commentators, more insightful. Ironically, he’s probably 19fortyfive’s most ‘popular’ contributor.

  9. Paul

    January 25, 2023 at 8:19 am

    Daniel Davis a few months ago:
    The Russian army of new and demoralized recruits can (and should) launch a winter offensive. Without any training at all they will be pored into complex military equipment like MBTs, IFVs, AFVs, Artillery systems etc and sent in a Schlieffen plan-like assault from Belarus. This is no problem since we all know that if there is anything that offsets lack of training, it is lack of motivation.

    Daniel Davis today:
    The training and logistics of western tanks are so complicated and horrendous that it is a wonder that the west can operate them themselves. For the Ukrainians near impossible. It’s going to be a chore, so many manuals to read, so much training to undergo, better to just resign and wait for that Russian bayonet…

    Logistics will for sure be a challenge, but necessity is the mother of innovation, and I suspect this will prove itself in this case. In any case DD failed to demotivate the west, the decision is now made, Germany will provide 14 Leopards initially with the ambition of an international coalition to bring that up to 2 panzer battalions. If so, that would bring the number up to ca 110 leopards I believe. In addition, US is finalizing plans to send ca 30 A1s, UK have already pledged 14 Challenger tanks and we might also see a company worth of French Leclerc’s. So, it seems safe to assume ca 170 western MBTs are heading for Ukraine.
    This is turning out to be a great day for Daniel Davis losing streak 🙂

  10. Klaus von Schnitzel

    January 25, 2023 at 10:49 am

    After saying NO to sending M1 tanks to Ukraine, so just how much dirt does Zelensky and Ukraine have on the Biden Family?

  11. Goran

    January 25, 2023 at 11:44 am

    This is not about how effective Ukrainians can be in those Abrams and Leopard tanks, this is about the growing chasm between Moscow and the Western world. To not address that issue, to skate over it in order to talk about blown engines is an act of a dilettante.

  12. Greg

    January 25, 2023 at 11:54 am

    Stupid idea. Abrams (and probably Leopard 2s) have technology we don’t want a potential adversary to know. I was in a tank battalion my last duty assignment.

  13. Greg

    January 25, 2023 at 12:01 pm

    Stupid idea. Abrams (and probably Leopard 2s) have technology we don’t want a potential adversary to know. I was in a tank battalion my last duty assignment. Plus, who will operate them? Ukrainians sure as hell aren’t. It takes months to train a tank crew to war capable proficiency. Then, who will maintain them?

  14. Yrral

    January 25, 2023 at 2:04 pm

    This is European forever war,as long as they continue to fund their demise,by buying Putin energy,as they act like a bunch of chicken with their heads cut off

  15. TheAtoll

    January 25, 2023 at 2:16 pm

    Trying to argue with Daniel Davis on warfare is like a Martian talking to a fungo. He doesn’t get it, he never got it and even if he did get it, he would t get it.

  16. Christophe

    January 25, 2023 at 2:35 pm

    Another very questionable and low on expertise account of the military situation in Ukraine from a member of the Russian Fifth Column -the worst part of it, the part that is not paid for it and do it because of wicked political beliefs.

  17. Jim

    January 25, 2023 at 3:25 pm

    “The tanks have little prospect of altering the dynamics of the war.”

    Boy, as soon as I read the line, I knew what the comment section would be like… did not disappoint.

    Davis points out in greater detail what has been commented on many times on this website.

    Difficult logistics and time consuming training.

    (But as others have stated: where there is a will there is a way… but it’s far easier to type out than to put in practice.)

    So, now, we’re going to find out.

  18. sarsfield

    January 25, 2023 at 6:31 pm

    this is a credible account of the reality of UKR using US made armour — one wonders if US will adjust some of the software in the fire control systems to avoid giving too much away if captured

  19. dave

    January 26, 2023 at 3:20 am

    So he fought in battle of 73 easting like Colonel Macgregor which Gary Jacobs always mentions. It`s over boys Ukraine never had a chance.

  20. Serhio

    January 26, 2023 at 8:30 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.

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