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).
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.