Ukraine’s allies have provided thousands of armored vehicles, artillery pieces, aircraft and other weapon systems to help the country fight back against Russia’s invasion. But requests for top-of-the-line, NATO-standard battle tanks — above all the German-made Leopard and US Abrams — long went unfulfilled. The US cited training and logistical hurdles and Germany said it would not make such a move alone. Yet there are reasons why Ukraine’s military wants them.
1. What tanks is Ukraine expecting to receive?
The dam appeared to break in mid-January, when the UK said it would send 14 of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks (MBTs) — a classification that refers to the heaviest, most powerful armored vehicles. On Jan. 25, Germany pledged to supply Ukraine with 112 Leopard 2 battle tanks over an unspecified period in a joint effort with allies, while the US said it would send 31 of the Abrams M1. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said he did not rule out sending the Leclerc, its own MBT. It will likely be months before NATO-designed tanks reach the front lines.
2. Weren’t some tanks and armored vehicles already sent?
Yes. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia and the Netherlands have delivered at least 450 modernized Soviet-design tanks, mainly T-72s, since late February 2022. According to the open source intelligence website Oryx, Ukraine has also captured 543 tanks from Russia, many of which it has been able to redeploy. Allied pledges of armored fighting vehicles such as the US Bradley, the German Marder and French AMX-10 sparked a debate over definitions. While these also carry weapons to destroy enemy tanks, they are lighter than MBTs and used to transport infantry to the combat zone alongside them. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle, for example, is less than half the weight of an Abrams M1 tank, has a 25mm chain gun instead of a 120mm canon, and carries about seven soldiers in addition to crew.
3. Why does Ukraine need more of them?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said additional armor and firepower will be crucial in the coming months, whether to defend against another major Russian assault or to punch through Russian lines and take back occupied territory. The heavier tanks from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries would also come with a supply of ammunition. Both sides in the war have seen their fleets and ammunition stocks depleted. The Russian army and airborne forces began the war with 3,000 main battle tanks, while Ukraine had 982, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank. By Jan. 24, Russia had lost at least 1,642, and Ukraine 449.
4. Hasn’t the war proved that tanks are obsolete?
No. Early images of Russian tanks being destroyed by Ukrainian foot soldiers, using anti-tank missiles such as the US Javelin and Swedish-designed NLAW gave that impression. Yet most of the Russian tanks were destroyed by artillery and made vulnerable by catastrophic errors in their deployment, as well as a chronic shortage of troops. The lack of infantry support meant those tanks had no defense against ambush.
5. Why so much focus on the Leopard?
The Leopard 2 is regarded as one of the best tanks in the world, and is used by 19 nations as a result. Running on easily available diesel, it can travel about 450 kilometers (280 miles) at a top speed of 70 km per hour and is easier to master than some others, according to the German manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW). It also has night vision capabilities and a stabilized 120mm smooth bore gun that can accurately fire at targets as far as 3,000 meters (almost 2 miles) away. KMW says it has sold 3,500 units of the Leopard, making stocks and availability a key attraction — although not all are in readily deployable condition.
6. What are the hurdles with the Abrams?
It’s more battle tested than any other NATO tank, has advantages in armor and can sustain a much faster rate of fire than most of its Russian-designed opposites. However, it is also about 20 tons heavier than a T-72 and has a turbine engine that guzzles a gallon of jet fuel for every mile traveled (or just over a quarter of a kilometer per liter). US Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl described it as “a very complicated piece of equipment,” expensive, hard to train on and “not the easiest system to maintain.”
7. How do the Leopard and Abrams compare to Russian tanks?
Both proved themselves more than a match for Iraq’s Soviet-era T-72s during the first Gulf war, in part due to the longer range of their guns. However, the T-72s on the battlefields in Ukraine are upgraded designs, and many can fire at a similar range to the Leopard and Abrams. On paper, some versions of the T-90, Russia’s latest operational tank, are even better than their NATO opposites, with a superior gun and anti-tank missile system. However, the war has proved that technological advantage counts for less than how a tank is used. Russia has lost at least 43 T-90s, including 10 of the latest T-90Ms. The training Ukrainian forces receive in combined arms operations — using tanks in tandem with air defense, intelligence and infantry — will likely be more important than specifications.
8. What about the Challenger and Leclerc?
Both are also very capable. However, whereas thousands of Leopard and Abrams tanks exist, there are far fewer Challengers and Leclercs to draw from. The UK, for example, is the only NATO member using the Challenger. The defense ministry says it has four regiments operating 56 Challenger 2s each. And while Ukraine has welcomed all offers, keeping 14 Challengers supplied on the battlefield with the unique ammunition they use, as well as tailored spare parts and separately trained crews may also present hurdles.
9. How many Leopards are available and who has them?
The magazine Der Spiegel said in a Jan. 21 article that the German defense ministry listed 312 Leopard 2’s in Germany, of which 99 were undergoing maintenance. Poland, Sweden and Spain are among European countries with more than 200 of the tanks.
10. Why were Germany and the US reluctant to supply Ukraine with tanks?
Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany wouldn’t act alone and wanted to avoid any action that might provoke escalation of the war in Ukraine. There’s also the issue of history: tanks led Nazi Germany’s brutal invasion of Russia in 1941. The US has been just as hesitant, despite releasing tens of billions of dollars worth of other heavy weaponry. However pressure to act has risen, if only because of the capacity the US has to deliver in numbers that could change the balance of forces. According to the IISS, the US Army has 2,509 Abrams M1A1 and M1A2 tanks in service, with a further 3,700 in storage. So far, though, it has committed only a handful.
--With assistance from Alexander Pearson.
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