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Is it time for the West to give Ukraine heavy tanks?

American, German and British tanks are said to be on the table — but they come with liabilities as well as benefits.

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French soldiers
French soldiers practice shooting with a tank in 2010. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

President Emmanuel Macron’s Jan. 4 announcement that France was prepared to send a consignment of AMX-10RC to Ukraine seemingly broke a diplomatic impasse about NATO providing serious armor to the embattled nation. The AMX-10RC, a light tank in all but name, is the most heavy-duty Western armored fighting vehicle pledged to Ukraine since the beginning of the war there.

Within days, the United States announced it was sending 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Then the United Kingdom promised 10 Challenger 2 main battle tanks. Even Germany finally agreed to send its Marder infantry fighting vehicles. Not to be outdone, Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose country has already sent over 250 of its own Soviet-made T-72 tanks to Ukraine, pledged to send a “company” of German-manufactured Leopard 2s at a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Lviv.

There was a snag, however.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish President Andrzej Duda at a press conference following their meeting on Jan. 11, in Lviv, Ukraine
From left, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish President Andrzej Duda at a press conference following a meeting on Wednesday in Lviv, Ukraine. (Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Poland requires German permission to reexport the Leopard 2s to a third party, and Berlin refused to give it. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly stated that his country would not act unilaterally in supplying or allowing German-made heavy armor to be transported to Ukraine. One would have been mistaken to read this as an invitation for another Western country to pull the trigger first on tanks. The British decision on Challengers did nothing to release the Leopards.

“There is no change in the situation now because of the step that the British government has announced,” Scholz’s spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit stated on Wednesday. Scholz himself argued two days earlier that German deliveries of tanks must be coordinated “especially with our transatlantic partner, with the United States of America,” a not-very-subtle shifting of the goalposts from his previously articulated position.

Downshifting the debate into the level of semantic absurdity, Wolfgang Hellmich, the defense policy spokesman for Scholz’s ruling Social Democratic Party, claimed that Leopard 2s were “attack tanks,” adding that what Kyiv needed was “tanks for defense.”

Like bankruptcy, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises,” security assistance to Ukraine happens “gradually and then suddenly.” On Friday, Berlin appeared to backtrack on its own backtracking about tanks, with Scholz’s own vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, quoted by Politico Europe as saying, “Germany should not stand in the way when other countries make decisions to support Ukraine, regardless of what decision Germany makes.”

The decision, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht added, was all up to Warsaw, which she claimed had yet to formally ask Berlin if it could send its company of Leopards. If it is indeed all up to Poland, then the Leopards are as good as en route to Ukraine.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht addresses the media on German battle tanks for Ukraine on Friday. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

“It's always a similar pattern,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba told German public broadcaster ARD on Wednesday. “First they say no, then they fiercely defend their decision, only to say yes in the end. We are still trying to understand why the German government is doing this to itself.”

But why are Western tanks needed now?

Although Ukraine still has a large stockpile of ex-Soviet vehicles, it’s dwindling. According to the open-source war monitor Oryx Blog, since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion Ukraine is visually confirmed to have lost 447 tanks: 263 have been destroyed, 24 damaged, 16 abandoned and 144 captured by the Russians.

Moreover, stocks of spare parts and 125-millimeter shells, the standard caliber for the majority of ex-Soviet and Russian-made tank guns, are also becoming scarce. Western governments, notably the U.S. and U.K., have been buying up all the stocks they can, but they readily acknowledge that this is a temporary measure.

Supplying Western tanks, most of which use a 120-millimeter smoothbore gun, is a lot easier, as these shells are in abundance in most NATO countries. Western tanks also typically have a qualitative advantage over their Eastern Bloc counterparts that would allow smaller numbers of vehicles to hold their own against larger numbers of Russian tanks, which were explicitly designed to engage on the fields of Europe if the Cold War ever grew hot.

Modern Western tanks typically have far superior optics, allowing them to spot the enemy first and greatly improve their chances of winning an engagement. Protection and crew survivability are also a priority for Western designs, unlike their Russian counterparts.

A destroyed Russian tank
A destroyed Russian tank by the side of the road in Kupiansk, Ukraine. Kupiansk was occupied by Russian forces mere days after their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Indeed, a notorious and recurring spectacle of war has been the turrets of Russian tanks being blown sky-high from their hulls after a catastrophic detonation of the on-board ammunition, something Western tankers describe as the “jack-in-the-box effect.” The Russian designs necessitate an “ammunition carousel,” which sits directly under the turret, and automatically loads each fireable shell into the gun on the T-72, T-80 and T-90 series.

Western tanks store their ammunition in specially protected compartments equipped with “blow-off panels,” designed to channel any ammunition explosion to the outside of the vehicle, expressly to stop this from happening. The doctrine behind the design of most Western tanks — using a fourth crew member to manually load the ammunition rather than the autoloader — makes a catastrophic detonation far less likely.

There are also some less obvious advantages to modern Western designs. A Russian T-72 has an incredibly slow reversing speed of 2.5 mph, and the T-80 is not that much better at 6 mph.

This is a major design flaw that has proved fatal in battles in Ukraine, where vehicles operated by both sides have been unable to quickly extricate themselves from dangerous situations while still keeping their thick frontal armor pointed toward the enemy. In comparison, an Abrams can reverse 10 times faster, at 25 mph. Other Western models, while not as speedy as the Abrams, are still significantly faster than their Russian counterparts.

But there are also significant disadvantages that Western tanks have over the ex-Soviet vehicles currently used by both Russia and Ukraine. Primarily, the fact that the introduction of a new type of vehicle involves training and logistical challenges for the Ukrainian military.

Better engineering comes with intrinsic burdens.

Russian T-80 tanks
Russian T-80 tanks take part in military exercises at a training ground outside the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sept. 4, 2022. (Kirill KudryavtsevAFP via Getty Images)

“Western tanks are designed for function and usability,” G. Alexander Crowther, a retired U.S. Army colonel strategist and the former special assistant for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told Yahoo News. “They’re meant to be part of multi-domain operations. They can communicate across platforms and, because they are more comfortable, soldiers can use them longer without excessive fatigue. But that means two things — they’re expensive and require maintenance. Technical schools last for months.”

A former U.S. Marine and Abrams tank commander in Afghanistan, who asked to be quoted anonymously, added that Abrams and Leopards in particular have “a massive logistics effort behind them, and fielding multiple tanks with no parts in common is a huge task. Some will be damaged, destroyed or captured, and that represents national security risks to donor nations.”

Both Ukrainian tank crews and mechanics will need to be trained to operate and maintain all types of their new Western tanks. A significant supply of spare parts will also be needed, along with any specialized diagnostic equipment and recovery vehicles that such tanks would need to keep them operational. The more models provided to Ukraine, the more the logistical headaches increase.

Ideally, Ukraine’s Western partners would agree to send one type in quantity, rather than small consignments of different models — which makes the current fandango over Abrams, Leopards and Challengers, and who’s sending what, more perplexing than it needs to be.

A destroyed tank likely belonging to Russia
A destroyed tank likely belonging to Russia or pro-Russian forces lies amid rubble in Mariupol, Ukraine, in March 2022. (Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Western tanks are also very heavy, partly a result of their larger size and increased armor protection compared with their Eastern Bloc counterparts. The relatively modern T-72B3, which entered Russian service in 2013, weighs around 45 tons. The German Leopard 2A5, the American M1A2 Abrams and the British Challenger 2 all weigh 62.5 tons. (The latest version of the Abrams, the M1A2C, is even heavier at 66.8 tons.)

The added weight of these Western vehicles means they cannot safely cross some Ukrainian bridges, especially temporary bridges built to replace permanent infrastructure destroyed in the war. They’ll either have to wade through the water or be ferried across, procedures that are difficult, time-consuming and often dangerous. And here still more equipment enters the picture: These tanks will require the heaviest tank transporters. If the Ukrainians don’t have enough in their inventory, these will need to be provided by Western nations as well.

Certain Western tanks also have certain characteristics that could prove challenging in a Ukrainian context. The American Abrams is powered by a multi-fuel turbine engine, which, while extremely powerful, guzzles gasoline at a prodigious rate. The Abrams has half the effective range of a Russian T-72B3, and requires 10 gallons of fuel per hour just to keep the engine idling. The scorching-hot jet blast restricts the ability of infantry to follow in close proximity to the vehicle, a tactic Ukrainian soldiers have repeatedly used while crossing the wide-open, featureless steppe in southern Ukraine.

“The tanks Ukraine already operates aren’t bad,” the ex-Marine said. “They’re good tanks. The reputation for their being bad is a product of the Russians’ spending zero dollars on intangibles like leadership and crew training.”