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The Great Tank Debate
Providing advanced western main battle tanks to Ukraine
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a torturous debate in Europe and the United States over the provision of modern, western main battle tanks to Ukraine. It has been difficult for several reasons.
First, the lack of evidence in the excuses emerging from the US about their main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, as ‘too complex’ to support in Ukraine. It was an excuse entirely absent when these tanks were sold to Iraq, Egypt and Australia - all of whom possess very light military logistic capabilities.
It is torturous too because of the total lack of courage and will from the leader of Germany. Not only has he procrastinated for months on the dispatch of these vehicles to Ukraine, he has declined to allow third parties to transfer their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. What nation serious about its security in the 21st century will want to partner with the Germans after this appalling deficit of leadership and strategic courage?
Finally, it is torturous because Ukrainian soldiers are dying on the battlefield because they are being forced to use much older Soviet-era tanks.
To be fair, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic stand out for the provision of hundreds of of their own main battle tanks so far. But the Ukrainians need larger quantities of more advanced tanks to conduct the offensives to come in 2023 (and beyond).
But from the very beginning of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine there have been many arguments over the provision of weapons and technologies to Ukraine. These debates have raged Europe and the US. The main battle tank issue is just the latest in a series of military aid issues.
Whether western main battle tanks are provided should be beyond debate after 11 months of this war. They have proven their utility in offensive and defensive roles, when used wisely, as the Ukrainians have shown. There is also significant historical evidence, and institutional experimentation from different armies, about how the inclusion of tanks in combined arms teams increases the chance of mission success and lowers the number of friendly casualties in doing so.
The current battlefield threat faced by the Ukrainians adds further. If Russia can deploy advanced T-90 tanks even its new T-14 main battle tank (according to British Intelligence), why are similar capabilities being denied to Ukraine?
Assuming that western political leaders eventually send their main battle tanks to Ukraine, what are the planning considerations for the introduction these tanks into the Ukrainian armed forces? There are seven key issues.
I. Availability. The first consideration is availability. The Ukrainians need tanks now, so waiting to set up production lines to build new tanks for 2023 is not viable. The tanks needed by Ukraine now will have to be drawn from existing fleets. An important component of availability is quantity. The Ukrainians are likely to need hundreds of new tanks (300-500) for the offensives to come. A dozen tanks, while appreciated by the Ukrainians, won’t cut it. This requirement alone restricts the types of tanks that might be provided. Therefore, which tanks are available now and in sufficiently large quantities? The reality is that only the US M1 and the German Leopard 2 fit these criteria. Although the Korean K2 might be a contender as well.
II. Doctrine and tactics. A second consideration is how western tanks will fit into the current Ukrainian military. These are doctrinal and organization issues. However, given Ukraine has long operated a large tank fleet, this is a concern that can be dealt with quickly. They already have doctrine for the employment of tanks. They know how to use them and have proven in this war that they can do so better than almost any army on the planet.
III. Strategic Sustainment. A third consideration is strategic sustainability. What are the depot-level maintenance capabilities currently in Ukraine? Depot level maintenance of tanks and their power packs – as well as the electronic subsystems – will be a key part of introducing western tanks. To be fair, with its large number of Soviet-era tanks, Ukraine has already been fulfilling these functions for its current fleet. A new system of deeper maintenance repair probably isn’t required, but some modifications might be needed. This might include shipping tanks and power packs to other nations for refit and repair. But given the demonstrated capacity of Ukraine to adapt in this war, it is very possible.
IV. Training. A fourth consideration is training. New military systems - be they weapons, munitions or other items - always require evolved training systems. This often incorporates introduction of different technologies and techniques, new simulators, and training aids (engines, guns, subsystems, ammunition, etc). Once again, as an existing tank operator, many of these systems already exist in Ukraine. But they will require evolution and upgrading for any new western tank.
V. Battlefield support. A fifth consideration is battlefield combat support provided to the tank. Mechanised combat engineering, as well as command vehicles, are integral to heavy armour operations. While Ukraine has some capacity here, bridging, ploughs and other vehicles might also be needed to ensure a standardised, more supportable fleet. Both the M1 and Leopard 2 have different variants that fill this requirement.
VI. Tactical logistics. A sixth consideration is battlefield logistic support to the new tank fleet. Fuel trucks (tanks need a lot of fuel and large fleets of refueling vehicles), low loaders, and tank recovery vehicles like the M88 Hercules heavy recovery vehicle will probably all need to be part of any tank fleet provided to Ukraine. And of course, ammunition of several types will be needed in large quantities. Once again, as an existing user of tanks, Ukraine understands these requirements and the battlefield systems and organisations needed to ensure that its tanks are appropriately supported and maintained on the battlefield. It is about modification of these existing battlefield systems and organisations, not establishing entirely new organisations for Ukraine.
VII. Digital C2. A seventh and final consideration - and this is vital - is a digital battle command support system. Tanks play a vital role as a protected hub for digital information management and command on the modern battlefield. Not only does this improve the utility of individual tanks, it is a force multiplier for combined arms teams on the modern battlefield. The sharing of tactical information, coordinating of targeting and sourcing of fires from within and beyond the combined arms teams is all done most effectively with a digital battle management network. So this will be an important consideration for which tanks go to Ukraine. And, we will need to ensure that any digital system with the tanks can be linked to other parts of the combined arms team.
While there will be other challenges, the provision of a tank fleet will involve all of these considerations. They each interact. Ticking them off individually is almost never possible. But, the Ukrainians have demonstrated throughout this war that they are very capable of integrating very complex hardware and weapons quickly. They are an adaptive, learning institution with a strong imperative for constant improvement.
I have personal experience with this. I commanded an army combat brigade with M1 tanks in northern Australia. It is a very difficult physical environment (isolated, hot, rainy) with a small logistic capacity. But, if the Australian Army with its very light integral logistic footprint (and lack of tank strategic sustainment for the first decade in service) can run an M1 tank fleet in these circumstances, the Ukrainians definitely can!
A final point – as I have written almost since the start of the war, at some point we need to start providing common fleets to Ukraine. The provision of tanks is the opportunity for NATO to provide Ukraine with a single type to simplify maintenance, training, ammunition, digital communications, etc. At some point, common fleets must be provided to the Ukrainian armed forces. The situation where they have a myriad of western 155mm artillery systems is not sustainable.
Given this need for commonality, and the considerations explored in this thread, there really is only two solutions: the US M1 tank and the German Leo 2. Both have huge fleets, which could be made available. The Korean K2, being provided in large numbers for Korea and Poland, might also become a contender at some point.
When all is said and done, the need for modern western main battle tanks to combat the more advanced Russian armour systems appearing in Ukraine is well established. Tanks are a valuable part of the modern combined arms team. They save lives. Providing them is not escalatory.
This is well within the capacity of America and Europe to do. It just takes a well thought through plan that considers all the issues examined in this article, and some political courage.
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