The Trouble with Western Tanks in Ukraine

Western nations have begun pledging a variety of Western armored vehicles to Ukraine including infantry fighting vehicles and even main battle tanks. Until now, the majority of armored vehicles sent to Ukraine had been Soviet-era weapons Ukrainian forces were familiar with both in terms of operating and repairing them.

However, following Ukraine’s Kherson and Kharkov offensives, much of this equipment has been destroyed, leaving the West little choice but to begin sending Western systems or leave Ukrainian forces in the field with only small arms.

While Western leaders and the media claim that Western armored vehicles represent a significant increase in Ukrainian capabilities, the reality is quite the opposite. Far from giving Ukraine an advantage on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces will struggle merely to get the vehicles on the battlefield and keep them there. Additionally, recent conflicts elsewhere in the world have proven Western armored vehicles including main battle tanks are neither “invincible,” nor “game-changing.”

Thus, if Ukraine’s hundreds of Soviet-era tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers failed to achieve favorable outcomes for Kiev, it is unlikely replacing these systems with Western hardware will make any difference.

Logistics, Training, and Maintenance 

In order to get Ukrainians into Western armored vehicles they will have to be trained in their basic operation, in using them effectively on a modern battlefield together with other tanks and weapon systems, and keeping them on the battlefield (maintenance). Entry-level tankers can take up to half a year to acquire these skills – time Ukraine doesn’t have, meaning that unless Western operators will be manning them posing as Ukrainians, heavily abbreviated courses will be given instead, producing subpar operators compared to the training and effectiveness Ukrainian tank crews had on the battlefield using their own equipment at the beginning of Russia’s special military operation.

Another aspect of most Western main battle tanks is that unlike Soviet and Russian main battle tanks which feature autoloaders for their main guns, Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and M1 Abrams require a crew member to manually load their main guns. So, while Soviet-era and Russian tanks have three crew members, a driver, a gunner, and a commander, Western main battle tanks require a fourth, the loader. This means that for every 3 Western main battle tanks sent to Ukraine, four Ukrainian tank crews will be required to man them – more trained tankers spread across fewer tanks.

Before these newly trained Ukrainian tankers can crew their Western armored vehicles, they have to be moved onto the battlefield. Western infantry fighting vehicles like the US Bradley and the German Mauder are heavier than their Soviet and Russian counterparts. So are the Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks pledged by the UK and Poland. The US M1 Abrams is heavier still.

This presents a challenge to moving the vehicles by truck or rail just to reach the battlefield. The second option, rail, is complicated even further by the fact that much of Ukraine’s rolling stock is moved by electric traction which has been severely inhibited by Russia’s systematic targeting and destruction of the Ukrainian power grid. There is also the matter of sustaining these armored vehicles on the battlefield as they operate. They will consume much larger amounts of fuel than Ukraine’s previous armored vehicles, meaning more fuel will be required and much more often.

Heavier vehicles place more wear and tear on mechanical components including the vehicles’ transmissions, suspension, road wheels, and tracks. Increased maintenance required by newly trained, inexperienced crews will prevent the vehicles from being operated to their maximum potential. More problematic still is that Western armored vehicles – both infantry fighting vehicles and especially Western main battle tanks – possess complex optics and computerized fire control systems. It takes months just to train technicians to diagnose these systems, and a year or more to train and gain experience in actually repairing them.

What is much more likely is Ukrainian armor crews will be forced to regularly send broken vehicles to the border with Poland to be repaired. Depending on where fighting is taking place this can be up to 1,000 km away from the front line. It is then another 1,000 km back to the front. Ukrainian maintenance facilities manned by Western technicians cannot be established in Ukraine itself because Russia possesses the means to target and destroy them with long-range precision weapons like cruise missiles and drones.

This means Western armored vehicles may spend more time either in transit or being repaired than actually fighting on the battlefield.

Because NATO armored vehicles use different types of ammunition than Ukraine has been using with its own armor vehicles, it will need to be shipped in constantly to the front to keep these vehicles firing on the battlefield. While many NATO main battle tanks fire 120mm rounds from smoothbore main guns, the British Challenger 2 fires unique ammunition from its 120mm rifled main gun. This means that two supply chains will need to be established for Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks. The same applies for basic spare parts for mechanical repairs Ukrainian crews may be capable of performing in the field.

Western Main Battle Tanks are Far From Invincible 

Pundits argue that despite the many challenges facing Ukraine in employing Bradley and  Marauder infantry fighting vehicles along with Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the capabilities of these vehicles will give Ukrainian forces a decisive advantage on the battlefield over Russian forces. However, the performance of these armored vehicles in recent conflicts indicates the exact opposite.

The Leopard 2 main battle tank is widely used across NATO, including by Turkey. Turkey deployed Leopard 2 tanks during several incursions into northern Syria against irregular Kurdish and “Islamic State” forces. Their performance was described in a 2019 National Interest article ominously titled, “Turkey’s Leopard 2 Tanks Are Getting Crushed in Syria,” which noted:

…evidence emerged that numerous Leopard 2s had been destroyed in intense fighting over ISIS-held Al-Bab—a fight that Turkish military leaders described as a “trauma,” according to Der Spiegel. A document published online listed ISIS as apparently having destroyed ten of the supposedly invincible Leopard 2s; five reportedly by antitank missiles, two by mines or IEDs, one to rocket or mortar fire, and the others to more ambiguous causes. 

The article links to photographs of the destroyed Leopard 2 tanks, sometimes side by side Turkish infantry fighting vehicles and with at least two with their turrets completely blown off the hulls of the tanks, illustrating just how vulnerable any main battle tank is, Russian or Western, to modern anti-tank weapons. The National Interest lists AT-7 Metis and AT-5 Konkurs antitank missiles, both produced by the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation, as the culprits in at least 5 of the destroyed Leopard 2 tanks.

While the most widely produced Western main battle tank is the M1 Abrams, because of its fuel-hungry turbine engine and exceptionally heavy weight, it is impractical to send in large numbers to Ukraine. The Leopard, produced in large numbers and used widely across NATO with its diesel engine makes it the most likely candidate to replace the bulk of Ukraine’s tank force, but considering its performance against even irregular forces on the battlefield, this leaves only bleak prospects for Ukraine.

The British Challenger 2 has fared no better on the battlefield. The myth that it has is owed to cover-ups and deliberate war propaganda as exposed by a 2007 Telegraph article titled, “MoD kept failure of best tank quiet,” which noted:

The Ministry of Defence had claimed that an attack last month that breached a tank’s armour was the first of its kind in four years of war in Iraq. But another Challenger 2 was pierced by a powerful rocket-propelled grenade in August last year during an attack that blew off part of a soldier’s foot and injured several others.

The article pointed out that the weapon that likely damaged the Challenger 2 was the Russian-made RPG-29. It notes:

The RPG-29 is a much more powerful weapon than the common type regularly used by insurgents to attack British troops. It is specifically designed to penetrate tank armour, although this is the first occasion on which it has managed to damage a Challenger.

And what of other Western main battle tanks which share similar design and doctrinal philosophies? Have they performed any better? It is a question worth considering both to assess the combat potential of Western armored vehicles in general and to get ahead of additional transfers to Ukraine that might include these other vehicles.

The M1 Abrams, like the Challenger 2, has a legendary reputation. However, the US itself had multiple M1 Abrams knocked out in Iraq from 2003 onward. A CBS New article from 2003 titled, “U.S. Tank Hit, 2 GIs Dead In Iraq,” noted that the knocked out M1 Abrams was damaged by either a bomb or an improvised explosive device.

The M1 Abrams has been transferred to US allies including Saudi Arabia. A 2016 Defense One article titled, “Saudi Losses in Yemen War Exposed by US Tank Deal,” would explain:

The U.S. State Department and Pentagon Tuesday OKed a $1.2 billion sale of 153 Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia Tuesday. But that’s not the real news.

Turns out: 20 of those tanks, made in America by General Dynamics Land Systems, are “battle damage replacements” for Saudi tanks lost in combat.

Even though the formal announcement of the sales does not say where the tanks were fighting, the Saudi military is believed to have lost some of its 400-plus Abrams tanks in Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi separatists.

It is very clear that far from invincible, despite the massive weight and heavy fuel consumption of the M1 Abrams, even irregular forces are capable of facing off and defeating the US main battle tank.

Pundits have claimed that heavy losses of Saudi M1 Abrams are owed to the fact that exported M1 Abrams lack key features including special armor and fire control elements responsible for their poor performance. However, it is unlikely the US would ever transfer M1 Abrams to Ukraine with classified armor or highly sophisticated fire control systems for precisely the same reasons the US has not sent any of its modern unmanned aerial vehicles like the Gray Eagle. The capture of either of these weapon systems by Russian forces – a very common phenomenon amid the special military operation – would mean these advanced features would quickly be under examination by Russian engineers.

And finally, while Israeli Merkava main battle tanks are highly unlikely to end up in the hands of Ukrainian forces, the Merkava is considered one of the best main battle tanks on Earth. They too, however, have not only performed poorly against modern anti-tank weapons, but anti-tank weapons produced by the Russian Federation.

Haaretz in its 2006 article, “Hezbollah Anti-tank Fire Causing Most IDF Casualties in Lebanon,” would report:

The Hezbollah anti-tank teams use a new and particularly potent version of the Russian-made RPG, the RPG-29, that has been sold by Moscow to the Syrians and then transferred to the Shi’ite organization.

The RPG-29’s penetrating power comes from its tandem warhead, and on a number of occasions has managed to get through the massive armor of the Merkava tanks.

It should be noted that in each case, whether it was Turkish forces in northern Syria, Saudi forces in Yemen, US and British forces in Iraq, or Israeli forces pushing into southern Lebanon, each military operation consisted of well-trained tank crews supported by large-scale logistical lines and as part of well-organized combined arms combat including infantry, artillery, and air support.

What will happen when Ukrainian tank crews given abbreviated training attempt to employ Western main battle tanks on the battlefield, only without the proper logistical or combined arms support Turkey, the US and UK, Saudi Arabia, and Israel were capable of? And what will happen when these Ukrainian tank crews go up against Russian-made anti-tank weapons proven over the years to be highly effective against the very best Western main battle tanks now that these anti-tank weapons are in the hands of Russian troops themselves?

It was Russian forces destroying hundreds upon hundreds of Ukrainian armored vehicles over the course of the special military operation, exhausting both Ukraine’s initial inventories and then NATO’s inventories of Soviet-era equipment that has prompted the West to consider sending their own armor in the first place.

Effective Russian-made anti-tank weapons like the guided AT-7 Metis and AT-5 Konkurs but also the newer 9M133 Kornet missile along with RPG-29 and now RPG-30 rocket propelled grenades will surely produce the same destructive results experienced by Turkish, US, British, Saudi, and Israeli tank crews. But Ukrainian forces will also face hundreds of Russia’s own main battle tanks including modernized T-72 and T-80 tanks, as well as the newer T-90 Proryv. Russian military aviation also has a variety of weapons capable of precision strikes on armored vehicles and Russian artillery is more than capable of destroying main battle tanks even on the move using laser-guided Krasnopol artillery rounds.

In other words, Ukrainian tank crews will be less prepared and fighting under less-than-ideal conditions than their Western counterparts and fighting against a much larger arsenal of anti-tank weapons both in terms of quantity and quality. Just as other Western “wonder weapons” had supposedly “turned the tide” including the M777 155mm howitzer and the HIMARS GPS-guided multiple launch rocket system, Ukraine finds itself in need of yet another “wonder weapon” to induce yet another badly needed “turning of the tide.” Western main battle tanks will help Ukraine prolong the conflict, but ultimately Kiev and its Western sponsors will find themselves right back to where they started.

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