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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, Amy Mackinnon

Ukraine’s Makeshift Army Is Getting More Misfit Toys

An M1 Abrams battle tank of the U.S. Army that will be used for military exercises is seen at the Baltic Container Terminal in Gdynia, Poland, on Dec. 3, 2022. (Mateusz Slodkowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States and Germany have announced they will send modern Western battle tanks to Ukraine, capping months of tense diplomatic debates and marking a political win for Kyiv as it readies for spring offensives against invading Russian forces. 

Yet the deliveries also pose new logistical headaches for the Ukrainian military and its Western backers, as Ukraine prepares to receive a hodgepodge of varied NATO hand-me-downs that all have different training, spare parts, and maintenance demands—and even require different types of fuel. If British-, German-, or American-made tanks look roughly the same to the untrained eye, then they’re a world apart when it comes to the materials and training needed to deploy them to the battlefield. 

“It’s like having a motorcycle, a boat, and a high-end sports car all out in the open and trying to keep all of them operating in rough conditions everyday, doing the maintenance on all of them yourself, while you’re being shot at,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official, describing the challenge Ukraine faces in fielding and maintaining multiple types of complex modern tanks in a war zone all at once.

The question of which countries would send Kyiv tanks and when has morphed into a political litmus test of support for Ukraine within the NATO alliance. Britain was one of the first allies to make the jump, offering 14 Challenger 2 tanks this month. And Germany faced down withering criticism for its apparent slow-walking of a decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States announced it would begin sending up to 30 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as early as this week, a decision that coincided with Berlin’s announcement that it would finally unleash the Leopards, capping weeks of debate.

The new batch of tanks heading Ukraine’s way underscores the complex considerations involved in rushing advanced military hardware to a country embroiled in a bitter existential war with Russia. “It’s almost a lesson of how not to do it. But in an emergency, that’s what you have to do,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who worked on force structure and acquisition issues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Despite the challenges associated with operating and maintaining a range of systems, the Ukrainian armed forces have proven to be very resourceful throughout the conflict thus far. “It is the sort of challenge that the Ukrainians have had to handle in different ways and at different scales throughout the conflict as they scrambled to just get what they could and just use it,” said Frederick Kagan, director of the critical threats project at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Each tank system requires specific training, maintenance, and spare parts, and they can use different ammunition that could put a strain on Ukraine’s war machine. Adding another layer of complication is the question of fuel: Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 tanks use diesel, whereas U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks use jet fuel. Germany’s Leopards are seen as the most useful tanks to send to Ukraine, as many NATO countries have Leopards in their stockpiles and it is considered one of the most reliable and effective type of tanks in the world.

There are an estimated 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks in Europe, but not all are created equal. Some older variants of the Leopard 2 use different ammunition and have shorter barrels than newer versions, and some countries have changed their spots with different capabilities and targeting systems. Further complicating matters, many of Europe’s Leopards are believed to be in a low state of readiness after spending long periods caged up and will require significant maintenance before they will be battle ready. “It’s not just a question of picking them up and putting them on a railcar for Ukraine,” Cancian said. 

And then there is the question of training Ukrainian troops on how to operate and maintain the various tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft batteries they’re slated to receive from Western partners, which could require taking skilled soldiers and engineers off the battlefield for an extended period of time to attend training courses in Europe. (Ukrainian troops are also training on Patriot air defense systems at Fort Sill, a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma.) Cancian estimated that a tank maintenance course could easily run dozens of weeks. 

“I’ve met soldiers on the front line that have had three weeks of basic training. Most of their training is … on the job,” said Dan Rice, an advisor to Ukraine’s military chief of staff. “They’re learning from the best soldiers in the unit and being a force multiplier.” 

Rice added that Ukrainian forces have so far tried to keep different systems in separate units to keep trained units together and keep soldiers familiar with similar maintenance and ammunition across the roughly 1,200-mile front. To take back larger swaths of territory this year, perhaps extending last year’s stalled southern offensive into Russian-occupied areas of Kherson further toward Crimea or pushing back on areas of the Donbas, the one thing in short supply—until now—has been armored forces, despite Ukraine capturing more than 200 tanks during its offensive to retake the Kharkiv Oblast last fall. 

“They know they need more lethality,” Rice added. “They also know that the more systems that you have, the more spare parts are needed and the more complicated the logistics and supply and repair is. As the war goes on, it’s just harder and harder to maintain all of these different systems.” Ukrainian troops will also need to be trained on recovery vehicles provided by the United States and Europe to drag stranded tanks out of the mud.

Then there is the logistics question of how to manage each distinct supply chain of parts, fuel, and ammunition, which runs from arms depots in Europe to the front lines of Ukraine. “It’s a logistician’s nightmare,” Kagan said. The range of equipment in use can also limit the Ukrainian armed forces’ flexibility to rapidly move units around the front lines. That’s because the rear area depots equipped to repair each specific piece of equipment has to move also. “It adds friction and complexity.”

The United States and NATO allies are also working out how to train Ukrainian forces in the nuances of maneuver warfare. But American supplies of 31 Abrams main battle tanks—about a battalion’s worth—could give Ukraine the ability to put in place a blocking force near the Belarusian border to the north—if Russia again attempts to send forces from that direction. Meanwhile, the Leopards could help extend Ukraine’s ability to conduct an offensive on the flat plains of the Donbas or farther into the south, where troops haven’t advanced beyond Kherson after chasing Russian forces out of the city in the fall.

But even with the historic announcement, both the Biden administration and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz faced criticism from international and domestic hawks who want NATO countries to send weapons more quickly. 

“The swift outfitting and delivery of these tanks and training of their operators is crucial to enabling Ukraine to push back the Russians,” Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement provided to Foreign Policy. “Every moment we delay the authorization of advanced systems like these tanks runs the risk of giving [Russian President Vladimir] Putin the foothold that he needs to prevail. This decision should have been made months ago.”

The window for Ukraine to get moving is narrowing. Senior Pentagon officials have already suggested that Russia sent tens of thousands of new troops to Ukraine in an effort to plug holes after brutal, monthslong fighting in the Donbas towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, home to Ukraine’s largest gypsum and salt mines, respectively. And ahead of a long-anticipated second Russian mobilization, which could see the Kremlin call up hundreds of thousands of new troops, Western officials are hoping to give Ukraine enough high-powered weaponry to stave off attacks that could overwhelm their positions. The Ukrainian military estimated on Thursday that more than 900 Russian troops had been killed in combat the previous day. 

Western defense officials insist that they will sort out a way to untangle all the logistical knots of outfitting Ukraine with multiple types of tanks.

“If the Ukrainians would have an option to choose that they’re only operating one system with one ammunition type with one type of certain training, then clearly they would opt for that, but we don’t have that option,” Kusti Salm, a top Estonian defense ministry official, told reporters on Tuesday. 

“The only option is that we work with all the equipment that is available, that’s in the required readiness state. And the challenge is how we make this work,” he added.

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