The proposed tank deliveries from NATO countries to Ukraine are the main news this week. Kiev has been asking for these weapons from its Western allies since the beginning of the Russian offensive, and now, 12 months after the fighting, these demands appear to be being met.
The US has announced that it will send 31 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine. In a hastily scheduled speech on Wednesday, President Joe Biden noted that US tanks are complicated to operate and maintain, so the US will supply Kiev with “parts and equipment necessary to support these tanks effectively on the battlefield.”
It was also confirmed on Wednesday that the German government will send Leopard 2A6 tanks from its stock and allow other countries, such as Poland, to transfer German-made tanks to Ukraine. On January 14, London announced plans to ship its Challengers 2s to Kiev, while Paris’ decision to supply French AMX-56 Leclerc vehicles also seems inevitable.
Russian pundits and journalists are engaged in a heated debate about the differences between these Western main battle tanks and the Russian T-90s, citing their armor, guns, accuracy, active and passive protection systems, maneuverability, fire control systems, ammunition, and many other attributes.
At the end of the day, however, these discussions lack any practical value. The battlefield is the only litmus test for all the pros and cons of any type of weapon or military equipment. Reliable combat utilization statistics are all that is required for a comparative analysis of modern main battle tanks to be credible.
Another thing to remember is that all tanks are vulnerable to modern anti-tank systems, so the question is how many NATO tanks will find their way into Ukraine?
How many tanks does Kiev need?
To simplify calculations, we use an armored division, the main structural and tactical unit of armored forces in the former Soviet republics, as our yardstick. According to Soviet manuals, an armored division must have 296 tanks, 230 infantry fighting vehicles, 54 self-propelled artillery systems, more than 2,000 regular vehicles and nearly 12,000 soldiers and officers.
How many divisions does Kiev need? At least one per each of the three main fronts – in Lugansk, Donetsk and Zaporozhye. The line of contact in the Special Military Operations Zone is currently 500 miles (815 km) long, making three divisions too small a number to make a difference, but let’s disregard this for now.
Three armored divisions together would total about 900 tanks. Apart from that, another armored division may be needed on the Belorussian front, where very heavy fighting can take place. In the event of an escalation there, an armored division or similar unit in reserve is a must, increasing the number of tanks needed by 300 to 1,200.
Finally, no commander-in-chief can do without his own reserve, the so-called reserve of the high command. Without at least one armored division, this reserve can’t really count as such, adding up to another 300 tanks out of a required total of 1,500.
Another thing to consider are probable Ukrainian losses during offensive operations. The average daily losses of an armored unit in this case are 10 to 15%. About 15 to 20% of failed tanks are typically irreparable losses, while the rest require repair (general maintenance for 30 to 50%, intermediate repairs for 15 to 30%, and overhaul for 10 to 20%).
Simply put, at least 300 more tanks are needed to make up for losses in combat operations. This gives us a figure of 1,800 tanks, which should be considered an absolute minimum.
These are very approximate and somewhat simplistic calculations, but they give us ballpark numbers.
How many tanks will Kiev get?
So far, NATO countries have reserved dozens of tanks for Ukraine. This is only a fraction of the hypothetical minimum.
Britain and Poland each officially committed an armored company, consisting of up to 14 tanks respectively. Germany will provide a similar amount, while the US is preparing to deliver 31 Abrams heavy weapons.
At a recent meeting of the US-led Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, officials from 12 countries discussed sending a total of about 100 tanks to Kiev, if Berlin gave the go-ahead, which according to an ABC report, it succeeded .
In addition, Rheinmetall could deliver a total of 139 tanks to Ukraine, including 88 Leopard 1s and 51 Leopard 2A4s, but the German manufacturer admits only 29 of those can be shipped before summer 2023.
What impact will NATO‘s tanks have?
Will all these tanks enter the battle soon? Let’s look at the example of the M1 Abrams, which is seen as one of the symbols of US military power.
A small number of these tanks, manned by poorly trained crews and without full maintenance and support of the supply infrastructure, would most likely produce negative results. They will not change Ukraine’s fate on the battlefield, while images of burning US tanks are likely to hurt US public opinion.
Thus one of America’s most important weapons, the pride and joy of its defense industry, will long be humbled on the battlefield. This is something the Pentagon should not allow to happen under any circumstances.
Therefore, before actual combat takes place, evacuation teams, tank repair units, and spare parts must be in place, while crews must receive superior training to handle US tanks.
Last but not least, the first deployment of US main battle tanks in Ukraine must be accompanied by a significant success of the Ukrainian army, at least at the tactical level, which would require no less than 200-300 (perhaps even 400-500) tanks.
Otherwise supplying the M1 Abrams to Ukraine makes no military or political sense. Handing them over one company (10 to 15 tanks) at a time would only mean that this equipment will burn on the battlefield without making any significant impact or even attracting anyone’s attention.
So far, Russia has had no significant problems dealing with enemy equipment. Since the launch of the military operation, Russian forces have destroyed 376 aircraft, 203 helicopters, 2,944 UAVs, 402 anti-aircraft missile systems, 988 MLRVs and 3,898 field artillery guns, according to Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry. and mortars.
As well as 7,614 tanks and other armored vehicles.
No room for complacency
It is very likely that the first NATO tank companies will be used as training units for Ukrainian crews, while Poland will initially provide maintenance and repair capacity for the maintenance of German or US tanks.
However, one should not think that the training will stretch over a very long time. A full training program can take just weeks to complete, while T-64/84 crew training to fight in the M1 Abrams or the Leopard 2A5 can be completed in days.
What is at stake in the reports on Western tank tank deliveries to Ukraine is not so much the tanks themselves as breaking a taboo that until recently prevented the transfer of Western-made heavy armored vehicles to Ukraine.
Once this taboo is broken, there is every reason to believe that sooner or later Kiev will get not only the 1,800 western battle tanks it desperately needs, but much more than that.
At that time, and perhaps even earlier, Ukraine, for example, will be able to create a strike force on the Zaporozhye front. If such a force succeeds in breaking through the Russian defenses, it could cover the 82 km to Melitopol in less than three days, which would cut through the entire depth of the Russian defenses in this region.
With this in mind, the Russian armed forces must achieve tangible military and political results long before Western arms shipments reach their full potential.