- Western tanks will give Ukraine new capabilities, although few are already up and running in the country.
- Russia’s tank force is significantly bigger than Ukraine’s, but has failed to impress Western military analysts.
- If Kyiv can pull off effective combined arms operations with these tanks, they represent a formidable challenge for an exhausted Russian military.
Western tanks in Ukrainian hands promise to be powerful weapons against a tired Russian force, experts say—but it will depend on Kyiv making the best use of them.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive preparations have hinged on Western supplies, including its new NATO-standard main battle tanks. After months of hesitation, the U.K., the U.S., Germany and other European nations pledged in January to send various types to Ukraine this year.
On the opposing side, Russian tank forces have been greatly depleted by nearly 16 months of fighting, despite Moscow’s Defense Ministry praising the apparent deployment of brand-new battle tanks to the war effort.
It was against this backdrop that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this month that although Ukraine was largely ready to launch a concerted push against the enemy, “in terms of equipment, not everything has arrived yet.”
Even once the tanks arrive, Ukraine’s challenges will not be solved, experts have told Newsweek. While Western tanks are largely superior to their Russian peers, they said, they also bring difficulties in terms of training, logistics, and coordination with other forces.
The ‘Decisive Advantage’ of Western Tanks
“One percent of all your tanks.” That was Zelensky’s request to NATO in the early days of the Russian invasion in spring 2022. By late April 2023, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had announced that 230 tanks from the alliance’s members had been transferred to Ukraine.
These tanks bring a host of capabilities that may prove crucial against Russia’s much greater numbers. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance audit of the world’s armed forces, at the start of the year, Ukraine had 953 main battle tanks, not including the promises of Western tanks. Russia had 1,800.
“The biggest advantage with modern Western tanks is in fire control and lethality,” according to retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who previously served as commander of the U.S. Army’s forces in Europe. This means they can find, identify and engage targets “faster and at greater range than most of the Soviet-era tanks,” he told Newsweek.
“This is the decisive advantage in tank-on-tank engagements,” Hodges added. The likes of the M1 Abrams, and the Bradley M2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle that has also been sent to Ukraine, were developed to give U.S. forces an edge over more numerous Soviet forces in the Cold War. Western main battle tanks will now give Ukrainians the “same advantage, assuming that they are adequately trained and properly employed and sustained,” he said.
Ukrainian military personnel receive armoured manoeuvre training on German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks at the Spanish army’s training centre of San Gregorio in Zaragoza on March 13, 2023. Ukrainian troops will start training on M1 Abrams in “the next week or so,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said on Tuesday.
OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images
The British government made the first move towards equipping Ukraine’s tank battalions, saying in a statement on January 14 that it would send over 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks in what it called the “start of a gear change.”
“The Challenger tank will be the most modern tank at Ukraine’s disposal, providing Ukrainian troops with better protection and more accurate firepower,” the British Army added in a later press release.
The Challengers were soon followed by a promise of Leopard 2 main battle tanks from Germany, which were widely considered by experts to be the best choice for Ukraine’s land war. Washington quickly pledged its own main battle tank, the Abrams, which U.S. President Joe Biden hailed as the “most capable tank in the world.” Many other nations chimed in with contributions of Leopards, and Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany announced a joint project to deliver the older Leopard 1 tanks.
Between the Abrams, Leopards and the Challengers, there is some variance in armaments, armor, top speed and other metrics, but these differences “are less significant than the fact that these tanks are more advanced than Russian models, especially in sensor capabilities,” according to military and technology expert Michael Peck.
Kyiv has received a host of upgraded Soviet-era T-72 tanks from several countries, but these are “not as capable as Western designs,” Peck told Newsweek. The Pentagon said in April 2022 that it would pay for Prague to upgrade 45 Soviet-era T-72s for Ukraine, kitted out with advanced optics, communications, and armor packages.
The T-72s have been operated by both Ukraine and Russia throughout the war, and are the world’s most widely used main battle tanks.
However, all of the promised Western-made main battle tanks are a significant upgrade to Kyiv’s Soviet-era capabilities.
“There is no comparison between an M1 [Abrams] and a T-72” in any of the major metrics, Professor Michael Clarke, of the War Studies department, King’s College London, U.K., previously told Newsweek in early February.
The Not So Good News for Ukraine
Although Washington has promised Abrams tanks, none has yet made its way to the front lines. Originally intended to be the newer M1A2 models, the U.S. is now shipping M1A1 versions to Kyiv. The M1A1 Abrams will have “a very similar capability” to the M1A2, the Defense Department said, adding that opting for the older model would allow the US to “significantly expedite delivery timelines, and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year.”
“This is about getting this important combat capability into the hands of the Ukrainians sooner rather than later,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said. Speaking to Voice of America on May 23, Ryder said training for Ukrainian tank crews on the Abrams would start “in the next week or so.”
But experts also point to the obstacles of integrating unfamiliar, complex systems into Ukraine’s armed forces, as well as taking into consideration factors such as weather conditions and the far heavier weight of Western tanks compared with the T-72s.
“The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment,” Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said in January. “It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on,” he added. The “fuel-hog” Abrams tanks also run best on jet fuel, which needs a different supply line compared to the diesel-powered Leopards and Challengers.
Challengers and Leopards have arrived in Ukraine, but the numbers of functional Western main battle tanks are still small, according to former British military officer Frank Ledwidge. These low numbers will naturally limit their impact, Yohann Michel, research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek. It is “sub-optimal” that there is little standardization among the tank deliveries, he said, but it is nonetheless “better than nothing.”
Aside from the tanks themselves, training has been swift, leading some analysts to query just how thorough it has been.
Ukrainian tank crews have not been trained to “the level required by Western armies, but they don’t need the level by Western armies—they need a level that’s superior to the Russians,” Ledwidge said.
Even being “just a little bit better” than the enemy force can inflict “impressive losses,” Frederik Mertens, a strategic analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS) told Newsweek.
“It’s more than possible, given the Ukrainians’ aptitude for this kind of thing, for them to have done enough,” Ledwidge said.
“You can survive on a lot less equipment if you actually know what you’re doing,” according to Glen Grant, a former British Army officer, now based with the Baltic Security Foundation in Riga, Latvia.
Beyond the training on the equipment itself, which will also improve with time, Ukrainians need to have effectively trained together, experts say. The tanks must be used alongside other infantry forces, artillery and other weapons in coordination with one another to maximize their impact. “To actually break through, they’re going to need to put them together and fight as concentrated groups,” Grant said.
The tank is “the key piece of armored battle,” Mertens said, but its strength “depends partly on the technology, but most importantly on the training.”
The number one priority is training of crews, including in combined arms formations along with artillery, engineers, air defense and other vehicles, Hodges said.
“It’s difficult to say whether these Western tanks will be decisive,” Peck said. “Much will depend on how well Ukraine can support them with infantry, artillery, engineers, and logistics and maintenance.”
Combined arms operations are a Russian weakness, according to Paul van Hooft, another HCSS analyst. “If the Ukrainians are significantly better at that, there’s a lot there to be exploited,” he told Newsweek.
Russia’s Changing Capabilities
But while Ukraine has been rapidly gaining new capabilities and tanks, it is hard to say the same for Russia. Fighting in Ukraine has taken a toll on Moscow—footage of a lone, Soviet-era tank making its way across Red Square in an “astonishingly low-level” military parade was one of the starkest reminders of the impact of more than a year of war.
In February, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signaled that Russia must “increase production of various armaments including modern tanks,” in response to Western donations to Ukraine.
The Russian losses are believed to be substantial. In mid-February 2023, the IISS estimated that Russia had lost almost 40 percent of its pre-war tank fleet following nine months of bitter fighting in Ukraine. This figure rose to 50 percent for some key combat tanks.
Ukrainian recruits and their British Armed Forces trainers pose for a photograph on training vehicles at a military facility, on February 23, 2023, in southern England. Training is critical to Ukraine’s success in tank operations against Russia.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
As of May 24, Russia had lost 1,982 tanks since February 24, 2022, according to Dutch open-source outlet Oryx. By this count, 1,220 had been destroyed, 114 abandoned and 542 captured by Ukrainian forces, but this tally only includes visually confirmed losses. Kyiv’s count puts Russian tank losses at 3,792 as of May 24. The recorded Oryx losses include the Soviet T-62s, hundreds of the commonly-spotted T-72 and many T-90s, the upgraded versions of the older T-72s.
Russia has lost “so many tanks, of all types and variations and levels of modernity,” Hodges said. “It’s hard to say what, if anything, on their side has improved.”
“Perhaps they’ve made some upgrades to fire control or survivability,” but this is not confirmed, he added.
However, there are some indicators that while many of Russia’s more elite tank operators were killed in the initial waves of fighting, those who are left have quickly become battle-hardened and more effective tank crews.
With a limited set of systems, more universal parts and established supply chains, Russia does not face the same challenges of integrating multiple new platforms into its force, van Hooft noted. “But then it depends on how well they have organised themselves to use that theoretical advantage,” he said.
The T-14 Armata’s ‘Teething Problems’
What the war has seen is the supposed debut of the Kremlin’s T-14 Armata. Once branded by a Western army official as “the most revolutionary tank in a decade,” the high-tech vehicle has had a lackluster impact on battlefield operations.
The development of the T-14 was plagued with delays, adjustments and manufacturing problems, the British Defense Ministry said earlier this year. “It’s been troubled since the start of its production,” Hodges said.
Russian forces in Ukraine had been “reluctant to accept the first tranche of T-14 allocated to them because the vehicles were in such poor condition,” the British Defense Ministry also said.
It is an “unproven design” that will “certainly have teething problems,” Peck said. “It’s unlikely Russia could field enough to make a difference.”
So far, the T-14 has had “little to no impact,” Hodges said, with questions remaining over whether the T-14s have even been directly involved in frontline fighting.
They have “no credibility,” Ledwidge said. “These are not war-winners, or even battle winners,” he said.
Significant, But Maybe Not Decisive
“I do believe that the Western-provided equipment will make a significant difference, but I can’t declare that they’ll be the decisive difference,” Hodges said, because exactly how it will be used is not known.
The details of Ukraine’s counteroffensive remain a mystery, and it is hard to judge just how many tanks will be needed for it to be victorious.
Ukraine has a real challenge on its hands, launching successful combined assault operations against well-dug-in Russian defenses, experts say. And there is plenty of evidence to show that Russia has committed to its static defenses, such as in southern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The emerging footage of Russian dragon’s teeth and anti-tank ditches could “allow mediocre troops a lot of defensive potential,” Mertens said, although he added that they could also leave Moscow’s forces “quickly surrounded.”
Even beyond an upcoming offensive, there are also questions over just how many of the newly donated tanks will be operational following weeks or months of combat in Ukraine. Looking merely at the 230 tanks delivered by NATO, this does not account for long-term needs, Peck said.
Ukraine still faces a tough fight, even with Western tanks joining the battlefield. Whether they will give it the edge it needs remains to be seen.