When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in front of Congress, his speech included a not-so-subtle hint at what Ukraine needs to prosecute their counteroffensive to a successful conclusion.
Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us. I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.
Handing over American M1A1 Abrams and a squad of F-15s or F16s isn’t completely unreasonable, but it has some pretty extreme challenges. kos has written at length about the logistical difficulties of introducing such systems. It’s not at all a question of where Ukrainian soldiers have the skills to sit behind the controls of a modern American weapon. It’s everything else.
Yet the real answer is the same answer I’ve been giving since the first weeks of the war—operating such gear might not be too hard, but maintaining it is a monumental challenge for Western armies. For Ukraine, dealing with myriad new weapons systems in the middle of a brutal war? Impossible.
This doesn’t mean Ukraine doesn’t absolutely need, or absolutely will not get, modern tanks. However, it may be that they could better utilize something other than an M1A1. There are alternatives. There’s another tank that’s been the target of Ukrainian requests since the war began: the German Leopard 2.
As with many other tanks on the battlefield today, the Leopard has roots that go back into designs of the 1970s. Entering into service at the end of that decade, the Leopard 2 is regarded as a “third generation main battle tank.” However, that tag also applies to both the Russian T-80 and the U.S. M1. It was a period when a lot of different theories of tank design were being applied, and that shows in the specs of these vehicles. Even more so than with fighter jets, that generation label says little about the performance of these weapons in the field.
Right now, Ukraine has tanks of the T-64, T-72, and T-80 series (and some captured T-90 tanks courtesy of Russia). They’re all capable of firing the same 125mm shells, they’re all of similar size, and they all have a three-person crew. Though they have several different engines depending on the age of the tank and are outfitted with different levels of electronics and fire control, there is a lot of family resemblance across these tanks.
Both the Abrams and the Leopard are much larger vehicles, with crews of four and main guns that are incompatible with the ammo Ukraine is already carrying around the country in large quantities. They share zip diddly with the tanks Ukraine is currently using, meaning that a long logistical chain—everything from shells, to treads, to electronics, to everything else—would be necessary to keep them rolling.
Not only are the two alternative tanks more similar to each other than anything that Ukraine is now using, they were really supposed to be the same tank. In the 1970s, Germany and the U.S. went through a lengthy process of attempting to create a tank that would be the NATO standard, with changes made to both the prototype Leopards and the M1X to bring them closer into alignment. However, in the end the U.S. opted for their tank while much of Europe went for the German design, and a lot of finger-pointing ensued. The M1 originally had a 105mm gun, meaning NATO wouldn’t even have standard main gun diameter. Thankfully, that was fixed with the M1A1. (Note: It appears only the Abrams can fire the unique depleted uranium “silver bullet” rounds designed to rip straight through other armor).
What would make the Leopard a better fit than the Abrams? One clue might be found in the same reports kos pointed out when talking about the difficulty the Ukrainian army has in maintaining other unfamiliar NATO equipment. Right now even the relatively simple M777 artillery pieces are being shipped across the border into Poland when they need repairs, then back to Ukraine. At any given time about a third of these guns are reportedly somewhere in the repair cycle.
That these fixes can’t be done in the field is frustrating and takes a good deal of the value away from these weapons. However, the Ukrainian military is not in a position right now to free up thousands of people for months of intensive training on system maintenance. There are a number of Ukrainian soldiers being trained to maintain these and other systems. When they get back to Ukraine, they’re supposed to act as trainers themselves. Let’s hope the war is over before they convene their first class.
But you know who already drives Leopard 2 tanks? Poland does. In fact, the Leopard 2 is currently used by—take a deep breath—Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Turkey. Germany recently agreed to give some to Czechia since Czechia is sending its T-72 tanks to Ukraine. Those countries that use the Leopard 2 love the Leopard 2 for many of the same reasons that Americans love the M1A1: It has proven highly durable in battle; is especially good when dealing with mines, IEDs, and anti-tank missiles; and it can solemnly tear up older armor.
One big reason for this is that in some critical places the Leopard 2 is carrying 1500mm of armor. Go back and shift the decimal place around if you like. That’s 1.5 meters of steel between the occupants and things trying to get to them. The front upper plate on the Leopard 2 is 860mm thick. Compare that to 280mm on a T-72. It’s mind-boggling.
Why is the Leopard 2 so heavy? That’s why. Compared to something like a T-72, the German tank is hauling around another 20 tons of passenger protection.
That protection has proven to be very effective in practice. Time and again, the tanks have survived being hit with anti-tank missiles, hitting mines, or being blasted by IEDs. In 2008, a Leopard 2 in Afghanistan did lose a driver after running over a large IED because the concussive wave spread to the driver’s chair, which was bolted to the floor. Since then, many models of the tank have altered the seating, putting the crew in harnesses designed to reduce passing along any blow to the hull.
Of course, the M1A1 also has a record. That record includes going through over 2,000 Iraqi tanks in the Persian Gulf War without a single loss. Included in those Iraqi numbers were several hundred T-72s. No doubt Zelenskyy can’t stop thinking of what such a tank could do in Ukraine. And hell, U.S. generals would love to see that test.
They are both great tanks, and Poland does have 250 M1A1s supposedly on the way as part of a promise the U.S. made when Poland handed over most of its older Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine.
However, the Leopard 2 is highly regarded by NATO, widely used in Europe, and Germany plans to keep them in production through 2030. There are mechanics right next door in Poland with years of experience in maintaining the Leopard 2 and there is already a pipeline established by which Ukraine is shipping equipment back and forth to Poland for repairs. That’s a lot more difficult to do with a tank than an artillery gun (something over 60 tons might not even be amenable to going along quietly with a Ukrainian tractor), and tanks break down a lot, even when no one is shooting at them. Still, of the modern tanks, the Leopard 2 is likely the best choice for right now in Ukraine.
Recently a Ukrainian official has suggested that Europe could pool their 2000+ Leopard 2 tanks into a “tank alliance” that could be shifted around to where they are needed. With 200 of them going to Ukraine.
That’s not going to happen. In fact, Germany recently specifically forbid Poland from forwarding any of their existing fleet of Leopards to Kyiv. However, while discussing the situation, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Germany would not “unilaterally deliver tanks to Ukraine,” which suggests that something like that tank alliance might actually be the key to making this work. If each European country gave up, say, just a couple of Leopard 2s to some kind of independent organization and then that organization loaned 20 or so Leopards to Ukraine, it wouldn’t be everything they needed, but it would be a good test. After all, any such radical introduction is going to have to be treated as an experiment. Supplying these tanks to a few units, determining what materials and what skills are needed to keep them operational on a day to day basis, and then figuring out how to deal with serious damage and breakdowns could all be worked out while leaving the T64 through T90 crews in place.
How would a Leopard 2 fare against an M1A1 in combat? How about we don’t give Russia either one, and just live with not knowing.