The United States will work with allies to transfer Soviet-made tanks to Ukraine to bolster its defenses in the Donbas region, the New York Times reported on Friday, citing a U.S. official.
The transfers, requested by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would begin soon, the unnamed official said, according to the Times. The official declined to say how many tanks would be sent or from which countries they would come, the paper said [...]
The tanks would allow Ukraine to conduct long-range artillery strikes on Russian targets in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine bordering Russia, the official said, according to the Times.
Obviously, tanks don’t do long-range artillery strikes. This is what happens when a journalist (and editor) who doesn’t understand the topic ends up writing about it. But what it does mean is that the US will help transfer old Soviet-made military equipment being phased out of Eastern European NATO countries, including tanks, artillery, and likely other gear as well.
This decisions follows in the footsteps of Germany allowing the transfer of 56 Czech-owned (but German manufactured) BMP-1 armored personnel carriers (with Swedish upgrades), and the United Kingdom sending artillery guns. These decisions broke the taboo against “offensive’ weapons, and now the floodgates are opening.
Ukraine keeps asking for western systems, like F-15s, F-16s fighter jets, as well as modern battle tanks. There reality is that those are simply not practical. Despite Ukrainian claims, its pilots could not learn to fly them effectively in 2-3 weeks. But even more importantly, even if pilots could learn to fly them quickly, the logistics train on a brand new weapons system takes years to develop. If 15% of ground forces are support, how many people do you need on the ground to support a single plane? Hundreds! All requiring specialized knowledge on how to maintain complex weapons systems, engines, sensors, weapons, radars, comms gear, electronic warfare gear, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t even know about. The same goes for western tanks and other complex weapons systems. Remember, it’s not just about the operator, but the long logistics tail behind any weapon system.
But Ukraine has also asked for more of the stuff it already knows to operate, maintain, and support. Extra bonus points if it can reuse captured Russian munitions. Take the GRAD missile artillery system, for example. Russia has used it to level entire cities. Ukraine has them too, in more limited numbers. But you know who else has them? Poland has 227 of them. Croatia and Romania also have them. Get those to the Donbas front, and any Russian offensives get a lot more difficult.
NATO has a lot of BTR-60s, BTR-70s, BTR-80s, BMP-1, and BMP-2 armored personnel carriers. These are old and not great for open combat on the Donbas front, but they’d be great for territorial defense forces protecting rear areas, as well as ferrying troops to where they are needed. Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania have hundreds of these, and in fact, most are phasing them out for more modern equipment. Ship them out to fulfill their intended purpose—which is to destroy Russians.
The venerable Hummer. Ukraine already has around 200 Humvees, though we’ve seen some already destroyed. The United States is phasing them out, as they had trouble dealing with roadside IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, that’s not an issue in Ukraine, so give those old workhorses a final glorious sendoff in Ukraine. We see too many Ukrainian soldiers riding around in rickety civilian vans and whatnot. Give them a proper ride. The latest announced American aid package incudes armored Humvees, but whatever is in that package is not enough. Give them more, more, more.
And how about 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled artillery guns? Poland has 324 of them, currently being phased out. Send them to Ukraine! Bulgaria has around 500. Finland has 72. They would fit in nicely with Ukraine’s current stock of around 600, with a range of around 10 miles.
NATO has hundreds of T-72 tanks in storage, but the basic tank is not as capable as Ukraine’s more advanced T-64s. Still, these older tanks could prove useful for territorial defense and other static defensive positions, leaving Ukraine’s better armor free to roam the battlefield as needed. Many of the NATO T-72s have been upgraded substantially to what’s designated as the T-72M1R standard, and both Slovenia and and Croatia have M-84 tanks that are based on the T-72. But how suitable any of these tanks would be for transfer will need to be evaluated. A T-72M1R has a new night vision system for the commander and driver, new sights for the gunner, and new electronics all around. That’s all good, and all of the operators can likely adapt quickly, but someone has to keep that new gear working, and someone has to stock the necessary replacement parts for inevitable failures. The M-84 shares a lot of components with a T-72, including the same 125mm smoothbore Soviet-era gun, so ammo is interchangeable, but it has a different engine, and again, someone has to maintain that engine. If it turns out that NATO is sending Ukraine tanks that haven’t been upgraded, it’s not because they’re trying to pawn off the oldest, most useless gear. It will be because the upgraded equipment has such differences from what Ukraine already operates that supply and maintenance is impractical.
Note that Ukraine had almost 900 tanks before the war started, and they’ve gained over 100 more from Russia in the course of the war. That doesn’t mean they’re at a net-gain, we don’t really know how many tanks Ukraine has lost. But it means that Ukraine still has a potent amount of armor—the largest tank army in all of Europe (excluding Russia).
Ukraine needs air defense that can protect against high-flying jets and missiles, and the S-300 air defense system fits the bill. Bulgaria has five, Greece has 32. Slovakia has a handful. These and other weapons systems can all be backfilled by the United States and other allies with more modern equipment.
And maybe we can revisit those Polish MiGs. I doubt MiG-29s are the game changers that Ukraine thinks they are, but given Russia’s inability to take out Ukraine’s western airfields and aviation, why the heck not? Ukraine certainly has pilots that can fly them, and the maintenance crews to support them.
With time, Ukrainians can be taught to operate and support more complex western systems. Fly some Ukrainian pilots and maintenance crewmen to the United States and have them spend 2-3 months learning how to fly and maintain, say, A-10 Warthogs—the perfect tool for supporting ground troops facing armor and artillery in open terrain, and slated for retirement by the air force. Is that enough time to learn? I don’t know. But the way this war is going, odds are good that hostilities will still be ongoing. Donbas and Crimea won’t be in Ukrainian hands anytime soon.
It obviously doesn’t have to be A-10s. The U.S. can look around at what else is in storage or slated for replacement, and put it to use for its intended purpose—protecting freedom and democracy. It would somewhat justify those annual inflated Pentagon budgets.
For the greatest bang-for-the-buck, getting Ukraine more of the same systems they already know how to operate is fantastic. This should’ve been done weeks ago. But now is better than later, so let’s hope it happens fast.
The BBC provides details on those Russian paratroopers dropped into Hostomel airport in the first day of the war, and how that worked out for them.
On Saturday in Ukraine, Russian soldiers fired into a civilian protest in the town of Enerhodar, which might be better remembered as the home of that nuclear power plant that Russia shelled in the first week of the invasion. Residents in Enerhodar set up incredible barricades of sand, concrete, and vehicles, which failed to stop Russian forces from taking the town.
Enerhodar is thought to be still well in the area of Russian control, and there’s no quick route to get there. Any relief they get from occupation will depend on what happens with conflicts south of Zaporizhzhia on the E105 highway. If Ukraine is able to retake the town of Vasylivka, it will be a good sign of progress along that front.
Speaking of nuclear power plants …
All of the men who worked in and around that “Red Forest” area for an extended period are unlikely to be joining action in the east. Or doing much of anything else in the time that remains to them. Honestly, all of the equipment that passed through that area after both conflict and a hugely ill-advised effort to dig trenches in the area stirred up radioactive dust and debris, should be extensively decontaminated before use. Don’t expect that to happen.
When seeing those little observation drones that have been downed by both sides, it’s easy to think of them as little more than toys. Most of them are made of something not much tougher than Styrofoam. There’s not a lot to them but wings, engines, cameras, and some electronics. They don’t seem threatening.
But what those drones do is gather up images, along with exact locations, and shoot those back to controllers on the ground. Combining those observations with smart artillery, missiles, aircraft, or other drones, gives results like this.
Retreat, even if carried out well, is often the most dangerous time of any military operation. And it’s not clear that Russia has been carrying out its retreat any better than it carried out its invasion.