Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainians were estimated to have over 2,000 tanks, though half were in storage and presumably in poor shape. Visually confirmed, Ukraine has captured at least 545 Russian tanks, though we can’t assume all were fully salvaged and returned to action. Meanwhile, Poland has donated nearly 300 Soviet-era T-72 tanks, with another 150 or so T-72s coming from Czechia, North Macedonia, and recently, Morocco.
Add it all up, and Ukraine had at least 2,000 tanks, and maybe more depending on the status of the stored kit (most of which was likely used for spare parts). A quarter to half of those tanks are likely destroyed or inoperable. But even if they have 1,000 tanks left, that's still quite a bit. So, are a few dozen Western tanks that much of a game changer?
Three weapons systems have undoubtedly changed the dynamics of the war so far. The first was the two main Western portable anti-tank missile used by Ukraine to stop Russia’s initial thrust—the British NLAW and the American Javelin. The second was M777 artillery howitzers. With over 130 delivered, they provided far more accurate fire than Soviet designs, and allowed allies to supply Ukraine with western shells at a time when it was running out of Soviet-era ammunition. The third was HIMARS, which broke Russian logistics, both by destroying massive stockpiles of artillery shells and other supplies, and by pushing back those ammo depots further behind the front lines. Russia struggles with supply lines more than 25 kilometers from a railhead.
Still, this whole “game changing” concept is a bit of a ridiculous metric. It’s like the tech press that always chides Apple for lacking a new “game changer” product like the iPhone, the single most successful product in history. Yet who needs another “game changer” product when AirPods make $10 billion annually, and the Apple Watch makes $12-14 billion? It’s the sum of the parts that define Apple’s success as a company, and the same goes with Ukraine’s war effort
Less than a hundred new tanks, no matter how powerfully Western they might be, aren’t going to change the trajectory of the war by themselves, not on a a front that spans thousands of kilometers. But they don’t need to be in the context of combined arms warfare. Combined arms warfare is when armor, infantry, artillery, engineering, electronic warfare, intelligence, and air power (both fixed-wing, helicopters, and as of now, drones) all combine for maximum effect.
Armor provides punch, but has low visibility and is exposed to infantry, mines, and aircraft. Infantry has all the visibility, but is exposed to artillery, other infantry, and lacks offensive punch. Artillery has tons of punch, but is exposed to counter-artillery fire and air attack. Air power is exposed to infantry with man-portable anti-air missiles, while drones can be downed by electronic warfare. Engineering can breach defenses (like trenches and minefields), but has no combat power and is exposed. Electronic warfare can disrupt the enemy’s guided weapons systems and blind radars and drones, but requires the sort of antenna and radar arrays that are prime targets for air attack and artillery.
Each one of these combo elements has strengths and weaknesses. Combined arms is designed to both amplify each branch’s strengths, while using complex choreography to mask each others’ weaknesses. It’s not easy to pull off and requires extensive and expensive maneuvers and drilling. Russia clearly never bothered. At the beginning of the war, they would send armor unsupported by infantry, making them easy pickings for Ukrainian forces with NLAWS and Javelins. Today, the closest they get to “combined arms” is laying waste to a defensive emplacement with artillery, then sending cannon fodder infantry forward to see if anything is left standing. If defenders remain, they resume the artillery barrage and try again, lather, rinse, repeat, until Ukrainian defenders are either all dead, or are forced to retreat from lack of cover.
For Russia, it’s proven effective to pick up tens of kilometers over months of attritional warfare. Ukraine has proven more adept, but less because of “combined arms,” and more because of smart battlefield decisions. Ukraine won the Battle of Kyiv by harassing Russia’s long supply lines and, simply, by resisting. Russia expected the “shock and awe” of the initial four-prong assault to destroy Ukraine’s resolve to fight. When that didn’t happen, Russia was forced to retreat from its northern axis.
Ukraine won the Battle of Kharkiv by goading Russia into moving the bulk of its army into Kherson, thus leaving Kharkiv essentially undefended. There was no need for “combined arms” to punch their way deep into Russian territory. They just needed speed.
Ukraine won the Battle of (north) Kherson by using HIMARS to take out the bridges supplying tens of thousands of Russian troops. While Russia attempted to supply by barge, it proved untenable, and they withdrew. That was a triumph of logistics. (And, yes, exhibit A on why HIMARS rocket artillery was literally a “game changer.”)
Now? Now the front line has been condensed to the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and Russia has scarred the land with a still-growing network of defenses (click on the link for an interactive map).
If you zoom in at the link above, you’ll see that entire cities in southeastern Ukraine have been literally surrounded in trenches. We’ve talked before about the importance of Polohy and Tokmak and other cities in Zaporizhzhia for any drive toward Melitopol. Look at what Ukraine would need to get through to reach Melitopol, thus cutting Russia’s “land bridge” from mainland Russia to Crimea:
Ukraine isn’t going to liberate any more territory through subterfuge and trickery (unless they find a way to move an entire army across the wide Dnipro river south of Kherson, and into Crimea). And they certainly aren’t going to do it with undisciplined charges. That’s what Russia is doing, and it’s costing them dearly around Bakhmut and Vuhledar.
So back to those Western tanks—their value isn’t that “oh, Ukraine has Western tanks.” It’s this:
The U.S. military's new, expanded combat training of Ukrainian forces began in Germany on Sunday [...]
The so-called combined arms training is aimed at honing the skills of the Ukrainian forces so they will be better prepared to launch an offensive or counter any surge in Russian attacks. They will learn how to better move and coordinate their company- and battalion-size units in battle, using combined artillery, armor and ground forces.
Speaking to two reporters traveling with him to Europe on Sunday, Milley said the complex training — combined with an array of new weapons, artillery, tanks and other vehicles heading to Ukraine — will be key to helping the country's forces take back territory that has been captured by Russia in the nearly 11-month-old war.
The United States is now teaching Ukrainian forces how to do combined arms training. While I wasn’t able to find any exact details of the training (likely for good reason), I’d wager that it’s not rank and file soldiers doing this training, but officers. It’s getting those tank, infantry, intelligence, engineering, electronic warfare, artillery, and air officers into a tent and learning complicated choreography. Here’s what it takes to breach a defensive position using combined arms:
If you can do that, you then don’t need hundreds of tanks to punch through one of those trench lines. You need a handful, the vanguard, supported by infantry, engineering, artillery, and air. So much as everyone is heralding the arrival of Western tanks, what was most exciting about the January 20th Ramstein contact group meeting of Ukraine’s allies was the mass of new artillery and armored infantry vehicles headed to Ukraine.
As a reminder:
In the first three weeks of 2023, the US announced it was sending 109 M2 Bradleys, likely the first in what should become a steady stream of these powerful IFVs, as well as 548 armored personnel carriers (APCs, lacking the bigger guns of an IFV)—100 M113s, 108 MRAPs, 90 Strykers, and 250 M1117 Guardians). The Pentagon is also sending 488 new Humvees. At over 1,000 vehicles, that’s a lot of protected mobility for Ukrainian infantry.
In addition, the United States is sending 18 M109 self-propelled howitzers, and 36 new 105 MM towed howitzers. Unlike the bigger and heavier M777s, these smaller howitzers can be towed by humvees, and are easier to set up and break down quickly—important for an army pushing quickly into enemy territory. Finally, the U.S. keeps sending hundreds of laser-guided Excalibur artillery shells. In the video above, they stress the importance of air power to take out enemy armor. Ukraine doesn’t have that, but Excaliburs are a great replacement.
Meanwhile, Germany and Sweden will be sending an additional 90 IFVs, the Brits are sending “hundreds” of Bulldogs APCs, and the French and Belgians are adding another 100 APCs or so. And, just as importantly, Norway, France, the UK, Germany, Estonia, and Sweden are sending over 100 new pieces of artillery. Estonia handed over everything it had. Sweden is sending the famed Archer—quite simply the most incredible artillery gun in the world—able to set up, fire three rounds, and take off before the first round has hit its target. (Watch the video, it’s quite amazing. Even the US Army is interested.) Ukraine will get 12 of Sweden’s total 48.
So back to tanks …
Poland has pledged an additional 60 T-72s and variants, as well as 14 Leopard 2s. There are 90 T-72s still being refurbished In Czechia for Ukraine, paid for by the U.S. and Netherlands. Poland, German, and Canada have pledged 42 Leopards, and Spain is hoping to send somewhere between 50-60 of them. Portugal will send a handful, the Dutch are looking to buy their 18 leased Leopard 2s from Germany so they can hand them over to Ukraine. Norway and Finland are also expected to send Leopards. So we’re talking at least 110 Leopards, and hopefully a dozen or two more.
In total, that’s at least 260 incoming tanks, not too shabby when supported by over 1,300 armored infantry vehicles and literally the most advanced artillery systems in the world. (We’ll just assume the 31 M1 Abrams tanks the U.S. sending later this year will be part of some future effort, like Crimea.)
Less sexy, but just as importantly, Germany and the U.S. have both been sending engineering equipment. Today, Germany announced a new aid package that included tractors and trailers, adding to previously sent “remote controlled vehicles for support tasks” (usually mine clearing), forklifts, and bridge layers. No one breaches Russian defenses without solid combat engineering.
All that’s left is air power, and there’s already talk in the Pentagon about sending F-16s. If it happens, put that into the “later in the war with the M1 Abrams.” Pilot training would take months, maintenance training even longer, and while this war is extremely expensive, air power is next-level expensive. An hour of F16 flight time costs $27,000. And while F16s would help protect Ukrainian airspace against cruise missiles and Russian aircraft (if they ever venture out from safe Russian airspace), it’s hard to see Ukraine establishing the kind of air superiority needed to provide direct ground support. If there is an “air” component to combined arms operations in the short- to mid-term, it’ll have to come from drones, and I bet Ukraine could pull it off effectively.
One final point—Mark Sumner noted yesterday that unseasonably warm temperatures have helped Ukraine and Europe weather the winter cold, but have also hampered the Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kreminna and Svatove in the northeast. That’s not likely to be alleviated anytime soon, as spring rains will keep things slushy and bogged down. But that's okay! Because Ukraine will need 3-5 months to learn to use this gear, train those units on newfangled combined arms tactics, and set up supply lines.
Perhaps that’s why Ukraine is happy to let Russia continue to smash its head against Bakhmut. There’s no denying that Russia continues to make incremental gains as it attempts to cut off the city’s supply lines. But in attritional terms, it works to Ukraine’s advantage. And given Bakhmut’s low strategic value, Ukraine can even afford to retreat if the situation ever warrants it.
In the meantime, Ukraine’s next vanguard can train in the UK and Germany.
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On this episode of The Downballot, don't miss a special double-guest episode. Hear from Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, as she discusses the group's efforts to roll back the corrupting effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and their plans for campaign finance reform. Then, law professor Quinn Yeargain joins to discuss the surprising setback Gov. Kathy Hochul faced in the state capitol and what it means for the future of New York's top court.