UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Sorry, I’m late for my appointment. We had to stop for the missile launch.
News came on Thursday that U.S.-supplied Abrams M1 tanks may arrive in Ukraine sooner than expected. That’s because, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made clear, the U.S. is going to tap the existing stock of older M1A1 tanks rather than wait for new export models of the M1A2 tank to roll off the line. This means that Ukraine will be getting something less than the most up-to-date model, but they’ll be getting it much sooner.
Based on yesterday’s Pentagon briefing, the decision to go with sooner over better appears to have come from Ukraine. According to Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, “DoD, in close coordination with Ukraine, made the decision to buy the M1A1 variant which will enable us to significantly expedite delivery timelines, and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year.” The number of vehicles slated for delivery still seems to be 31. At least for now.
The M1A1 and M1A2 share the same 120mm gun and much of the same structure. Many of the additional armor packages designed for the A2 also work with the A1. Most of the differences between the two are actually internal, with the A2 having improved thermal sights and a new weapons station for the tank commander that includes its own thermal display. That allows the commander to identify and tag potential new targets even as the gunner is already working on an existing target. The A2 also has improved tracks, designed to last longer with fewer repairs. The final configuration of the tanks bound for Ukraine is unclear—there are a lot of options that still fall within the M1A1 family—but it looks like they will be in Ukraine later this year.
Incredible video and fantastic reporting from Quentin Sommerville at the BBC. This is on the southern front, about 25 km west of Vuhledar, near the town of Velyka Novosilka. The village they are looking into that’s split between Russian and Ukrainian forces is likely Neskuchne.
The area that’s covered in this video is a section of the battlefield that’s not considered to be particularly active, with lines that have been nearly static for some time. And still, the level of danger to which the these soldiers are exposed daily is way beyond daunting. The destruction of the front line towns, the rain of artillery, the constant threat from drones. It’s everywhere. Watch these young troops and realize that they—and hundreds of thousands like them—are out there every day.
The map below covers the area where this video was shot. It’s very flat terrain, with few serious obstacles other than streams that have been dammed to make small reservoirs. The ground here is sandier than that around Bakhmut, or up in Luhansk, and it’s easy to see that spring is at least a couple of weeks more advanced in this area. It’s also obvious that it's already possible to operate tanks and other armored vehicles away from paved roads in this area.
Some of that area to the east of Velyka Novosilka, along that major highway and along two lesser roads running to the north, had been previously occupied by Russia, It was liberated some weeks ago by the same unit featured in the BBC video, the 1st Separate Tank Brigade under Col. Leonid Khoda.
Based on some of the images from the video, I may need to shift the area of Russian control on this map some distance to the south. I’m waiting for those who are better at geolocation to nail down the coordinates for me.
Video this morning shows that Russia is also now deploying consumer first-person view (FPV) drones, piloted by operators wearing VR goggles, as kamikaze weapons on the front lines. First use appears to be a strike on a barn(?) in the village of Zalizne, west of Horlivka. This looks to be the previous generation DJI FPV drone fitted with what appears to be a contact bomb in a PVC housing. Russia claims it carries 2.5 kg of explosives. A second observation drone has the area under observation. Still, while editing makes it appear there is someone inside at the time of the explosion, it’s not clear whether this is the case, or that the open area at the end of the building is actually connected to the area where what appears to be an unarmed civilian is seen to enter.
The “low battery” warning that flashes through the video suggests that this location—about 3km from area of Russian control—represents roughly the upper range for this configuration. It’s unclear how many of these Russia has, or how consistent the design might be from one drone to the next.
Ukraine has been using such FPV drones very effectively, with skilled operators able to fly them right through the hatch of a tank of armored transport. They’ve developed standardized designs that allow an operator to fly one to destination, then move to another with the confidence of very similar performance. With a cost well below $1000 each, these drones make very inexpensive, and very precise, short-range “missiles.”
If you’ve never taken a close look, check out a video to see how precisely and skillfully these drones can be operated. These particular versions, weighted with explosives, are never going to be as quick and responsive as racing drones. How cheap can they get and still be incredibly capable? Really cheap.
The latest intelligence briefing from the U.K. ministry of defense shows another way in which it’s possible to see the Russian army engaged in autocannibalism.
According to the U.K. analysis, Russia is having to turn training for their own troops over to the “less capable” Belarusian army, because their own training instructors “have largely been deployed in Ukraine.” This is what is known as “eating the seed corn.”
But hey, who wouldn’t want their army trained by these highly skilled operatives?
If you haven’t already seen it, shortly after we rolled yesterday’s Update around the idea that Ukraine is looking at a counteroffensive centered on Bakhmut, Ukrainian commander of ground forces Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi began officially proclaiming that they would have … a counteroffensive centered in Bakhmut. Syrskyi declared that the Wagner-centered attacks on Bakhmut have “run out of steam” and that ...
"Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk.”
It hasn’t been difficult to pick up on the suggestions that Ukraine was planning a counterattack at Bakhmut. They’ve been dangling this lure for weeks, with Syrskyi perhaps the most vocal.
Which absolutely means that Ukraine is about to launch a counteroffensive in Bakhmut! Or that Ukraine is about to launch a counteroffensive anywhere but Bakhmut. Or that Ukraine is still preparing for a counteroffensive that won’t come for months.
The many claims that Ukraine is preparing to retake the area around Bakhmut certainly have everyone’s attention. Which means that part of the plan is certainly working. Whatever the plan may be.
Russian tank evolution is running in reverse.
You’re just in time for a cook-off!
It's just barely springtime in an off year, but there's been loads of election news lately, so co-hosts David Nir and David Beard have a super-sized roundup on this week's episode of The Downballot. The Davids recap the first round of voting in the race for Jacksonville mayor (which saw Democrats do unusually well) and the collapse of an effort to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell before turning to big batch of 2024 updates.
On tap for the Senate: The GOP's desperate effort to compete with Democratic fundraising enthusiasm by recruiting self-funders; why Republicans are afraid the guy who succeeded John Boehner in Congress will try to challenge Sherrod Brown; and how Democrats' plans to clear the field in Michigan may not succeed. Plus developments in the battle for New Hampshire's governorship, a key House seat in Wisconsin, and the saga of Tennessee's answer to George Santos.