- Last week, a senior U.S. official stated that advanced tanks are “on the table” for Ukraine.
- The statement is a major change of policy, buoyed by Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the east.
- Tanks like the American M1 Abrams appear likely—as long as Ukrainian forces prove the ability to operate and maintain them.
For the first time, U.S. officials stated last week that advanced, Western-style tanks are “absolutely on the table” for Ukraine. The statement is a reversal of policy that meant mostly defensive weapons would be provided to the beleaguered Eastern European country, now in its seventh month warding off a Russian invasion. Modern tanks, like the American M1 Abrams, would allow Ukraine to take back most (if not all) of its territory lost to Russian forces.
In a discussion on September 19 with Pentagon reporters, a reporter for NPR mentioned that a Ukrainian delegation had visited Washington D.C. and pushed for the U.S. government to provide tanks to Ukraine. A senior defense official replied that the Biden Administration was constantly looking at what Ukraine needed at that particular moment, and also what it would need further down the road. “Tanks are absolutely on the table along with other areas,” the unnamed official said.
Unlike the tanks already delivered, the official clearly hinted he or she was referring to Western-style tanks. This is a whole new level of aid, one that could provide Ukraine with some of the most lethal tanks in the world. The Pentagon is only contemplating such an escalation in aid due to Kyiv’s successful counteroffensive into Kharkiv and Kherson, which have freed more than 3,000 square miles of formerly occupied territory.
NATO countries have heaped billions of dollars of aid onto Ukraine, including approximately 300 main battle tanks. These tanks, procured from Poland, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, and Romania, are patterned on Soviet Cold War tanks, especially the T-72 series of main battle tanks. Ukrainian and Russian tanks are also patterned on the T-72 series, and to a lesser extent, the similar (but gas turbine-powered) T-80. This has allowed Ukrainian tankers and maintenance crews to quickly familiarize themselves with the donated tanks, pressing them into service faster.
How Western Tanks Could Upend the Battlefield
There are some problems with the tanks provided so far. For one, they are largely obsolete by modern standards, though some—like the Polish PT-91 Twardy and the Romanian-provided T-55S—have seen modest improvements in firepower, fire control, sensors, and mobility. Second, the shared engineering DNA means that NATO’s T-72s, like Russia’s frontline T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks, have the same engineering tradeoff that means a penetration of the turret tends to send it hurtling some distance, with catastrophic consequences for the crew.
Modern NATO-style tanks, which the Pentagon was clearly referring to, are decades more advanced than most tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield (the lone exception being a handful of Russian T-90M tanks.) NATO primarily fields the American M1A2 Abrams series of main battle tanks and German Leopard 2 tanks. These tanks include 120-millimeter main guns; advanced fire control and passive infrared night vision; and better engines, transmissions, and suspension systems. NATO tanks are faster, much more efficient killers than Ukraine’s existing tanks.
All of that capability comes at a cost though, and not all of that cost is financial. Western tanks are complex fighting machines, and although an American and a Russian tank are designed to do the same thing—provide decisive firepower and mobility on the battlefield— they are fundamentally different from the ground up. Despite the differences, the abrupt shift would well be worth it, because NATO tanks are decisively superior to Russian tanks, and their presence would be an earthquake on the Ukrainian battlefield.
The Trouble With Operating NATO Tanks
Ukrainian tankers and tank maintainers, though they may have mastered their T-64 and T-64BM tanks, would have to relearn most tasks. They would also have to learn how to operate and repair a whole new level of electronics, including central computer systems, infrared sensors, ballistic computers, and digital communications equipment. It would take months to retrain even seasoned Ukrainian tank units with American tanks.
There are also logistical considerations: NATO tanks use 120-millimeter tank ammunition and 7.62-millimeter machine gun ammunition, incompatible with current Ukrainian tank ammo. The American M1A2 Abrams tank also uses a gas turbine engine, which would require regular shipments of gasoline fuel to the front. Finally, a shift to NATO equipment would make Ukraine reliant on NATO for supplies, giving NATO a veto on Ukraine’s military actions. If NATO felt that Ukraine’s liberation of the Crimean peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014, was too provocative, it could threaten to withhold supplies. That said, shipments of howitzers, drones, rockets, missiles, and other equipment over the last seven months means that ship probably sailed a long time ago.
The Ukrainians have been here before, though. In June, the United States sent an initial shipment of four HIMARS rocket systems to Ukraine. The small consignment was both a response to an urgent request, but also a test to see if Ukraine would properly employ and maintain them. The Ukrainians used the first four rocket trucks to great effect, prompting the Pentagon to send 12 more.
Which Western Tanks Could We See in Ukraine?
Of the two main NATO types, the Leopard 2 appears out of the running. Germany’s ruling coalition has refused to provide modern, Western tanks, and even if another country decided to donate theirs, the Ukrainians would still be reliant on Germany for ammunition and spare parts. The United States would likely send the M1 Abrams tank. One option is to send older tanks, particularly the 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks recently retired by the U.S. Marine Corps. Another is to send more modern M1A2 tanks currently equipping U.S. Army and Army National Guard units. While this would leave American tankers sitting on their hands until replacements arrive, the argument is that the war is in Ukraine, and the tankers won’t have to fight Russian forces if the Ukrainians destroy them first.
The decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major shift in NATO strategy and could open the alliance up to providing more advanced Western equipment, including fighter jets, infantry fighting vehicles, and more. It could also force Russia, which has suffered heavily from the deployment of just a handful of rocket launchers, to the negotiating table. The success of Ukraine’s September offensive strongly suggests that a Ukrainian Army properly outfitted with modern NATO equipment would completely rout the Russian Army. For Russia, the choices could be leaving Ukraine of its own accord ... or facing annihilation.