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A nation must think before it acts.
The decision by Western countries to send tanks to Ukraine is a welcome one, but tanks—at least in their current numbers—will not change the course of the war. Nevertheless, the decision represents increasing Western confidence in Ukraine, and an increasing tolerance for risk in supporting its effort to reverse Russia’s aggression.
Early in the war, Western countries were guided by two assumptions: that Ukraine would—probably sooner than later—succumb to Russia’s invasion, and that Western military assistance risked an escalation with Russia, which might easily spin out of control. These assumptions led the West to initially provide only simple, defensive weapons. US assistance, for example, consisted mostly of weapons of the kind the United States had provided prior to the war, such as Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank and Stinger air defense missiles.
After all, if Ukraine’s defeat was likely within weeks or even a couple of months, more complex and potent weapons systems made little sense. First, the time it takes to ship them to Ukraine and train Ukrainian crews to use them meant they might not arrive in time to affect the outcome of the war. Next, if Ukraine surrendered, these weapons would fall into Russian hands, increasing the Kremlin’s military capability and its access to and understanding of Western military technology. Finally, more potent offensive weapons were seen as risking an escalation with Russia.
From Javelin to Abrams: A Long and Winding Road
But as winter faded, spring arrived, and Ukraine still stood, Western calculations began to change about providing more advanced weapons. Russia changed its strategy, as well. Having failed to take Kyiv in the opening phase of the war, the Kremlin announced that it would refocus its efforts on “liberating” territory in eastern Ukraine. The concentration of Russian forces, command posts, and logistics nodes in eastern Ukraine provided juicy targets for long-range, precision artillery. But Ukraine had few systems that could do the job, so Western countries stepped in to provide them. The most visible and effective of these were the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Since Washington first announced the deployments of HIMARS to Ukraine in July 2022, the systems have had a devastating effect on Russian forces there. Their strikes on Russian command and logistics facilities were at least partly responsible for the failure of Russia’s announced offensive in eastern Ukraine.
By the fall, not only had Russian forces not advanced, they had lost significant territory to Ukrainian counterattacks. So Russian strategy changed again, as did the Ukrainian and Western effort to counter it. Having failed to defeat Ukraine’s military on the battlefield, Russia stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, especially energy infrastructure. The Kremlin seemed to be calculating that a long, cold, dark winter would increase the pressure on Ukraine to seek a negotiated end to the war on Russia’s terms. Russian ballistic missiles and “suicide drones” purchased from Iran rained down, but Ukraine’s resolve did not waiver despite the hardships its people were enduring.
Western countries began providing Ukraine with more capable air defense systems to counter Russian missiles and drones. The United States announced it would send eight National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) to Ukraine, with the first two arriving in November. In December, the United States signaled that it would also provide Ukraine a battery of Patriot air defense systems. NASAMS and Patriot are, respectively, medium- and long-range air defense weapons with the capability to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles, a capability previous air defense systems provided by the United States lacked.
As winter set in, the war evolved into a stalemate on the ground, with neither side able to make significant territorial gains. But Ukraine began warning of a renewed Russian offensive timed for the winter or early spring. It was in this context that Western countries began to consider providing armored vehicles to Ukraine. If the Russian offensive materialized, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and tanks could move quickly around the battlefield to shore up areas of pressure on Ukrainian lines or blunt any Russian breakthroughs. However, if the Russian offensive did not materialize or quickly lost steam, the same APCs and tanks could support a Ukrainian offensive. Used properly, tanks and APCs—but especially tanks—bring a combination of speed, armored protection, and devastating firepower to the battlefield that is difficult to defend against.
A tank has three main capabilities: its mobility, the protection it offers its crew, and its ability to acquire and accurately engage targets at long range. In all of these, the tanks on offer to Ukraine from its Western partners are superior to the tanks Russia is using there. While it has sent a few dozen newer model T-90 tanks to the war, most Russian tanks in Ukraine are T-72 variants. These are based on Soviet technology that is nearly fifty years old, making them no match for the M1A2 Abrams, the Challenger II, and the Leopard II, all of which Western countries have agreed to provide.
Can Russia Meet the Challenge of New Western Tanks?
Western sanctions are complicating Russia’s attempts to upgrade its T-72 fleet for the war in Ukraine. Parts for Russia’s most advanced tank sight, which it acquired through “not-quite-legal means” from a French supplier about ten years ago, are increasingly unavailable. So, the Kremlin is “upgrading” its tanks with less capable Russian-made sights that cut the range from four miles to two miles. Perhaps most troubling from the Kremlin’s standpoint, the T-72 and most other Russian tanks suffer from an ammunition storage design flaw, in which a hit almost anywhere in the turret causes the onboard ammunition to explode, instantly killing the crew and often tossing the turret dozens of meters into the air.
With at least 1,600 tanks already lost in Ukraine, the Russian military is faced with a dilemma. It can either deploy more of its most advanced tanks there, hollowing out its forces for other contingencies, or it can empty its warehouses of older model tanks in the hopes that enough of them will run to make a difference on the battlefield. Both choices come with problems. Russia only has about 600 of its advanced T-90 tanks, and only about 400 of those are serviceable. It has even fewer of its most advanced tank, the T-14 Armata, considered on par with the best tanks fielded by NATO militaries. Russia originally planned to buy 2,300 T-14s but has scaled that back to only 132. Several hundred advanced tanks would certainly make a difference in Ukraine but would leave Russia dangerously exposed elsewhere, especially along its Western flank bordering NATO countries.
Emptying warehouses of older tanks in long-term storage would also not be a panacea. While Russia has up to 10,000 tanks “moldering” in its storage sites, they are often in horrific shape. A main reason for this is a familiar one in Russia: corruption. Ukrainian military intelligence claims that only about 10 percent of the tanks in Russian warehouses are serviceable, noting that “optical devices and electronic containing precious metals were stolen from the combat vehicles,” some of which were “completely dismantled,” even lacking engines. Other sources confirm the impact of corruption on the capability of Russian tanks. In some destroyed Russian tanks, Ukrainian troops found that the explosive reactive armor designed to defeat attacks on the tank had been hollowed out, “with only some of the requisite components intact and no evidence that the relatively valuable explosives had ever been there.”
Quantity Has a Quality All its Own (So Do Tactics, Training, and Logistics)
Russia will struggle to adapt to the increased capability Western tanks will bring to Ukraine. But the tanks currently on offer—thirty-one US Abrams, fourteen UK Challengers, and fourteen German Leopards—will not turn the tide of the war. There are reports that France, Poland, and Canada will also provide tanks to Ukraine, although how many and when is unknown. For Western assistance to enable a Ukrainian military victory, four things must happen. First, Western countries would need to provide enough tanks to give Ukraine a devastating offensive punch. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has put this number at 300–500 tanks, far more than the fifty-eight currently on offer. Tanks are most effective when formed into battalions (thirty to forty tanks as Ukraine structures them) and brigades (ninety to 120 tanks). Zelensky’s number, which he certainly got from his military commanders, seems designed to allow Ukraine to form four new brigades of Western tanks, each composed of three battalions. Used properly, four new tank brigades would represent a ground offensive capability that could be decisive.
This brings us to the second thing required: for Ukraine to employ the new tanks in a way that maximizes their capabilities and minimizes their vulnerabilities. Modern maneuver warfare requires the integration of capabilities and systems, each of which is vulnerable on its own but devastating when used together. Tanks are most effective when they can move in open terrain that maximizes the effect of their speed and allows them to acquire and kill targets at long range. Moving on roads, through forests, or through built-up areas is inherently dangerous for a tank crew. In these environments, tanks need support from dismounted infantry, which can “clear” the area of enemy forces before the tanks pass. Tanks also need engineer support to breach obstacles and clear minefields, reconnaissance forces to their front and flanks, air defense support to protect them from attack from aircraft and drones, and on-call artillery or air support to deal with enemy forces outside the range of the tank’s main gun. With this support, tanks are the premier offensive ground weapon in any army’s inventory; without it, they are vulnerable to the devastating losses Russian tanks suffered early in the war.
Third, Western countries must train Ukrainian troops to operate their new tanks. The United States, United Kingdom, and Germany have said that they will begin this training right away, but it will probably take several months. The German and British tanks are coming from existing stocks and are expected to be in Ukraine by April. American tanks will be newly manufactured, and are not expected to arrive for many months, according to the White House. Ukrainian tank drivers, gunners, and commanders who are used to operating less-capable but fairly simple Soviet or Russian-made tanks will have to learn the intricacies of Western ones. In addition, whereas the tanks in Ukraine’s current inventory have an automatic loader, Western ones use a human loader, requiring Ukraine to assign and train an additional member for each tank crew.
Fourth, Ukraine must establish and maintain a logistical capability to support its new tanks. There is a reason US Army Gen. Omar Bradley noted, “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics.” As Russia found to its dismay early in the war, modern mechanized warfare is an incredibly challenging logistical undertaking. Tanks guzzle fuel at rates much higher than other ground vehicles—the Abrams, for example, averages 0.6 miles per gallon of fuel on the road and mileage is worse off-road—and consumes about 300 gallons of fuel every eight hours of operation.
Tanks also mount a large main gun and at least two machine guns of differing calibers, so their ammunition requirements are significant. The Abrams carries forty-two main gun rounds (each weighing forty to fifty lbs.), 1,000 rounds of ammunition for its heavy machine gun, and 10,800 rounds of ammunition for its light machine gun. Logistics units supporting tank units carry at least twice that amount of each type of ammunition for each tank they support. For a military that prioritizes logistics, hauling this amount of fuel, ammunition, and other supplies over long distances would be challenging but doable. But the Soviet military from which the Armed Forces of Ukraine descended prioritized “tooth” (weapons) over “tail” (logistics), with far fewer cargo and fuel trucks at every level than their Western counterparts.
As Western tanks begin arriving in Ukraine this spring, it will be tempting to expect immediate effects on the battlefield, especially since Russia will struggle to increase its own numbers of modern, reliable tanks. But until the number of Western tanks reaches into the hundreds, Ukrainians are trained to use them effectively as part of combined arms teams, and develop the capability to support them logistically, they will not be the game-changer that some expect.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the US Army War College, the Army, or the Department of Defense.
The author would like to thank US Army Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Chuck Reed for lending his decades of experience as a U.S. Army tanker in reviewing this article for accuracy. The author would also like to thank Col. (Ret.) Yuriy Tsurko and his colleagues from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who reviewed this article to confirm its accuracy on Ukrainian force structure.