25 January 2023

Free the Leopard? Why a German battle tank is now at the top of Ukraine’s weapons wish list

Joshua Keating

Early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Russian army was losing an average of ten tanks per day, military experts debated whether the bulky armored behemoths that have been a fixture of warfare since World War I still had a place on the modern battlefield. The columns of damaged or destroyed tanks in Ukraine seemed to suggest otherwise. But if the tank is obsolete, no one has told the Ukrainians, who are pleading with their Western allies for hundreds of them in order to turn the tide on the battlefield and retake Ukrainian territory.

Those pleas were a key subject of Friday’s NATO defense meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where defense ministers and military commanders gathered to discuss the state of the war and NATO’s assistance.

NATO should send tanks to Ukraine “as soon as possible,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said in advance of the meeting. And in his opening remarks at Ramstein Friday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “We’re starting a new year with renewed resolve to support the brave defenders of Ukraine. ... This is not a moment to slow down.”

For nearly a year, the U.S. and its NATO allies have resisted sending heavy tanks to the Ukrainians, but now that resistance is starting to wane. In a major development this week, the United Kingdom made the first move, pledging to send 14 of its Challenger 2s. Much of the attention now is on the possibility that German-made Leopard battle tanks — which several countries in the alliance use — may be offered to Ukraine. The hope among Ukrainians and their supporters is that the British move will pressure other countries to follow suit.

But at the Ramstein meeting, there was no deal.

“There is no unified consensus,” newly minted German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters. Zelenskyy himself, addressing the gathering remotely, said, “Hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks. … I cannot use words instead of guns.”

Aside from battle tanks, a number of countries are sending Ukraine a variety of sophisticated armored fighting vehicles and mobile artillery — again, having refused for various reasons to do so until now.

What difference might these armored vehicles make on the battlefield? Will they be enough to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favor in the months ahead? And if not, what will?
Why tanks?

Dan Grazier, a retired Marine Corps captain who served in tank units in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a defense policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, summed up what tanks bring to the battlefield as “armor-protected firepower that can be used at standoff ranges.” A modern battle tank like America’s Abrams, Germany’s Leopard or France’s Leclerc can hit targets as far as 3,500 yards away, move quickly and absorb all but the most powerful enemy fire. This combination of power, mobility and protection makes the battle tank vital for breaking through enemy lines and taking on the toughest targets.

Grazier says the heavy Russian losses early in the war had more to do with the military’s logistical hang-ups and failure to use terrain to its advantage than problems with the tanks themselves. “Just because the Russians suck at deploying tanks doesn’t mean their day is over,” he told Grid.

For all of Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, further gains are likely to require a lot more time, bloodshed and — crucially — heavy armor.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Grid that he sees Ukraine’s need for tanks in the context of a potential spring offensive.

“I think Ukraine’s general staff has figured out that they can pretty much stop the Russians with what they already have, as we’re seeing in Bakhmut‚” he said, referring to the eastern city where Ukrainians have held out against successive waves for months. “So they may be using the next three months to build up an armored force that would be the spearhead of an attack in the springtime.” Hodges believes such an attack would likely target cities in areas of southern Ukraine around Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol in order to sever the “land bridge” between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula. Armored vehicles, he said, “give you a punching power, with protected mobile firepower, that can that move through defenses, especially if we’re talking about trenches.”

One reason why tanks have gotten relatively little discussion in the war so far, compared to other weapons systems, is that Ukraine had a fair amount of them to begin with. Its domestic arms industry had been producing an updated version of the Soviet-era T-64 tank to replace those damaged during the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine entered this war with about 800 heavy battle tanks. But the Ukrainians, like the Russians, have suffered heavy losses in this war. According to the open source research group Oryx, the Ukrainians have lost around 449 battle tanks, counting those that have been destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured.

Now, as Ukraine prepares for a phase of the war that may include not just holding the Russians at bay but recapturing heavily fortified Russian-held areas, it needs more armor, and preferably the superior NATO models.

Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, told the Economist in December that just to “get to the lines of Feb. 23” — in other words, to retake the territory Ukraine held prior to the Russian invasion — he would need 300 tanks as well as 600 to 700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers. Getting back to the 2014 lines — retaking Crimea and all of the Donbas, that is — would presumably take even more armor. This task will only get more difficult in the coming months, as more of the 300,000 Russians mobilized into the military last year arrive on the battlefield. Some Western analysts believe yet another mobilization could be ordered in the coming days.
When is a tank not a tank?

Members of the military often express exasperation or amusement at civilians’ tendency to label any armored fighting vehicle a “tank.” So-called main battle tanks like America’s Abrams or Germany’s Leopard are distinct from infantry fighting vehicles like America’s Bradley or Germany’s Marder, which are designed mainly for troop transport — and, confusingly, are sometimes referred to as “light tanks.” They are also distinct from self-propelled howitzers like the American Paladin, which fires from long distances and are not designed for close-quarters combat.

As Zaluzhny’s comment indicated, Ukraine would like to have all of these systems right now, but only some have been forthcoming. France has pledged to send Ukraine some of its AMX-10 armored fighting vehicles, Germany is sending around 40 Marders and a new U.S. aid package announced this week includes 59 Stryker and 90 Bradley fighting vehicles. But still no battle tanks, other than those already pledged by the U.K.

The lobbying effort for these war machines has become intense — and in some cases, creative. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry put out a tongue-in-cheek video last week, parodying American truck commercials from the 1990s and suggesting the U.S. reclassify the Abrams as a “recreational utility vehicle.” And with all the focus on Germany and its Leopard II battle tanks, “Free the leopards” has become a Twitter rallying cry.

Why the Leopard matters

Germany’s entire defense policy has undergone a radical shift since the war began. The country that until recently had a policy of not sending any lethal aid into war zones is now the third largest provider of military aid to Ukraine, including howitzers, anti-aircraft systems and air defense capabilities.

The Leopard is getting all the attention not because it’s significantly better than any other tank — experts say most of the modern Western tank systems are broadly similar — but because there are a lot of them in close proximity to Ukraine. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are around 2,000 Leopard battle tanks currently held by 13 of the continent’s armies. And unlike the Challenger and the Leclerc, new Leopards are still being produced.

“It is the European tank,” Rafael Loss, a German defense analyst at the ECFR, told Grid. “So if you bring together a large enough coalition of countries that have Leopards in their stockpiles, it will bite less for the readiness of those countries’ armed forces. It also means you can spread out the drawdowns for ammunition and spare parts.”

The catch here is that all those countries require Germany’s approval to reexport the Leopards to Ukraine, and the Germans have yet to agree. In a sign of the strain the issue is putting on the Western alliance, the Polish government is reportedly considering exporting them without Germany’s permission.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has insisted on a “calm, well-considered and careful” process for approving military aid, done in close coordination with allies. His government has also linked its Leopards decision to the Biden administration’s willingness to send Ukraine its own Abrams tanks. At a press conference on Tuesday in Washington with British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised London’s decision to provide tanks. But when asked if the U.S. would follow suit, he deferred, saying, “we have continuously provided what Ukraine needs. And we’re doing it in a way to make sure that it’s responsive to what’s actually happening on the battlefield.”

What’s the holdup?

Tanks are, by their very nature, a provocation and a signal of a major military commitment.

“The symbolism of battle tanks cannot be overstated. I don’t think there’s any better symbol of a country’s military power,” said Grazier. This isn’t the first time the U.S. has been reluctant to deploy them. The United States didn’t send tanks to Afghanistan, for instance, until the 2011 “surge,” at which point the U.S. had already been fighting there for a decade.

For Germany there are other considerations. “Germany’s own history and German atrocities committed during the Second World War always play a role in public debates here,” said Loss. “The image of German-produced tanks going toe-to-toe again, after 80 years, with Russian tanks in Ukraine is something that a lot of people seem to struggle with.” Loss and other advocates of their deployment see this as a misplaced analogy when it comes to a war involving a “democratically elected government trying to defend its sovereign territory.”

Throughout the war, Ukraine’s Western backers have sought to balance the desire to help it beat back the invasion with concerns about escalating the conflict into an all-out potentially nuclear exchange between Russia and the West. But given how many weapons the west has already provided Ukraine, it’s hard to see how tanks would cross any red lines.

“The Russians will complain like they always complain, but it’s no more ‘escalatory’ than HIMARS,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the rocket launcher system the U.S. began providing to Ukraine last summer.

The bigger concerns about tanks might be practical. Given the rate at which tanks have been destroyed in Ukraine, Washington and Berlin may also be keeping an eye on their own stockpiles. And while modern tanks are formidable weapons on the battlefield, an enormous logistical effort is required to keep them fueled and in working order. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine, recently told the Associated Press that while the U.S. agrees that Ukraine needs heavy fighting vehicles, “we know that the Abrams tank, in addition to being a gas guzzler, is quite challenging to maintain.”

Hodges was skeptical of this explanation. “The Ukrainians have demonstrated time and time again that they can learn how to use anything in about one third the time the rest of us can,” he said. “They can figure out the fuel thing.”
The last taboo

From a Ukrainian perspective, these are excuses and ones they’ve heard in previous debates about other asks they’ve made for artillery and advanced air defense systems. They say these debates waste valuable time while Ukrainian lives are being lost. Referring specifically to Germany, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed frustration in a recent interview: “It’s always a similar pattern: First they say ‘no,’ then they fiercely defend their decision, only to say ‘yes’ in the end,” he said. “We are still trying to understand why the German government is doing this to itself.”

When it comes to aid for Ukraine, ECFR’s Loss said, “There aren’t that many more taboos we can get hung up on. The heavy tank debate is one of the last ones.” (A few more “taboos” still linger: long-range missiles like the ATACMS, fighter jets and advanced combat drones.)

It’s understandable that these debates take on enormous emotional urgency against the backdrop of Russian strikes that can kill dozens of Ukrainian civilians at a time. But Cancian cautions against putting too much emphasis on any one weapons system.

“The important thing is to keep up the general level of support across the board. We’re building this thing piece by piece,” he said. “A lot of people are hoping there will be a silver bullet, that if we send HIMARS, Patriots or tanks it will be a game changer. That’s not going to happen.”

This article has been updated. Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.

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