LONDON – At the beginning of the 21st century, military planners were thinking about the unthinkable – are tanks obsolete?
Drones, cyber warfare and other emerging technologies were seen as the weapons of the future. As recently as 2020, some defense chiefs were of the opinion that Britain should mothball its tanks entirely.
But as 2023 dawns, and Ukraine contemplates a key spring offensive against Russia that could prove decisive in its fight for survival, Kyiv is preparing to turn again to traditional ground-army equipment from 20th-century warfare.
Ukrainian military commanders want hundreds of Western tanks for the next phase of the war, desperate to counter Moscow’s forces and break through trench lines in places like Lukhansk and the Zaporozhye region.
After months of pushback, NATO allies are beginning to see the wisdom of the strategy, with the US, France and Britain pledging armored vehicles for the first time in recent weeks.
It’s a reminder that despite the high technological sophistication of modern warfare, sheer force on the ground still counts.
Speaking in Britain’s House of Commons on Monday, senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin said the conflict in Ukraine had exposed those “fashionable commentators who decry the idea that modern battle tanks are of any use in modern warfare”.
“Ukraine has shown that armor is important,” agreed British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
Kyiv argues that the few vehicles deployed so far by Western allies must be just the beginning, and is pushing for between 200 and 300 tanks, 600 armored infantry vehicles as well as 500 howitzers, cannon-like weapons.
“We have to take the initiative,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defense minister of Ukraine and a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Arms support will give us such an opportunity.”
The Ukrainian military already uses Soviet-era tanks donated by Eastern European allies or captured from Russian occupiers. But the Western models longed for by its leaders would offer a step up in capabilities ahead of a potential escalation of hostilities in the spring.
“Mobility is key in offensive warfare,” said a diplomat from an EU country considering donating a number of modern battle tanks.
“If Ukraine is going to have any chance of going on the offensive, they need some mobility with heavy weapons — it’s not enough to just have military Land Rovers or armored patrol vehicles. They need something that can actually destroy Russian tanks at a distance.”
Ukraine’s flat territory makes it an ideal scenario for roaming tanks, experts say, and Kiev needs tanks to retake fortified positions in key cities along the front line.
“Ukraine will struggle to launch a second counter-offensive without major forces,” said Anthony King, a professor of war studies at the University of Warwick in the UK.
Ukrainian officials fear that the US HIMARS multiple rocket systems, which destroyed Russian forces during counteroffensive operations last fall, will prove less effective this time as their enemy has moved further to avoid being hit – making tanks more necessary than before.
Global pressure on HIMARS supplies could also start to bite this year, King warned.
“From all evidence, they’re not going to have that much long-range precision artillery anymore,” King said. “So you need more melee power – ie tanks and combat vehicles – to make up the difference.”
Leading the way
Talks among NATO allies are accelerating after France’s announcement that it will present AMX-10 RC light battle tanks to Kyiv in two months. Over the weekend, Great Britain confirmed plans to send British-made Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Western governments could make further commitments ahead of a meeting of allied defense ministers this Friday at the US military base Ramstein in southwest Germany.
EU member states from the Baltic and Central European regions hope that a series of individual pledges will put pressure on Germany to allow other countries to export German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
“Ukrainians will not be particularly worried about where they will go [tanks] they are coming, provided they come in sufficient quantity,” said a Western official.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian officials are well aware of the significant differences between the models they could get from the West.
America’s M1 Abrams tanks have a long range, but pose a refueling problem for war-torn Ukraine because their large gas turbine engines use large amounts of kerosene.
And while Britain’s Challenger 2 would be a significant improvement on the Soviet-era tanks currently in use by Ukrainian forces, they are no match for Germany’s Leopard 2, which can hit a refrigerator-sized target at a distance of 3 kilometers. while in motion. They run on diesel fuel, which is easier to get than kerosene.
German officials say the final decision to send the Leopard 2 tanks will depend largely on what the US decides to do, and insist the allies need a proper plan to train Ukrainian forces on their operation and maintenance. This would prove easier if more countries were involved.
Poland and Finland have expressed their willingness to send Leopard 2 tanks, but they have to wait for the green light from Germany. Helsinki made it clear last week that it could send a small amount if other countries agreed to a collective approach.
Berlin may also donate a number of older Leopard 1 tanks, which first entered service in 1965 but are currently in storage, according to two diplomats from two other EU countries.
All countries plan to gradually deliver their tanks to meet the need to train Ukrainian forces to use them and build the supply chains needed to sustain them.
Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said Ukrainian soldiers could be ready to operate Western tanks “in weeks, not months” and called on allies to immediately begin training Ukrainian soldiers on a range of possible new equipment.
“The sooner we start training, the more time we’ll save – because the way it’s worked so far, sooner or later, whatever kind of weapon we asked for, we got it,” he said.