NATO standard tanks such as the British Challenger 2, the German Leopard 2, from the 2A5 version onward, and the American Abrams in its M1A2 model, outclass most Russian platforms currently in Ukraine – except, perhaps, the T-90M. They possess improved protection and survivability, better battle-management systems, and superior fire control.
If the announced numbers (around 120-140) and models are confirmed, Ukraine should be able to deploy at least three new heavy brigades with qualitatively superior tanks. This would give Ukrainian tankers key advantages against enemy armored units, especially in a phase in which older Ukrainian T-64s and T-72s are struggling against Russia’s more capable T-90M and upgraded T-72B Obr.2022 tanks now pouring into the country in large quantities. Western allies’ decision to send tanks also confirms, once again, the latter’s continued relevance in today’s warfare, despite a plethora of analyses and comments hastily heralding the tank’s demise.
But for all the fanfare, they are not a wonder weapon and cannot decide the conflict alone, any more than the Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, or other weapons systems.
To begin with, managing the logistics of three different tanks will be an enormous challenge for the Ukrainian military and will require a complex set of combat engineering forces and logistic capabilities, as well as steady assistance from Western allies. Repair support initiatives, for instance, are already in place in neighboring countries such as Poland and other eastern European states.
Secondly, while it is true that most Western tanks are superior, so far tank-on-tank engagements appear the exception rather than the rule. The popular image of large, armored formations taking on their enemy counterparts does not match the current situation in Zaporizhzhia or the Donbas, where lines are static and threats mostly emanate from concealed anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), artillery, and loitering munitions. In this context of attrition, tanks on both sides are hardly used to their full potential and become easy targets or, sometimes, surrogate artillery.
This operational complexity will increase exponentially in offensive operations against well-entrenched Russian forces, making superior training even more important. Highly skilled crews make the real difference in the use of sophisticated tanks, often more than the tank’s specifications themselves, but it takes longer to instruct them. For this reason, the sooner Ukrainians start to train and familiarize themselves with Western platforms, the better, and they must also consider the possible doctrinal and organizational implications. Both Western allies and Ukrainian authorities seem to understand this.
The current sensationalism on tanks, as with Javelins, drones, and HIMARS in past months, derives from two interconnected dynamics. The first is an incomplete portrayal of the war from a constant but incomplete flow of information emerging from the frontlines, which has over-emphasized the role of individual weapons. As Alexander Clarkson of King’s College, London pointed out: “Events on the battlefield are a product of a complex interplay between political, economic and technological processes”, the understanding of which requires “a willingness to reconsider and revise initial analytical assumptions as more evidence emerges over time”. War, therefore, cannot be reduced to the role of single weapon systems, whose impact is just a drop in an ocean of intertwined factors.
The second, more dangerous dynamic is the tendency, especially in the conventional debate, to consider war as a linear, monolithic phenomenon that is now easily predictable thanks to an unprecedented flow of information and open-source intelligence (OSINT.) As such, against the backdrop of Russia’s overall poor military performance and an imminent, huge delivery of heavy equipment to Ukraine, it now seems consequential to assume Russia’s inevitable defeat in the face of qualitatively superior tanks. But such assumptions are very dangerous, for they encourage underestimation of the adversary’ strength and limit our understanding of the conflict’s different phases.
While Russia is having enormous problems, it is also adapting and preparing for a protracted conflict. Despite multiple shortcomings, ranging from a lack of discipline and cumbersome logistics to sluggish command and control (C2) and inadequate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), Russian forces have stabilized a vast front, entrenched themselves, and increased the attrition for Ukrainian units, especially in the Donbas.
Major logistical flows and C2 centers have been moved from the reach of Ukrainian HIMARS and long-range precision fires, while the injection of fresh recruits, including Wagner private military contractors, has put new pressure on Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut, although at an enormous human cost. Russia also retains a substantial advantage in both manpower and equipment, potentially enough to embark on a new large-scale offensive to reverse the current situation.
NATO’s statements on the recent mobilization of Russia’s mobilization of at least 200,000 soldiers and the preparation of new ammunition stocks and equipment seem to corroborate this. At the same time, Russia has managed to circumvent Western sanctions, and continues to buy critical components for its defense industry, while receiving weapons from Iran and North Korea.
Russian forces have for months been fortifying defensive positions in the occupied eastern territories and replenishing personnel losses in anticipation of a new Ukrainian counteroffensive. For the latter to succeed, it will require complex combined arms operations, with mechanized infantry able to effectively maneuver and exploit breakthroughs while retaining decent protection. For this reason, as analyst Rob Lee observes, the delivery of large amounts of infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and armored personnel carriers (APC), such as the US-made Bradley or Swedish CV-90, maybe even have even greater cumulative effects on the battlefield than tanks. Recent pledges by Western allies are encouraging, and there should be more to come.
Furthermore, Ukraine needs longer-range precision weapons to strike deeper behind Russian lines and degrade its C2 complex, logistic nodes, ammunition depots, and reserve forces within Ukraine’s international borders. This will be essential to deny momentum for a potential Russian offensive in the coming months, but also to prepare the ground for offensive operations. The US-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which has a range of up to 300km (186 miles) and has long been among Kyiv’s requests, although the Biden administration has refused this. Instead, the less powerful Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb with a range of 150km, recently proposed by Boeing and deployable through the HIMARS, seems likely to be approved shortly to provide this capability.
Other key systems include short and medium-range mobile air defense complexes, including anti-aircraft guns, and C-UAS systems to protect forward Ukrainian units, tackle enemy UAS and loitering munitions, and make it harder for Russian aircraft to maintain local air superiority in the Donbas. At the same time, the Ukrainian air force would also be fundamental to protecting Ukrainian maneuver formations and should receive new aircraft to do its job. Besides operational advantages and disadvantages, supplying western fighter jets such as the F-16 remains a long-term solution given the extensive training required. Conversely, modernized Mig-29s, which Ukraine already operates, appear the best stop-gap solution since they can be quickly delivered by allies such as Poland and Slovakia.
Equally important, Ukraine will need an unprecedented amount of ammunition, both for its artillery and armored forces, to sustain a potential counteroffensive or repel a new Russian onslaught. As Ukraine gradually integrates more Western platforms, ammunition requirements, and demands must be carefully reassessed for the long haul. While this brings the Ukrainian military even closer to NATO standards, it also creates a logistical headache. In any case, Western countries should significantly ramp up the production of ammunition to support Kyiv — including through partnership agreements with Ukrainian companies — and restock their national reserves.
This is now happening, as can be seen from the recent US decision to boost 155mm shell manufacture sixfold within two years, and the decision by European allies to increase ammunition production capacity, including Soviet calibers.
It is unthinkable that the West should allow Ukraine to be defeated. But to defend Europe and its values, the West must provide all the heavy weapons the country needs to win.
Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Political Analysis (CEPA), NATO 2030 Global Fellow, and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His main research interests include security and defense dynamics, transatlantic security relations, and the impact of new technologies on warfare.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.