Does the decision to send Western tanks matter (i.e., will they make a difference?) 

Yes, Western tanks matter. Tanks in general could make a difference for Ukraine, but Western tanks in particular are more likely to make a difference as they can outperform their Russian counterparts. Tanks are the ultimate platform for maneuver in high-intensity combat. They provide the ability to defend or attack, hold ground or take back territory. They provide a combination of accurate firepower, protection, and speed that in sufficient numbers can break the current stalemate.  

The first two key questions for Ukraine will be how many and when? As of January 25, the number of Western tanks might be well over 100. Timing is critical. It will take time to prepare, ship, transfer, train (crews, leaders, and units), organize for combat, and rehearse for future operations. Only the latter two need to occur in Ukraine.  

The other critical question will be sustainability, which will be determined by the answers to several questions. For example, how well do these tanks (and recovery vehicles) perform in the harsh winter combat conditions expected? How well will logisticians be able to provide the ammunition, the right parts, and sufficient fuel where/when needed? Will donor nations provide the ammunition, lubricants, and parts in a timely manner? How well will crews and units be able to keep the various tanks operationally ready? Will there be major repair facilities with the tools and expert mechanics needed to return damaged tanks to the fight?  

These questions and more are certainly part of ongoing planning by allies and Ukraine.  

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What will they do with them (i.e., what sort of units will they form around them?) 

Ukrainian military commanders will have several options to consider. Given that US and Germany are sending mechanized Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and France is sending light tanks, Ukrainian commanders could employ tanks and IFVs in a pure tank, or combined arms formations.  

The number of tanks being discussed could be used to constitute three tank battalions and perhaps one or more combined arms battalions containing a single tank company and several mechanized infantry companies.   

Alternatively, tanks and IFVs could form tank-heavy or mechanized infantry-heavy combined arms battalions where either one or two tank companies are matched with one or two mechanized infantry companies in battalion formations. The numbers announced could support nine combined arms or pure tank/IFV battalions organized in three heavy brigades.  

Are they (Leopards, Challengers, and Abrams) better than what the Russians have? 

All three are better than what the Russians are currently using and significantly better than what Ukrainian forces currently have (including captured Russian tanks). For a good comparison see here.  

When might these units be ready for action? 

There are too many unknowns at this time to determine when the tanks will be ready for use by Ukrainian forces. Sending nations understand the urgency of getting these tanks and other combat vehicles into the fight. A conservative estimate is three months. But necessity is the mother of invention and the father of adaptation. Ukrainian logisticians, soldiers, and leaders will likely surprise us with their ability to gain sufficient expertise and integrate vehicles and crews into combat formations in record time. 

The numbers by country are relatively small and theoretically could be prepared for shipment in a few weeks. The US tanks could take a month or so longer. However, nations will need to send parts and tools, lubricants, perhaps heavy trailers, and recovery vehicles. They will need to send a variety of trainers for crews, leaders, mechanics, and logisticians. They may deploy assistant teams to nearby Poland to help in specialized repair and logistical planning.  

Donor nations and Ukraine will need to identify locations for individual, leader, and unit training. Ukraine will have to identify and move crews, cadres, mechanics, and logisticians. Quality individual, leader, and unit training will be critical for success and employment. Ideally, unit training will be up to battalion level, will simulate combat conditions, and will be combined arms in nature including infantry, artillery, engineers, and air defense. Once in Ukraine, concealed movement to the front, integration, and rehearsal prior to combat will be likely the final steps.  

Can they be maintained? 

As long as donor nations can guarantee the supply chain to get the right parts, lubricants, tools, and ammunition in the quantities and timeliness Ukraine forces need to sustain the various vehicles and arms being sent, I am confident Ukrainian leaders and soldiers will do the rest.  

The former will not be an easy task as tanks (like IFVs, artillery, and air defense equipment) have complex engines, communications, electronics, armaments, vision and navigation devices, range finders, and more. Leopard 2s may be easier to maintain than Challengers or Abrams, but they are all complex systems. There will be challenges no doubt.  

However, my money is on the Ukrainians who have surprised us time and again with their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and above all, their ability to learn, adapt, and improve under the harshest of conditions. 

Should Russian commanders be worried about the arrival of Western tanks? 

Yes. They are already worried by the prospects and so is the Russian leadership. We can expect both a full-blown propaganda campaign to downplay the significance of their arrival on the Ukrainian battlefield, and converse claims that it’s an unacceptable escalation on the part of Western countries and NATO, aiming to sow doubt among the least-convinced Western political factions.  

Skip Davis is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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