Less than a month after Germany gave the green light to deliver its cutting-edge Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine, embattled Ukrainian troops are eager to deploy these formidable war machines in combat.
Until now, the Ukrainian Army has been using the Soviet-era tanks inherited from the collapse of the communist bloc. Ukrainian tank operators have often complained that the equipment is worn out and prone to frequent breakdowns and malfunctions.
Now that the Ukrainian soldiers have begun training on Leopard-2 tanks in Poland, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are “impatiently” awaiting the arrival of Western-style tanks in their country.
Recently, a Ukrainian commander named Igor, who commands a “tank squadron” in the Ukrainian Army, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais in an interview that his T-64 is “twice as old” as he was, badly worn out, and constantly breaking down.
Igor told the newspaper that the technical problems have severely curtailed the Army’s combat operations. He said that he was forced to repeatedly leave the battlefield instead of attacking Russian positions due to a malfunction of the undercarriage and constant jamming of the gun.
“My tank is over 50 years old. It is twice as old as me (…) I am waiting for the German Leopard tank to arrive so I can transfer to a reliable vehicle,” he said. Further, Ukraine reportedly lost almost half of the 800 tanks that it had in its inventory at the onset of the conflict in February 2022.
Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany will be able to deploy its first Leopard tanks to Ukraine very soon while calling on his NATO allies to prepare for a “long war.”
Besides the Leopard-2 tanks, the Ukrainian military is also set to receive the Abrams and the Challenger-2 tanks from the United States and Britain, respectively. However, Igor’s eagerness to finally have his squadron switch to western tanks may not happen soon.
The Ukrainian Army has been operating many Soviet-era tanks, including the T-64, the T-80, the T-84 (based on the T-80), and the T-72s that it received from other East European countries as aid. The country has also refurbished and deployed several tanks that were captured in combat.
The Ukrainian administration lobbied for weeks to secure a decision on the transfer of tanks by NATO countries. However, recent media reports suggest that Europe, armed with about 2,000 German Leopard tanks, cannot scrape together even two battalions of tanks for Ukraine.
Fewer Tanks Than Expected
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius claimed earlier this week that the western allies were encountering trouble in assembling two battalions of Leopard 2 tanks to deliver to Ukraine as promised in late January.
Pistorius noted that Germany and Portugal are the only two countries that have agreed to deploy the A6 variant of the Leopard 2 tanks, including 14 from Berlin and three from Lisbon. He declared that even with these tanks, “We will not reach the size of a battalion.”
For the typical Ukrainian battalion of 31, Poland has assembled roughly 30 units of the A4 type of Leopard 2. Still, many are in disarray and require repairs before they can be used. This essentially means that they will be delivered to Ukraine in April.
At the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was time for other countries to rise to the occasion and send their tanks to Ukraine as soon as possible.
Several NATO leaders lambasted Germany for posing an impediment by not approving the Leopard- 2 tanks as an aid to Kyiv, as a host of them queued to offer their main battle tanks.
Scholz said in a charged speech that commitment from other Leopard suppliers appears to have waned significantly since then. He told others at the conference that “all those who can supply battle tanks of this kind should now actually do so.”
The German Chancellor had announced at the end of last month that his country and its allies would immediately assemble two battalions of combat tanks for Ukraine, while the US promised to provide 31 M1 Abrams.
As per the German plan, two battalions, about 80 tanks, were initially intended for dispatch to Ukraine. However, the numbers have fallen grossly short now.
Scholz did not name any nations who had broken their word or were still on the fence about supplying Leopard tanks, but the German media has said this week that both Denmark and the Netherlands had said they would not be sending Leopard 2 tanks.
On February 14, Norway said it would donate eight of the vehicles and four “special purpose tanks,” with Canada agreeing to contribute four. According to reports, Spain has also offered four to six platforms.
It is noteworthy that several media reports and military experts have warned that a small number of western tanks would not prove to be a game changer in combat against Russia, significantly as the latter has intensified its ground offensive, allegedly to capture territories in the eastern Ukraine region.
A French publication Le Monde recently published an opinion piece in which author Pierre Grumberg argues that sending a small number of western tanks would present a logistical challenge to the overstretched Ukrainian military while also being difficult for the embattled troops to operate due to their complexity.
“Since the dawn of mankind, all wars have reminded us of the importance of standardizing weapons – a soldier facing a weapon he doesn’t know is no better than a chicken discovering a pair of scissors.”
Further, Grumberg also noted the challenges of integrating three different types of western tanks against Russia. He said it is challenging to merge the M1 and Challenger 2 for various reasons.
The former is a questionable option for an army with limited logistical resources due to its high fuel consumption (approximately 400 liters/100 kilometers in off-road circumstances, or a third more than a Leopard 2). Additionally, NATO ammunition made for smoothbore guns cannot be used in the Challenger 2 since it is equipped with 120-mm rifled cannon.
“Adding these machines to the Ukrainian arsenal makes little sense, and one wonders if they will ever leave their respective countries.”
On its part, the Russians are confident that they will easily obliterate these western tanks as soon as they are deployed. Some commanders of tank units have reportedly said that they were awaiting the deployment so they could destroy them.
With Ukraine faced with the problem of getting fewer tanks than promised by its allies in the coming weeks, Russian media is taking a jibe saying that Ukraine will, unfortunately, have to keep servicing and operating its old and ailing tanks.
“So a tanker named Igor, most likely, will have to continue to fight on an old T-64 until he is killed, or he finally falls apart,” a commentary in Russian media read.
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