Tank Supplies to UA — a Short Overview and Perspectives

Arguably, the main close support piece of hardware for ground troops in any high-intensity conflict is the main battle tank (MBT). The Western doctrine for decades now diminished the importance of MBT in modern combat in favor of “smart” munition: anti-tank missiles launched by ground troops and drones, the stand-off guided missiles, anti-tank submunitions etc. The “anti-terror” operations deemphasized the need for heavy armor, direct and sustained fire weaponry or cheap and massively available ammunition to be expended in thousands of tons per day. Smart ammunition requires orders of magnitudes less rounds fired to hit a target, allowing for much “lighter” forces, able to be easily and quickly moved between theaters of operation. Those are usually air-mobile expeditionary forces, designed to be used globally and require much lighter logistical efforts to support them. The last major land operation conducted by NATO militaries was the operation Desert Storm, in 1991, against the imploding (due to low morale and corruption) Iraqi Army. The other major reason, in my opinion, for the rise of popularity of “smart” forces is much higher profit margin for MICs, since the “smart” weaponry is produced in much fewer quantities, resulting in smaller workforce and production facilities, meaning much reduced operational costs. For example, the Israeli military complex is able to produce and export large volumes of high-tech weaponry, while its domestic industrial production capabilities are steadily declining decade over decade. Thus, a small design and production team can produce high-cost systems, given the global supply chains of (mainly) electronic components are accessible.

But in any high-intensity warfare in peer-to-peer (or peer-to-near-peer) conditions, the high-tech weaponry gets “cancelled” by various countermeasures. The Byraktar drones, which were intended to dismantle the Russian ground forces were quickly shot down, and what remains stays far away from the line of contact, only reserved for reconnaissance missions. Similarly, the most moder Russian air assets are hardly used, and even then to little degree of efficiency. This is especially true if the conflict if of large scale in space in time. The limited stocks of high-cost “smart” weaponry are being exhausted and the war becomes more low-tech as it proceeds. We saw it demonstrated perfectly in Ukrainian war, where both sides started with their best high-tech weaponry (Javelins, Stingers, Kinzhal, advanced drones), and now they are rolling back to their 60’s and 70’s stocks of weapon systems, due to high attrition and expenditures of more modern weaponry. (By the way, Soviet military planners understood this, and prepared backup, lower technology solutions for the event of war with NATO. In addition to vast stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, equipment, food etc, they also made emphasis on more reliable and less maintenance-intensive systems, reserve production facilities and so on. Almost all of it was embezzled, left to be stolen and vandalized, or just rotted away after the breakout of the USSR. Not to say things were perfect, but the only reason Russian Army is able to fight this proxy war against the Western globalist ambitions is because of the military legacy it inherited from the Soviet Union.)

While Russia has (still) the largest reserves of (mostly outdated and inoperable) main battle tanks, the West never produced similar amounts of heavy armor, and later was happy to sell it to third countries, given the fashion for new generations of “smart” weapons. Especially Europe countries, which saw the collapse of the Warsha Block and later the USSR from one hand, and remained under ever growing US military protection on the other.

Providing the UA with heavy armor is critical for enabling it to be able to hold its ground against Russian ground forces. The thousands of anti-tank missiles (Javelins etc.), tens of thousands of anti-tank grenade launchers (LAW, Karl Gustav etc.), the tens and hundreds of anti-tank stand-off missiles (Hellfire etc.) and anti-tank submunition ammo for multiple rocket launchers and artillery rounds, as well as mix of strike and suicide drones — all failed to neutralize the Russian heavy armor by itself. Russia still operates, restores and produces enough MBTs to be of a threat to the Ukrainian forces in offensive and defensive operations. This point becomes especially critical then planning and executing deep-maneuver heavy assault operations against fortified enemy.

Previously, West was searching for any available Eastern-block tanks to supply to UA. For example, Poland transferred more than 200 of its T-72 clones, with other Eastern-European countries providing hundreds T-72/T-55 types as well. Now, the last package of ~90 T-72 tanks is being repaired in Czechia before supplying them to UA. Those there purchased in 90’s from Belarus by Morrocco. While those countries still have some Soviet MBTs left, they cannot give it all before getting replacement tanks. For example, I believe Poland still has few hundreds of T-72 class tanks, and some amount of German Lelopard-2, but the newly ordered US and Korean tanks will take years to arrive. Until then, Poland can’t supply any more tanks to Ukraine in any significant numbers. By the way, the ~200 T-72 type tanks they already delivered, were compensated for by ~$200M discount on US M1 tanks, supplied from US reserves. Yet even the used M1 Abrams MBTs come at the much higher cost than $1M per unit. The newly build Western tanks are now reaching $10M per unit price tag, if the ammunition, supporting services and hardware to be included.

In this situation, the only way to continue replenishing the lost MBTs is to start supplying the Western-made tanks to Ukraine. What is interesting is how many of them the West is willing to supply. Poles officially announced they are willing to transfer one company of Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine, on condition that the rest of Leopard-2 operators will supply similar quantities as well. Polish armor company is 14 tanks, and the projected total numbers of donated Lelopard-2 is around 100. In addition, the British already talked about supplying 10 Challenger-2 MBTs. (France supplied some number of AMX-10RC light tanks, but those don’t count as MBTs — they may be good for support missions, but not for heavy assault or defense.) So, it seems EU can manage to find one hundred Leopard-2 in 2023 for Ukrainian war needs. US can potentially supply one or maybe even two hundred of Abrams tanks, but that also depends on US politics, namely the Congress, which is now fluctuating in random directions of globalists vs. conservatives fighting. And, judging by the number of IFV’s supplied, US isn’t eager at all to donate its limited (compared for its geopolitical appetite) numbers of M1 tanks.

So, let’s assume for the sake of argument some 200 Western tanks will made it into UA in the year 2023. Those numbers aren’t enough to provide heavy armor superiority for Ukrainian Military. At best, it will provide parity against Russian heavy armor. Now, the Russian industry and repair facilities are producing tens of T-90M tanks and probably hundreds of refurbished T-72 type tanks each few months. Exact numbers aren’t advertised, but it’s clear the production of heavy armor is ramping up, especially since the summer. The previous supplies of hundreds of Soviet MBTs have supported Ukrainian military enough to take advantage of collapsing Russian forces. The advance in Kharkov region and the continuing pressure in Kherson region allowed to overwhelm slim and exhausted Russian defenses and make significant gains in territory. I can only assume tanks played an important role there (even if not the most important). And they are playing an important role even now, especially in Donbass.

The traditionally viewed types of weaponry which was intended to neutralize heavy armor threat in modern warfare, turned out to be mostly ineffective. On the Russian side, the modern attack helicopters, the Ka-52 and the Mi-34 are kept away from the front lines by the enemy air-defence. The Ukrainian Bayraktar strike drones and the anti-tank missile systems didn’t prove to be the silver bullet many thought it will be. That is not to say they didn’t make a dent — they surely did. But the tank threat remains, long after the mainstream media have forgot about those drones and missiles, which it once hipped about so much.

The simple truth is, those Western tanks are only intended to replace the diminishing tank fleet of Ukrainian Army. They might have some edge in optics and fire-control systems, especially compared to less recent Soviet/Russian armor. But they will provide no clear upper hand in tank duels and their numbers are inadequate for the Ukrainian needs in this war. As with other weapon systems supplied, Western MBTs are the infusions, keeping the patient alive, but not actually making him any healthier or stronger. As usual, after the supply of tanks, the question of supplying ammunition for them will arise. 120-mm tank shells are probably as restricted in their availability in Western arsenals as the 155-mm artillery rounds or 220-mm MLRS rockets and missiles. If Ukraine or Eastern Europe still have 125-mm tank round available, they will be useless for the NATO-standard tank guns. And the British 120-mm rifled tank gun rounds are also incompatible with the German/US smoothbore ones. And, as always, the deciding factor will be the moral and competency of the crew members and their commanders, much more than some minor performance differences.

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