Is this the week the war turned dramatically in Ukraine’s favour? To be sure, this was a defining moment, with a coalition of Western nations finally confirming their readiness to field newly built MBTs.
Germany has announced that it will send “Leopard 2” tanks, and the United States said it will send “M1 Abrams” tanks.
Both Britain and Poland have made concrete pledges, and other countries are expected to follow suit. Some commentators described the move as a potential “change agent”.
But is this really enough to stop the war?
Ben Barry, a senior researcher at the British International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the BBC that Western tanks would make a difference. But Barry, who also served as a former brigadier general in the British Army, also cautioned that the pledges made were unlikely to be decisive.
Tanks have proven to be a key component of modern warfare during offensive operations – breaking through enemy lines and reclaiming territory.
They provide mobile firepower, protection, shock and surprise, when used effectively. It can disrupt the enemy’s defenses if it is concentrated in numbers. But it also needs artillery support to weaken those defenses first, and then infantry support to regain ground.
History has shown that tanks alone do not win battles. The British first used hundreds of tanks in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 to end the stalemate in the war. They initially made great progress, but soon many of the tanks broke down, and a German counterattack turned the British gains into losses.
Tanks can also be used for defense. It was used in 1940 by the retreating British and French forces to halt the advance of the invasion, allowing the subsequent evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk.
But Ukraine has made it clear that it needs the weapons not only to stop a possible Russian offensive in the spring, but also to reclaim its territory—to initiate the offensive.
How can Ukraine use tanks as spearheads in the offensive?
It would not make sense for Ukraine to scatter its additional tanks across a front line of more than 1,000 km. Ukraine would need to concentrate its forces to penetrate the Russian defenses – perhaps between five and 20 km.
Former Royal Tank Regiment colonel Hamish de Bruton-Gordon says numbers matter for a breakthrough. He added that the armored brigade usually includes no less than 70 tanks, in an important offensive operation. So more than 100 western tanks can make a big difference.
And if Ukraine has more than that, it can try to launch simultaneous offensive operations in different places, as it did last year in the north and south.
And there is the additional support needed for what the military calls a “joint arms exercise.”
Not only will Britain send 14 “Challenger” tanks, but it will also send 30 self-propelled vehicles and armored vehicles to transport and protect troops.
The new military support package includes mechanisms for breaching mines and building bridges. In other words, the basic elements needed to carry out any offensive operation.
The United States will supply Ukraine with more than 100 Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles. In addition to the tanks, Germany will provide 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
Tanks serve as spearheads and are designed to move quickly across open terrain. The Challenger 2, Leopard 2, and M1 Abrams tanks are faster than most Russian-made tanks, at more than 40 km per hour, in rough terrain.
In order to quickly seize territory, amidst no element of surprise, they would likely avoid urban areas where they would be most vulnerable to attack. Russia showed early in the war, in its failed attempt to surround Kyiv, that a long line of armored vehicles on the road was an easy target.
Researcher Ben Bari says that any attack with a spearhead will search for the enemy’s weaknesses. But he also warned that Russia had spent the past few months strengthening its defensive positions by digging trenches and setting up tank traps.
Western tanks weigh about 20 tons more than their Russian counterparts. The extra armor provides better protection, but it also means that the tanks may be too heavy to cross some temporary bridges. Both Russia and Ukraine have blown up bridges to slow progress.
Sudden attacks at night
Colonel de Bruton-Gordon, who previously commanded the British Challenger tank squadron, says that one of the important advantages of Western-made tanks is their ability to fight at night.
Night sights and a thermal imaging camera are standard. Only advanced Russian tanks, such as the T-90, are equipped to fight at night. Attacks under the cover of darkness add to the element of shock and surprise.
The biggest challenge for Ukraine will be logistics – keeping fuel, ammunition and spare parts flowing. Not only will Ukraine have to preserve its old Soviet-era arsenal, but it will also have to worry about an increasingly sophisticated stockpile of weapons being sent by the West.
For example, the British Challenger 2 tanks used by NATO such as the Leopard and Abrams are not used. Production of Challenger 2 tanks has been discontinued, and even the British Army has had to cannibalize some spare parts from its existing fleet.
And Barry says Ukrainian engineers may be familiar with repairing diesel engines – like those found in the Leopard and Challenger. But he says that the US-made Abrams tanks are powered by a more complex gas turbine engine, and consume twice as much fuel as the German Leopard.
In the event that Western commitments are confirmed, Ukrainian forces will be reinforced by more than 100 tanks. This will remain much less than what was requested by the commander of the Ukrainian army.
Brigadier General Valery Zaluzhny said in October that Ukraine needed 300 additional tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles, and 500 Howitzers to carry out its offensive plan this year. And you might end up getting only half of that.
Training on these weapons will take weeks and may take months. It is still not clear when all this equipment will arrive.
The United States indicated that the 31 M1 Abrams tanks may not be ready for months. Ukraine is awaiting a response from the West regarding its repeated request for modern combat aircraft.
Ukrainian officials hope Ukraine can launch an offensive as early as this spring. They believe there is a window of opportunity as Russia struggles to recruit and rebuild its crumbling forces, and to replenish its dwindling supplies of ammunition.
Ukraine has proven the doubters of the past wrong – but it still needs more Western support to achieve its goal of expelling Russian forces.