Ukraine got the top tanks it wanted from the West, but they're not yet changing the game

  • Ukraine got the Leopard, Challenger, and Abrams tanks it asked its Western partners for.

  • But the systems haven't yet been game-changers for Ukraine.

  • It's up to Ukraine to either use the tanks to defend against Russian offensives or preserve them for next spring, experts told Business Insider.

Now, almost two years into the war, Ukraine has a force of advanced Western tanks at its disposal.

But those tanks — German-provided Leopards, UK-sent Challengers, and American-made Abrams — haven't exactly been silver bullets so far, and now it's up to Ukraine how to employ its limited arsenal best as winter comes, its counteroffensive operations slow, and Russian offensives pick up.

"I think the tanks will be useful for defense," Seth G. Jones, senior vice president, Harold Brown chair, and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Business Insider.

"The Russians are highly likely to go on offense again sooner rather than later, and the tanks, some of the standoff systems that the Ukrainians have, will be useful for pushing back against Russian advances," he said.

Leopards and Challengers arrived earlier this year and were part of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. But these tanks, along with Ukraine's other Soviet-era battalions and various armored vehicles, ran into trouble against extensive Russian defenses, including artillery-covered minefields, anti-tank ditches, and dragon's teeth that forced Ukrainian forces to push forward on foot.

There's also wasn't much tank-on-tank fighting in the war, preventing Ukraine from employing its armor in a way in which it might be particularly useful.

Those challenges raised concerns about how best to use the tanks, and now with winter coming, there's a question of whether to conserve them for a potential future counteroffensive or put them in the field to bolster defenses.

Gian Gentile, the associate director of RAND's Arroyo Center and a retired US Army officer with experience on the Abrams, told Business Insider it's possible Ukraine keeps "most of them in reserve perhaps along with other mechanized and motorized vehicles for a likely upcoming counteroffensive this coming year."

Soldiers fire the main gun of an M1A2 Abrams tank during an exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., Jan. 30, 2020.
Soldiers fire the main gun of an M1A2 Abrams tank during an exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., Jan. 30, 2020.Army Staff Sgt. Austin Berner

Ukraine began the war with a sizable but aging force of Soviet tanks, including the T-64 and T-72. Russia also uses these tanks, sometimes upgraded variants, as well as some newer systems like the T-80 or T-90. Some of Ukraine's tanks were domestically built, while others were kept after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine also managed to capture tanks during the earlier fighting in the Donbas and later, the full-scale war.

But by the first anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine had plans to bolster its battalions with tanks from its Western partners, including the Leopard 1 and 2, Challenger 2, and M1 Abrams. They were only to make up a small amount of the force — a little more than 300 of over a thousand active tanks — but they were expected to give Ukraine the ability to punch above its weight.

Those Western tanks are faster, more powerful, and bulkier than both Ukraine and Russia's stockpiles, able to wreck Soviet armor and out-maneuver them on the battlefield.

"These Western type of tanks are qualitatively superior to even the best Russian tanks that the Russians are using in Ukraine," Gentile told Business Insider.

"They have better armor protection using advanced active protection systems, fire control, optics, and munitions," he said, noting "the armor protection of these tanks and the combination of advanced fire control systems and sophisticated optics."

The M1A1 Abrams, for instance, has a demonstrated track record for defeating Soviet-made tanks, which it did in the Gulf War in the early 1990s against Iraq's T-72s — armor similar in certain respects to those the Russian army uses three decades later.

Defense experts previously told Business Insider the Abrams was 'built to kill tanks" and do battle against Soviet armor in a potentially muddy, Eastern European environment such as Ukraine. And the other tanks have proven capable as well.

A member of the British army drives a tank as he takes part in a training session of British forces and Challengers tanks at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) training base in southern England on August 15, 2023.
A member of the British army drives a tank as he takes part in a training session of British forces and Challengers tanks at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) training base in southern England on August 15, 2023.DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

But although these Western tanks are considered superior to Soviet-made armor, they haven't been game-changers for Ukraine thus far.

The lack of a major role for these tanks was notable in Ukraine's counteroffensive operations in Zaporizhzhia, an important offensive axis.

Ukraine sought to break through Russian defenses, opening an area wide enough to then allow its tanks and armored vehicles to travel safely. Once there, the goal was to use those tanks against less extensive defenses, wreak havoc, and enable further breakthroughs. Ultimately, Ukraine wanted to drive a line down to the Sea of Azov, slicing Russian occupied territory in two and cutting the so-called "land bridge" between Russia and Crimea.

The results were ineffective, and as winter comes, Ukraine is now facing the stark reality of a counteroffensive that hasn't gained much territory and potential future Russian offensives, like the one happening in Avdiivka now.

So how should Ukraine use its Western tanks now?

"Based on what they've seen, with the war stalling right now, the Russians have even more time to continue to build, strengthen, and expand their defenses," Jones told Business Insider, adding it's "highly likely" the Russians go on offense sooner rather than later. He noted that, at the moment, those tanks will probably be most useful for defensive operations, and while offense is possible, it's going to be quite tough.

Jones added that he suspects "it's going to be very tough for the Ukrainians to fight a major offensive operation except if perhaps they can take advantage of a failed Russian offensive and counterattack based on that."

To be able to have a shot at something like that, Ukraine will likely need to bleed Russia through the winter and into next year.

That puts Leopards, Challengers, and Abrams in a different role, but it doesn't mean they wouldn't be useful, especially if Russia relies on its tanks and armored vehicles to make advances as it's currently doing in Avdiivka. Russia has seen staggering tank and vehicle losses there over the past month or so.

28 September 2023, Lower Saxony, Bergen: A Bundeswehr main battle tank of the type "Leopard 2 A7V" fires on a firing range.
28 September 2023, Lower Saxony, Bergen: A Bundeswehr main battle tank of the type "Leopard 2 A7V" fires on a firing range.Philipp Schulze/picture alliance via Getty Images

But there's also the potential for Ukraine to simply hold its Western tanks back for the winter, saving them for the spring when they might be more useful.

As Gentile explained, "if the Ukrainians are able to concentrate their armored/mechanized/motorized forces in the upcoming year to a point or points where they can achieve breakthrough, these kinds of Western tanks would potentially be a powerful offensive force in shattering Russian defensive lines, as dense and deep as they are." It is difficult to say for sure though given there were hopes that they might be able to do that this year.

Leopards, Challengers, and Abrams would be invincible. As Gentile noted, they're still certainly vulnerable to anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), kinetic rounds, and attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But if the tanks are "used in a concentrated way" and in combined forces with artillery and infantry, they'd potentially be a "powerful ground striking force."

Another wrench in the plan is the sustainment of these Western tanks, which require a different supply chain and repair process compared to Ukraine's Soviet armor. The Abrams, in particular, can be a spare part and logistical nightmare, needing heavy amounts of fuel for its powerful engine. But maintenance and repair are constant problems in war, Gentile said, and has been an issue for both sides in this conflict.

There are also questions of whether or not these will be the only Western tanks Ukraine gets, or if there are more in the pipeline. The war has effectively tied Ukraine to the Western military industrial complex, but because of debates around providing aid to Kyiv, especially from the US, it's not clear if more Western tanks would replace destroyed or damaged ones.

As Jones said, it becomes risky. "There are some interesting questions about to what degree it makes sense for Ukraine to risk some of its tanks," he said, especially if they're needed for defense against impending Russian offensives.

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