Berlin, Brussels, Washington After months of demands from Ukraine and numerous international criticism, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) gave in: Germany wants to support Ukraine with initially 14 Leopard 2 main battle tanks in the fight against the Russian invaders. According to Federal Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD), the first tanks could be in Ukraine in about three months.
According to media reports, the USA also wants to supply battle tanks to Ukraine. Specifically, this involves 30 M1 Abrams tanks. There is no official confirmation yet, but according to the New York Times it could come on Wednesday.
The Ukrainian armed forces hope that both tanks will put further pressure on the Russian army. But how big will the advantage of the main battle tanks be for the Ukrainians? And which tank is more suitable? An overview of the most important questions and answers.
Although the tank has been in production since the late 1970s in its first version, it is still one of the best main battle tanks in the world in terms of armor and armament. It has been constantly modernized. For example, the Leopard 2A6 version, which is now to be delivered to Ukraine, has additional anti-mine protection and a slightly longer gun. The Bundeswehr is currently using the vehicle in five different variants.
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A big advantage of the Leopard tank is also that the design allows a quick engine change after a defect. The main battle tank does not have to go to the workshop for this, but can remain in use. At the moment the Leopard 2 is still being built, which means that it can be replenished. Spare parts that will be absolutely necessary for the operation of the fleet are therefore also available.
The situation is different with the older predecessor model Leopard 1, of which the industry still has dozens in stock. Since the supply of ammunition and spare parts is more difficult, said Pistorius on Wednesday. Nevertheless, it is being examined whether Leopard 1 tanks could also be handed over to Ukraine. However, it is more likely that the Leopard 2 A4 will be used in the event of further deliveries.
The example of the self-propelled howitzers delivered to the Ukraine in 2000 shows how important functioning logistics chains are: These had to be temporarily taken out of service due to a shortage of spare parts.
The armament of the Leopard is similar to that of the American Abrams. Both have a 120 millimeter main gun, the technology for which was manufactured by Rheinmetall. In a direct comparison, the Abrams and Leopard are superior to Russian main battle tanks, as was shown in the Iraq war. With one shot, an M1 Abrams pierced the armor of two Soviet T-72s standing one behind the other.
Why is the leopard important for the course of the war?
Concerns about a Russian spring offensive are growing at NATO headquarters. “We must not underestimate Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned in the Handelsblatt. After military setbacks last fall, the Kremlin called for partial mobilization and mobilized 200,000 additional soldiers. “What they lack in morale and training, the Russians are trying to make up for in sheer numbers,” Stoltenberg said.
The hopes of some Western military experts that the Russians could run out of ammunition have not been fulfilled. Fierce fighting is raging around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and the Ukrainian defenders are coming under increasing pressure.
>> Read here: Interview with Jens Stoltenberg: “We now live in a more dangerous world”
According to US findings, North Korea is supplying supplies for the artillery, and Iran has equipped Russia with combat drones. At the same time, Russian troops dug up defensive positions. This makes it increasingly difficult for Ukraine to break through the front. Western main battle tanks, whether American’s Leopard 2 or Abrams, could play an important role in putting Ukrainian forces back on the offensive.
According to Defense Minister Pistorius, the tanks are an important “game changer”, at least in the current phase of the war.
Are the promised tanks sufficient?
It is still unclear which countries will join a “coalition of the willing” with what number of tanks. Former army general Hans-Lothar Domröse is cautiously optimistic. “If several nations really participate and we end up with 100 tanks, then that makes a certain difference,” he told the Handelsblatt. A decisive turning point in the war will not be achieved with this, but local successes and breakthroughs are definitely possible.
Ukraine has therefore already made it clear that it hopes for more: Andriy Yermak, head of the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on the messenger service Telegram that “a few hundred tanks for our tank crews” would “become a real fist of democracy will”.
>> Read here: Why it was a mistake for the chancellor to put so much pressure on the US – a comment
One problem is that with supplies from the west, Ukraine will now have a wide variety of main battle tanks from German, American, British and Russian production in its ranks. That makes the logistics more complicated. Ex-General Domröse points out, however, that the Ukrainian army is already using a wide variety of systems, such as artillery, and obviously has no problems with them.
What can the American Abrams do?
Like the Leopard 2, the M1 Abrams is a main battle tank developed during the Cold War era. After several improvements, the vehicle is still the backbone of US armored forces today. The Abrams was used, among other things, in the two wars against Iraq in the early 1990s and in spring 2003.
The biggest difference between the Leopard 2 and the Abrams is the drivetrain. While the model from German production runs on diesel, the US variant has a gas turbine with kerosene as fuel. The unit is thus significantly lighter, which increases the agility of the tank. However, consumption is higher than with diesel. A conversion to diesel is possible, which would make it easier to operate in the Ukraine. The disadvantage of the high consumption would remain.
Why did Americans hesitate for so long to use the Abrams?
The Americans are aware of their tank’s shortcomings. The Leopard 2, of which more than 3500 were built, is widely used among NATO countries. Poland, a direct neighbor of Ukraine, is familiar with the weapon system. Larger repairs as well as the necessary training can take place in the immediate vicinity.
US officials have said it could be “months or even years” before Abrams tanks are fully operational in Ukraine. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the highest-ranking US General Mark Milley had advised against the Abrams mission until the very end.
Apparently, US President Joe Biden wants to use the U-turn to signal that Europe can still count on the United States as a leading power – a claim that suffered immensely during the Trump years. Chancellor Scholz had also always emphasized that he only wanted to make a battle tank decision in close consultation with the international allies – above all the USA. Ex-Bundeswehr General Domröse said that “from a transatlantic perspective it would not be bad if American tank models are now also visible on the ground in Ukraine”.
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