Written by Sebastian Clapp.
Following Ukraine’s repeated requests, and almost a year of hesitation and delicate negotiations, in January 2023, EU Member States, Norway, the UK and the US finally decided to send Western-made main battle tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine. This issue of whether to supply such tanks has been particularly contentious since the start of the war.
Background: Weapons deliveries to Ukraine
For the first time in European Union history, on 28 February 2022, EU Member Statesagreed to jointly finance the provision of lethal weapons to a country at war, namely Ukraine. Funding for the move comes from the European Peace Facility (EPF) – an off-budget financing instrument initially worth €5 billion in 2018 prices (there is political agreement to increase the financial ceiling to €10.5 billion) and operational since July 2021. At the time of writing, support for Ukraine under the EPF amounts to €3.6 billion to date. The EU also, on 15 November 2022, launched an EU military assistance mission to train the Ukrainian army. The equipment so far delivered to Ukraine ranges from Soviet-era tanks to protective equipment. To coordinate supply and demand, the EU Military Staff has set up a clearing-house. Despite these efforts, EU countries were criticised for not providing weapons Ukraine needs, particularly modern Western-made battle tanks, which Ukraine had requested. This issue of whether to supply such tanks has been particularly contentious.
|Definition of ‘battle tanks’|
Defining ‘battle tank’ is rather difficult, and definitions have changed considerably with the evolution of military doctrine over the more than 100 years of tank history. The MBT is generally believed to be a universal tank that provides a combination of mobility, firepower and protection. The Bundestag Research Service highlights the difficulties of finding a definition in a recent study. Rather than defining the term, it highlights characteristics, such as having the best armour and strongest firepower in direct combat on the battlefield. It explains that two common categories are used to differentiate between MBTs and other armoured vehicles: the armoured personnel carrier (APC) and the infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). The study explains that ‘when speaking generally of a “tank”, these armoured vehicles are … explicitly not meant. What is generally meant … is only the “main battle tank”‘ [author’s translation]. The study concludes that a final, definitive and binding definition of a ‘(battle-) tank’ is ‘practically impossible’.
In terms of legal definitions, the 1992 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (the CFE Treaty ceased to apply in 2007, when Russia withdrew unilaterally), provides some answers. It states:
– Battle tank: ‘means a self-propelled armoured fighting vehicle, capable of heavy firepower, primarily of a high muzzle velocity direct fire main gun necessary to engage armoured and other targets, with high cross-country mobility, with a high level of self-protection, and which is not designed and equipped primarily to transport combat troops … [it weighs] at least 16.5 metric tonnes unladen weight and which are armed with a 360‑degree traverse gun of at least 75 millimetres calibre.’
– Armoured personnel carrier: ‘means an armoured combat vehicle which is designed and equipped to transport a combat infantry squad and which, as a rule, is armed with an integral or organic weapon of less than 20 millimetres calibre.’
– Armoured infantry fighting vehicle: ‘means an armoured combat vehicle which is designed and equipped primarily to transport a combat infantry squad, which normally provides the capability for the troops to deliver fire from inside the vehicle under armoured protection, and which is armed with an integral or organic cannon of at least 20 millimetres calibre.’
Western-made tanks for Ukraine
Ukraine appealed directly for Western-made main battle tanks (MBTs) from at least April 2022 (Some EU countries have already delivered over 250 Soviet-era T‑72 tanks of various versions, but not Western-made MBTs). Some in the West fear that sending such tanks could escalate the war, drag NATO directly into the conflict or, in the worst case, even result in nuclear war. Though these fears are not baseless, experts dispute that deliveries of Western MBTs would escalate the war. They note that Poland, for instance, has already delivered 260 Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine, without leading to escalation or drawing Poland into the conflict. They also argue that no Russian army decision to increase the intensity of its offensive has been linked to delivery of new Western weaponry to date. Others cite risks of misuse, potential loss or diversion of Western equipment, giving the example of weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban.
In a major step, the United Kingdom confirmed in January 2023, that it intends to deliver 14 British-made Challenger 2 MBTs to Ukraine, being the first country to supply Ukraine with Western-made MBTs. Later in January 2023, the United States (US), Norway and EU Member States, including Germany, also decided to send MBTs and approve such deliveries by others – Germany must issue re-export licences for other countries to send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Germany had previously shown reluctance, citing concerns that the move would escalate the war, that it would not consider unilateral action, and linking MBT deliveries to a US decision. In early January 2023, France, the US and Germany had already decided to deliver infantry fighting vehicles/armoured fighting vehicles to Ukraine. These have been portrayed – though definitions are difficult (see box) – by some as ‘light’ battle tanks. However, calling them tanks ‘is technically a stretch’.
The head of the Ukrainian armed forces has said that 300 Western MBTs would be needed for a successful counter-offensive to push the Russians back to the 23 February 2022 line (all of Ukrainian territory except Crimea). Experts note that at least 100 tanks would be needed to have ‘any significant effect on the fighting’. At the time of writing, over 100 tanks have indeed been promised, with the first due to arrive in three or four months. Training for Ukrainian crews will also be provided, to become operational by early spring.
Western-made MBTs are likely to provide the Ukrainian army with an advantage over Russian systems, as experts note that Western MBTs are ‘technically superior’ (see Annex I). Most importantly however, there is enough ammunition for Western MBTs, while supplies for T‑72s are critically low. Experts warn however that it is necessary to remain ‘realistic about their likely impact on the battlefield’, arguing that they will not work miracles ‘even if deployed on a large scale and for prolonged periods of time’. Furthermore, Ukraine will have to overcome significant training and logistical challenges to operate them. A further issue is that Western-made MBTs are generally much heavier than T‑72s and there is little Ukrainian infrastructure, including bridges, which could support such tanks. Moreover, operating and maintaining four different MBTs (Challenger 2, M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, T‑72) will be ‘highly impractical’, require ‘enormous logistical support effort’ and would ‘consume vast … resources’. Experts therefore believe that the Leopard 2 should be the MBT of choice. The Ukrainian armed forces would need less training (as little as six weeks), they consume less fuel, and better European logistics and repair capacities exist. Indeed, according to some, the US M1 Abrams would be less suitable, as more challenging to maintain – unlike most Western tanks and the T-72, which have diesel engines, they have a gas turbine – and it consumes much more fuel. Training on Abrams takes up to 22 weeks, though in the current emergency could be cut down to 7 to 11 weeks, according to an expert. More, importantly Leopards are readily available in Europe. The Leopard 2 is operated by 13 European armies, which have over 2 000 such tanks in total. In September 2022, experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations therefore proposed the ‘creation of a consortium of European Leopard 2 users’ with the purpose of training and equipping a Ukrainian armoured brigade of approximately 90 tanks, with the EPF reimbursing countries that delivered tanks, so the latest version can be purchased for their own stocks. Poland has already announced its intent to ask for EU compensation for supplying its Leopard 2s.
European Parliament position
Parliament’s January 2023 resolution on the 2022 annual report on the implementation of the CSDP calls on the EU to step up and accelerate its efforts to provide Ukraine with necessary military aid and equipment, ‘including lethal equipment and especially heavy weaponry, including Leopard tanks and modern air defence systems, needed to win this war’. Members call on Member States to speed up their military assistance to Ukraine and specifically call on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ‘to initiate a European consortium of relevant European countries in order to deliver Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine without further delay’. The European Parliament resolution of 6 October 2022 on Russia’s escalation of its war of aggression against Ukraine also ‘calls for consideration to be given to the possibility of a lend-lease military assistance facility for Ukraine’.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Russia’s war on Ukraine: Western-made tanks for Ukraine‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.