Nearly a year into the war in Ukraine, Western allies finally agreed to send Kyiv the battle tanks it says it so desperately needs.
The first battalion will have roughly 40 tanks, including newer German Leopard 2A6s, and could arrive by spring.
But the broader package pieced together this week by the United States and other European nations includes a hodgepodge of tank models, each with different delivery times and unique logistical hurdles. Military experts are unsure if they will have a decisive effect on the battlefield — and Ukrainian forces still need to be trained on how to use them.
Ukraine has said that it needs at least 300 tanks to support a large-scale spring offensive against the Russians and has called the Western move to donate them a game changer. On Thursday, in apparent retaliation for the tank pledges a day earlier, Russia bombarded Ukrainian towns and cities with dozens of missiles, killing at least 11 people, officials said.
“No single weapons system or platform can be a game changer,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said the impact of the “limited number” of tanks arriving in March would depend on training and how well the new formations are integrated on the front line.
But because Germany waited so long to decide whether to send tanks, “it is unlikely that the Leopard 2 will play a significant role in any spring offensive,” he said.
Moscow on Thursday slammed the deliveries as an “escalation.”
Still, the Ukrainians are now expecting a planned transfer of 14 Challenger 2 tanks from Britain, as well as an eventual delivery of 31 M1A2 Abrams tanks from the United States. The M1A2 is a variant first fielded in the 1990s. It includes more modern electronics and targeting systems than its older cousin, the M1A1, and a 120mm main cannon.
European countries are also dusting off decades-old stocks. Spain has mulled sending a batch of older Leopard 2A4s that have been mothballed for a decade and may need extensive repairs. Germany is rushing ahead with the newer A6 variant, with thermal imaging and a significantly more powerful high-velocity gun.
It is all valuable firepower as Ukraine stands against Russian forces, but with the additional complications of procuring ammunition, training capable forces, and organizing logistics for multiple weapons systems. Germany, Poland, and the United States are all planning separate tank training programs, with Germany and Poland set to begin theirs in days as they rush deliveries for spring.
The mishmash of different systems makes it “quite difficult from the logistical point,” said Sonny Butterworth, a tank expert with the defense intelligence firm Janes.
British Challenger 2s use different ammunition from the NATO standard. And when it comes to the Leopard 2s, there are subtle differences between the stocks held by each European country — even if they are the same model. A Spanish Leopard A4 may have a different fire control or radio system from a Finnish one, though they are essentially interoperable, experts say.
“The Ukrainians are going to be operating several different types of equipment and they are going to have to contend with having to support them with the right spare parts going to the right units,” Butterworth said.
Ukraine relies on old Soviet T-72 battle tanks and might feel it just needs the hardware to fight back against Russia and keep up the tempo on the battlefield, he said. But in the long term, operating multiple types of tanks could create bigger logistical snags.
The U.S. decision to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine — although not for months — eliminates a powerful weapon for Ukrainian forces in the short term. But it was also one that could have caused disarray without the proper logistical support and maintenance, experts say.
One U.S. official aware of the deliberations behind the decision said that while Ukrainian forces have shown a considerable ability to maintain and sustain U.S. equipment on the battlefield, operating Abrams tanks requires significant preparation, including training that will take place outside Ukraine.
“We are confident that we will be able to provide the adequate sustainment and maintenance support after some months,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Biden administration.
Poland, which neighbors Ukraine, is also building up its own supply of M1 Abrams and could facilitate logistics and maintenance support, experts say.
One major complicating factor is the depleted uranium used in the armor packages specific to U.S. military versions of the tank. The armor includes classified aspects that the United States does not typically export, said one person familiar with the issue, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It remained unclear Thursday where U.S. troops might train Ukrainian forces on the tank. One possibility was the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, a sprawling facility in the Bavarian countryside where U.S. troops began training a battalion of more than 600 Ukrainian forces this month on how to combine artillery, armored vehicles and other weapons to maximize their impact on the battlefield.
During a first visit to troops on Thursday, Germany’s new Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, pushed back at claims that the tank deliveries were insufficient or that German delays may have lost vital time.
“We didn’t hesitate, we negotiated,” he said. “We talked to our allies and our partners and friends.”
As the manufacturer of the Leopard tank, Berlin’s go-ahead is needed for deliveries from any of the more than a dozen countries that operate it, but it insisted that it would not “go it alone.”
Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said the Russians are so entrenched in the territories they occupy, “that for us to be able to advance with our counteroffensive means battle tanks are key.”
So far, Ukraine has relied on old Soviet T-72 tanks, which run low on ammunition in conflicts in which heavy artillery dominates. The new tanks will open the door to platforms that support ammunition that can be replenished by allies in what has become a war of attrition.
“In order to get three hundred [tanks], you have to work hard,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council. “Everyone involved works every day, so that the number increases,” he said.
But it was important to have “a beginning,” he said. “It’s like the first step. It’s like permission.”