The first battalion of Leopard 2 main battle tanks could arrive in Ukraine in the first three or four months of this year, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said Wednesday. Berlin’s belated, yet laudable decision to permit the provision of Leopard tanks to Ukraine follows decisions by the United States and the United Kingdom to send tanks to Ukraine, too. That’s welcome news in Kyiv, which urgently needs Western tanks to defeat a renewed Russian offensive, retake occupied territory and replace losses of Ukraine’s Soviet-origin tanks.
The problem is that the West plans to send small quantities of four different types of Western tanks, thereby placing an onerous logistical burden on Kyiv.
Sending Ukraine a tank “petting zoo” — a wide variety of tanks in small numbers — will create a sustainment and logistical nightmare that will ultimately reduce Ukraine’s combat effectiveness. Instead, Western leaders should pick the Leopard 2 as the single tank to send, transfer the maximum quantities possible, and create a U.S.-led NATO-wide effort to provide Ukraine the ammunition and training necessary to operate and maintain the Leopard 2s.
Some might insist on moving forward with existing plans to send American and British tanks, too, arguing that Ukraine needs all the armor it can get, as tanks are an essential element of effective combined arms operations. That is certainly true, but the modest additional capacity a few dozen British and American tanks will provide must be weighed against the additional logistical burdens they will also bring.
Consider lessons from World War II. Near the end of the war, Germany operated over 40 varieties of tanks, tank destroyers and self-propelled guns, many in limited numbers with nearly nonexistent spare parts. This created a massive logistics and maintenance burden for the German panzer corps, playing a significant role in its inability to counter the Allied powers.
Today, with the best of intentions, the West is about to put Kyiv in a somewhat similar predicament, sending multiple types of complex tanks in low numbers.
Currently, Ukraine operates Soviet-designed tanks, including many captured in the war and those transferred from leftover East bloc inventories in NATO. This “Frankenfleet” is a force built out of necessity to hold off Russian forces early in the war.
Unfortunately, the current plan will make this “Frankenfleet” even worse, adding limited numbers of Britain’s Challenger 2s, the United States’ Abrams, and Germany’s Leopard 2s and obsolete Leopard Is. Maintaining tanks is hard enough; imagine establishing wartime unit-, intermediate- and depot-level maintenance as well as associated complex logistical systems for four different types of newly arrived foreign main battle tanks. That’s in addition to the existing fleet of tanks.
In a well-intentioned effort to spur Berlin to permit the provision of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Britain was the first to promise its Western-designed tank but committed just 14 of the Challenger 2 tanks. To put that in perspective, that’s enough to equip just a single company in the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, Ukraine probably has at least 700 tanks in its inventory, enough to equip at least 50 companies. Some might respond by saying: “Well, just send more.” But there are likely less than 450 worldwide.
To make matters worse, the Challenger fires unique ammunition through a 120mm rifled main gun that is not interchangeable with the Leopards or Abrams.
The Abrams, for its part, is the most abundant tank of the three, with about 10,000 produced. Despite its numbers, it imposes a massive logistical burden. The Abrams’ gas turbine engine consumes massive amounts of fuel with maintenance requirements nothing like the diesel engines in the majority of Ukrainian tanks, which are more akin to a truck engine than a jet engine.
Additionally, the Abrams is slated for delivery under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative rather than under a presidential drawdown authority and U.S. Army stocks. This means the Abrams is not going to be available any time soon for Ukraine.
The Leopard 2, however, is the main battle tank equipping many Western European armies, with more than 3,200 produced across multiple variants. The Leopard 2’s 120mm gun is common to the Abrams’, allowing ammunition from the United States to supplement allied stocks. But there is a catch: The Leopard 2s are spread out across Western armies, thus requiring a multinational effort to transfer tanks to Ukraine in sufficient numbers.
Berlin is also now offering the obsolete Leopard 1, which entered service in 1965. Most of these tanks won’t be available until 2024 because they must be refurbished following their retirement and storage by the German Army two decades ago. In the meantime, there is also the issue of ammunition. In addition to being genuinely obsolete, the Leopard 1 has a 105mm rifled main gun that reportedly has scarce ammunition stocks.
Considering the features of the four tanks, the Leopard 2 is the best option. It can be provided in large numbers with relative speed while streamlining and minimizing logistical headaches. Indeed, leaders could strive to transfer at least 150 Leopards this spring. That would be enough to equip an entire armored brigade, simplifying logistics, allowing crew interchangeability and familiarity, and providing a reserve of tanks to backfill attrition.
Pulling the American offer of Abrams may be unpalatable to some, particularly in Germany, where Berlin, based on historical sensitivities, is eager not to proceed alone in sending tanks to Ukraine. But Washington could make clear that it stands with Berlin in sending tanks to defeat the unprovoked Russian invasion, ready to help lead an alliancewide effort to train Ukrainians to operate and maintain the Leopard 2 tanks. The Pentagon could seek to persuade European capitals to send their Leopard 2s to Ukraine by offering to eventually backfill them with M1 Abrams where it makes sense.
The Ukraine Defense Contact Group is set to meet in Brussels on Feb. 14. Leaders should use this meeting to rally around a plan to deliver to Ukraine the Leopard 2 — and only the Leopard 2 — in the largest possible quantities as quickly as possible, including 150 tanks by this spring. For its part, the United States should focus on rallying support from allies to send their Leopard 2s to Ukraine, producing as much ammunition as possible for the tank and providing maintenance and logistics training for Ukrainians so they can conduct as many repairs as possible inside Ukraine.
This plan would begin to give Kyiv the armor capacity it needs to defeat the Russian invasion, while avoiding the logistical nightmare associated with a tank “petting zoo.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Hesson is a visiting military analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Defense Department nor the U.S. Air Force.