Europe | Thanks but no tanks

The West sends armoured fighting vehicles to Ukraine

They will help repel Russian attacks, but Ukraine wants heavier weapons

BAGHDAD, Iraq:  A US Bradley Fighting Vehicle of the Lighting Troops 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is stationed at the side of a highway on the outskirts of Baghdad, early 20 August 2005. US President George W. Bush, besieged at his Texas ranch by relatives of US soldiers killed in Iraq, said today that the best way to honor fallen troops was to win the war on terrorism. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin  (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP via Getty Images)
image: Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include details of America’s new $3bn package of military aid to Ukraine, announced on January 6th.

THREE WEEKS ago Ukraine’s most senior military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, set out his wish-list for the military equipment he needed to repel Russia’s looming offensive. “I know that I can beat this enemy. But I need resources. I need 300 tanks, 600-700 IFVs, 500 Howitzers.” His plea has been heard in Western capitals—to an extent. In a series of announcements, America, France and Germany all vowed to send scores of infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and much else besides.

Ukraine will still have to wait for Western main battle tanks. But the promised armoured vehicles are a step towards that goal, and should do much to enhance Ukraine’s fighting power once they arrive. America is sending 50 M2A2 Bradley vehicles, part of a new package of military aid worth more than $3bn—the largest yet—including armoured personnel carriers, mine-resistant vehicles, Humvees, self-propelled and towed artillery, and a large quantity of missiles and other ammunition. Germany has promised 40 Marder vehicles (and perhaps eventually its entire fleet). France is supplying an undisclosed but probably similar number of AMX-10RCs.

The scale and co-ordination of the announcements suggest a big Western effort to give Ukrainian forces the ability to deliver a hefty armoured mechanised punch ahead of possible winter offensives, says Gian Gentile, a former cavalry officer now at the RAND Corporation, a think-tank. Unusually, it was France, often criticised for dragging its feet over the supply of military aid to Ukraine, that moved first. After speaking to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, President Emmanuel Macron announced on January 4th the dispatch of “light tanks”—the French-made AMX-10RC vehicles—as part of France’s efforts to “amplify military aid to Ukraine”. Mr Zelensky tweeted in response: “Your leadership brings our victory closer.”

A day later, following a telephone call between President Joe Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, America and Germany said they would follow suit with Bradley and Marder fighting vehicles respectively. Germany would also contribute a Patriot anti-aircraft missile battery to complement one being sent by America to help Ukraine withstand an onslaught of Russian missiles and drones aimed in particular against its energy infrastructure. The American package includes RIM-7 “Sea Sparrow” missiles, ship-based anti-aircraft missiles that will be rigged to work with the Soviet-era BUK ground-based system, and 4,000 Zuni aircraft rockets that can be fitted to Ukraine’s aircraft and helicopters.

MUNSTER, GERMANY - MAY 20: A Marder battle tank of the Bundeswehr Panzerlehrbrigade 9 (9th Armoured Demonstration Brigade) during a presentation of capabilities by the unit on May 20, 2019 in Munster, Germany. The brigade is the core of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which is a NATO rapid reaction force composed of soldiers from a variety of NATO nations. The German government recently announced it will increase defense spending by EUR 5 billion, the biggest rise since the end of the Cold War. (Photo by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)
image: Getty Images

It is unclear whether Mr Macron’s early announcement forced the hand of an unwilling Mr Scholz, whose Social Democratic Party (SPD) is particularly wary about arming Ukraine, or whether it was choreographed to ease German angst. Many in Berlin suggest the former; American officials hint at the latter, noting that at one point the three leaders had planned to make a joint announcement.

Infantry fighting vehicles occupy a space between main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers. They offer moderate armoured protection to crews and infantry, and carry substantial guns. They can take on many Russian tanks, especially older models. As such they should markedly strengthen Ukraine’s ability to manoeuvre on the battlefield. Western analysts reckon that they will help Ukraine penetrate Russian lines, building on last year’s successes in pushing back invading forces from areas in or around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.

The AMX-10RC, Bradley and Marder are somewhat different beasts. The French vehicle is wheeled and relatively swift on roads and hard ground, but has comparatively thin armour. The heavier Bradley and Marder have tracks, which are harder to maintain but better at operating on Ukraine’s boggy ground, which has not yet frozen everywhere. All have impressive firepower that is likely to torment Russian armour.

The Marder is around a decade older than the other two models, but it has been a workhorse of the Bundeswehr for decades. The AMX-10RC, currently being phased out by the French army, is equipped with a large 105mm gun that was designed to take on Soviet tanks of the 1980s (it is sometimes called a “tank destroyer”). The Bradley has a smaller 25mm gun but it proved highly effective against Soviet-made T-72 tanks in the first Gulf war of 1991. It has thermal sights—a big advantage against Russian units that have shied away from night fighting—and sophisticated fire-control systems. The Bradley can fire sabot rounds that would destroy even Russia’s most modern tanks, if struck on their flanks or rear, from around 2.5km away, according to an American officer with experience of commanding the vehicle. Just as important is that the gun is stabilised so, unlike the AMX-10RC, it can fire accurately while on the move. Bradleys also carry a pair of launchers for TOW wire-guided anti-tank missiles, with a range of 3km or more.

If enough Bradleys are sent, reckons the officer, “it really could be a game changer, maybe more than if they got Abrams. It would provide Ukrainian mechanised infantry with far, far greater firepower than they have now.” Another former officer emphasises the importance of using infantry fighting vehicles together with tanks (preferably Western ones), dismounted infantry and other units to maximise their punch. Tellingly, the US army is planning to train Ukrainian forces in such combined-arms operations, a battalion at a time, starting later this month and lasting about a month for each contingent. “We are positioning Ukraine to be able to move forward and retake territory, and be able to defend themselves against this persistent onslaught of Russian missile attacks,” said Laura Cooper, a senior Pentagon official.

That said, operating three models of fighting vehicles, each with different guns, will compound Ukraine’s logistical and maintenance headaches as it manages a mix-and-match arsenal from across the NATO alliance and beyond. Moreover, Ukraine will have to devise ways for the IFVs to communicate effectively with each other and accompanying units. “The Ukrainians are experts at using different types of equipment and still being able to operate as a coherent force,” said Ms Cooper, noting that its crews were being helped remotely by “tele-maintenance” advice from Western armies.

Just as important as the military power they bring, the fighting vehicles signal a Western determination to keep helping Ukraine “for as long as needed”, in the words of Messrs Biden and Scholz, and to keep raising the military commitment. Also, the pledge suggests that Germany has overcome some of its qualms about escalation with Russia, even in the face of Vladimir Putin’s threats and blandishments—the latest of which was to order a short ceasefire for Orthodox Christmas, dismissed by Ukraine and observed mostly in the breach.

French soldiers from the 1st Regiment Marines Infantery (RIMA) practice shooting with a tank AMX 10RC on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) Tora in Surobi district on September 24, 2010.  Most of France's 3,500 soldiers, who are part of a NATO-led multinational force fighting the Taliban inside Afghanistan, are based in districts around Kabul.  AFP PHOTO/Joel SAGET (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
image: Getty Images

Robert Habeck, the German economy minister and deputy chancellor from the Green party, praised the “good decision” on IFVs. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a combative liberal politician who has called for the supply of Marders for months, declared: “The decision came very late, but not too late.”

A big question is whether the IFVs will prepare the way for the delivery of Western tanks, which Ukraine is clamouring for. That is hardly unthinkable. Eastern European allies have already provided refurbished Soviet-era tanks. Over the past ten months of fighting, in the face of Russian atrocities and impressive Ukrainian fighting grit, the West has abandoned one taboo after another in terms of the weaponry it is prepared to supply. Last summer America started delivering the celebrated HIMARS rocket system to great effect; last month came the announcement that it would send a battery of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles.

Europe, in particular, is awash with German-made Leopard tanks, whose diesel engines are easier to operate and maintain than the turbines of the American-made M1 Abrams. Ms Cooper acknowledged that Ukraine needed tanks, but hinted that the Leopards would be a better fit for Ukraine. Germany, whose permission for re-export must be obtained, has thus far refused to allow anyone to send them to Ukraine, annoying many allies and even Mr Scholz’s coalition partners.

Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think-tank in Berlin, puts the SPD’s resistance down to a combination of factors, among them qualms about militarism, fear of thinning out Germany’s own forces, alarm about escalation with Russia, a tradition of maintaining friendly ties with the Kremlin and, not least, guilt over the second world war, when Nazi armoured columns devastated Russia.

As with the IFVs, says Ms Major, America will prove the decisive factor in releasing the Leopards. For all of Germany’s talk of leading Europe in defence, “you need the White House to unlock the chancellery.”

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

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