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War in Ukraine

Tanks, tanks, a lot

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Germany and the U.S. have "come together" to help Ukraine field some of the world's most advanced MBT's (main battle tanks), however the wrangling to get there and the potential logistical hurdles could make the development a far more complicated prospect than it might seem.

The U.S. and Germany are both counted amongst the world's largest producers and suppliers of MBT's. While the U.S. has generally offered and supplied its previous generation MBT's to allies around the world, their primary modern MBT is the M1 Abrams.

Running on a modified gasoline-powered jet turbine engine, it boasts a top speed of ~67 km/h and comes equipped with a 120mm cannon, a .50 cal secondary gun, as well as two 7.62mm machine guns. It "Provides the lethality, survivability, and fightability necessary to defeat advanced threats well into the future" according to the Army Acquisition Workforce. 

Germany on the other hand produces, supplies, and maintains its own stock of Leopard 2 tanks. These are also an MBT, they also employ a 120mm cannon, however, their secondary armament consists of only two 7.62 caliber machine guns. Weighing in at roughly 62 tons, their diesel engine can provide speeds of 70 km/h or more with an operational range of 450 kilometers. KMW, the German company producing the Leopard 2 bills it as the "most modern MBT."

Supplying these two MBT's to Ukraine would obviously be of great benefit to the Ukrainian military's efforts to battle back Russian forces and halt their advance in the key areas in the south and east of the country where the two sides are engaging one another in battles over key strategic areas in and around some of Ukraine's cities such as Kherson, where the Ukrainian military had succeeded in taking half of the city before digging in to prepare for another advance.

These fights would be bolstered by more advanced tanks such as the M1 Abrams or the Leopard 2 as Ukraine's primary MBT's are Soviet-era T-72's and T-84's. Despite this, however, Ukraine had struggled to negotiate the supply of these newer tanks.

That was until this week when, through a mix of diplomatic pressure and cooperation, Germany decided to open their Leopard 2 for export to Ukraine on the condition that the U.S. do the same for the M1 Abrams. Scholz's government in Germany has generally been hesitant to supply Ukraine militarily, and the Leopard 2 tanks were no exception.

Biden's government in the U.S., on the other hand, has relatively freely offered their military support, however, usually coming from the U.S. military's large stock of surplus equipment and weapons. Thus far, Biden's administration has been slow to offer the highest-end and most modern equipment in the American arsenal.

Poland also made clear that they wanted to export their Leopard 2's, even with or without an export license allowing them to from Germany. The situation came to a head this week when Germany and the U.S. announced that they'd be exporting 14 Leopard 2's and 31 M1 Abrams respectively, with other European countries such as Poland signing on to also send their Leopard 2's.

Despite what seems like a success for the Ukrainian military's armored divisions, there are some notable problems that have been highlighted in the talks between the countries. The Biden administration expressed uncertainty that their M1 Abrams could be effectively maintained by the Ukrainian military.

By their own admission, “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive, it’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine, I think it’s about three gallons to the mile of jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain,” according to a top security official at the Pentagon.

This could pose problems, especially when the provision of spare tanks and spare parts might be difficult logistically. The Leopard 2's, meanwhile, are easier to maintain and Germany's proximity to Ukraine entails less logistical hurdles not only for their provision but for training, maintenance, and repairs.

While the U.S. is the single largest provider of military equipment to Ukraine by a large margin, the withholding of the M1 Abrams may less have been about lack of desire, but rather that its profile as a costly and high-maintenance MBT simply may not be a fit for the conflict in Ukraine.

Despite the collective hesitations, the countries ultimately landed on a resolution to provide both tanks, but U.S. sources suggest that there was some displeasure in Washington and at the Pentagon, feeling as though Germany should have stepped up rather than make the transfer of their Leopard 2's conditional on further U.S. support.

While it may be months yet before these tanks will see any service, their arrival could come at a critical time in spring after the winter thaw when hostilities and more substantial advances by both sides are expected to take place. 

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