Ukraine could get M1 Abrams tanks and other armor

Ukraine could get M1 Abrams tanks and other armor

On January 19, the Department of Defense announced that it would send 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers (APCs) with 20 mine rollers to Ukraine as part of a larger $2.5 billion aid package. The Strykers will join Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and a host of other equipment that will increase Ukraine’s ability to move with armor.

In addition to Strykers, Bradleys and other equipment, there is now the distinct possibility that the US could send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, as CNN and The Wall Street Journal report. The United States “could make an announcement as soon as this week” about those tanks, according to CNN. Meanwhile, Germany is reportedly preparing to announce the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks as well.

All of this mobile armor—Strykers, Bradleys, tanks, and more—serve different roles on a battlefield. To better understand this hodgepodge, it’s easiest to look at each component.

M1 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles could change the way Ukraine fights
A Stryker in Poland in February 2021. US Army / Elizabeth O. Bryson

What to know about the Strykers, or armor to move

The Stryker is an eight-wheeled armored personnel carrier, designed to fit between the Army’s light vehicles (like Humvees) and heavier transports (like Bradleys). It is operated by a crew of two, with room for a nine-person infantry squad to ride in the rear. The basic model of a Stryker is lightly armed, with only a machine gun to fire and smoke grenades to conceal the vehicle’s movement. There are eight variants of the Stryker, including some armed with everything from anti-tank missiles to additional sensors or even a mortar artillery piece, which are fired through open hatches in the roof.

The mine rollers mentioned in the release allow a Stryker to detonate explosives, such as anti-tank land mines, which are triggered by the weight of heavy vehicles. These rollers, which can be mounted to the front of the vehicle, activate the mines before they get under the Stryker. Strykers, as wheeled vehicles, are especially dependent on roads, which are easy to cover with mines. Using a Stryker to clear the mines allows the path to become an open path not only for the Strykers, but for the entire armored column behind them.

[Related: The Army’s new light tank can venture where its beefier cousins can’t]

At a press conference on January 20, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the United States’ goal “is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to succeed in the near term. And so, you’ve heard us talk about two battalions of Bradley infantry fighting vehicles: very capable platform, [as well as] three battalions, or a brigade of Strykers. So you add that up, it’s two brigades of combat power that the United States is providing, along with enablers and other things.”

In the US, a brigade combat team is a formation of about 5,000 soldiers and about 300 vehicles, usually a combination of transports and tanks, or heavy weapons vehicles. So far, the United States has promised Ukraine 109 Bradleys and 90 Strykers, which is two-thirds of the way to an armored brigade combat team, minus the tanks. The United States has also provided other vehicles, such as 300 M113 armored personnel carriers, a battlefield taxi even less heavily armed and protected than the Stryker.

What to know about tanks or armor for fighting

For an army to take advantage of armored personnel carriers, it needs to break through a defended line. That’s the role tanks were built for, as heavy armor designed for fighting.

The tanks are over a century old in concept and execution. The first tanks were built to break the stalemate along Europe’s Western Front in World War I, where trenches, machine guns, explosives and artillery made any assault terrifying and bloody. The tanks, like literal mobile armor, protected the soldiers advancing behind them; with cannons and machine guns, the tanks could devastate the defenders. While tanks debuted in World War I, their use in World War II would change the course of the war. German tank doctrine, developed during the interwar era, prized armored formations that could break through enemy lines, rendering defenses useless and defeated.

Today, tanks remain a vital part of the military effort, as both Ukraine and Russia employ their Soviet-inherited tanks against each other. Tanks are still vulnerable to dedicated anti-tank weapons, such as Javelin missiles, as well as attacks from the air, such as planes or helicopters. And tanks are also vulnerable to other tanks. In other words, stopping a tank assault requires dedicated anti-tank weapons, which could include other tanks. Meanwhile, weapons that are useful for stopping other armored vehicles, such as Rocket Propelled Grenades useful against Bradleys and Strykers, are more plentiful, but will fight heavy armor.

The heavy and powerful M1 Abrams runs on jet fuel, which US logistics can regularly supply, but could be more difficult for a military without as robust a refueling system as the US. Meanwhile, the Leopard 2, manufactured and exported from Germany, is a diesel tank used by the militaries of many NATO countries. If Ukraine receives the tanks, they will allow the Ukrainian army to launch a combined arms attack, with the mobility of the tanks and armored personnel carriers turning the tide.

In short, the Stryker is a transport that can protect passengers from machine gun fire. The Bradley is a heavier armored personnel carrier with some useful weapons against other vehicles, and a tank like the M1 Abrams is built to destroy other heavy vehicles, while being protected from them.

What is at stake: armored columns choose their battlefields

Since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the United States and other countries have increased aid to that invaded country. This aid was in some cases based on programs already underway, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, along with Russia’s occupation of the Donbas from 2014 to the present. But while the Donbas war was long fought, it was geographically contained, in a fraction of the country and involving somewhat static defensive lines for both sides. The current war began with a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine, with Russia at one point threatening the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv, and occupying the city of Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnipro river.

Today, much of Russia’s effort is aimed at capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the Donbas. The nature of warfare is such that the two sides can engage in gruesome, gruesome fights over static positions, then change dramatically based on a collapse elsewhere on the front line. When Ukraine launched a counter-offensive in the fall of 2022, its military did so with new weapons like US-supplied HIMAR rocket artillery, which destroyed Russian supplies at long range.

With an army in armored personnel carriers, such as those provided by the US, Ukraine would be in a position to take advantage of any new gap in Russian defenses, moving behind established defenses and possibly causing a major shift in the war, as happened in the fall of 2022.

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