After weeks of excuses and foot-dragging, the Germans have finally said yes to transferring a limited number of their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and agreed they wouldn’t stand in the way of other European countries’ re-exporting the Teutonic tanks from their stocks.
Everything suggests the Biden administration forced that decision by killing the last of Germany’s feeble excuses — namely that Berlin was not ready to act alone but only in concert with Washington. Walking back the Pentagon’s earlier accounts of how impractical, complex and ultimately unhelpful US tanks would be in the conflict with Russia, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that America would provide Ukraine 31 M1 Abrams tanks.
Do not get too excited. Ukrainian officials stress that their military needs hundreds of tanks to fight off the Russians. As of now, the hope that the United States, Germany and other allies will collectively send, say, 100 tanks to Ukraine over the course of 2023 might prove overly optimistic. Will that be enough for Ukrainians to take initiative on the battlefield and drive the Russians out?
“With spring approaching,” Biden said Wednesday, Ukrainian forces “need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.” But we may still be months away from seeing any Western tanks fighting in Ukraine.
While the United States has large stocks of Abrams tanks the Marine Corps previously used, those would need to be adapted for export — including by removing some sensitive electronics and other equipment we would like to keep only for ourselves, for good reason. Administration officials said they’ll procure new tanks instead — meaning delivery could take a year or more.
As for the Leopards, Berlin has initially pledged only one company, or 14 tanks, augmented by supplies from other European countries such as Poland, Finland or Norway, followed by additional supplies at year’s end and into 2024.
Even if European governments make their stocks available with urgency, there’s the question of maintenance and repairs. The Leopards in question, some of them built in the 1980s, haven’t been used in years. Any owner of an older vehicle can appreciate the time and effort that will have go into making such machines “roadworthy” again.
True, we should not underestimate the Ukrainians’ ability to put these deliveries to good use, which they demonstrated with Javelins, Gepards and the Bayraktar drones. It’s not without reason that the Russian ambassador to Berlin speaks of an “irreparable damage to the already deplorable state of Russian-German relations.”
The risk of a Russian escalation is very remote, however. Already on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed the importance of any tank deliveries by pointing out that “all these tanks will require both maintenance and repairs” — a striking admission given the state of Russia’s own military equipment — and “will not change anything with regard to the Russian side achieving its goals.”
Short of cajoling other countries such as Egypt into transferring their Abrams stocks, is there a better way? In the immediate short term, there might not be. Yet the big-picture lesson should be obvious to everyone: Like in World War II, there is no substitute for America’s defense-industrial base anywhere in the world.
The Leopard 2 may be a fine piece of equipment, but it will never be produced (or repaired) at a large-enough scale for a massive land war. More important perhaps, the recent experience of dealing with the German government will surely give pause to any future buyers.
In contrast, as colleagues of mine noted after their visit, the US Lima Army Tank Plant in Ohio used to churn out as many as 800 Abrams per year during the Cold War. Although faced with shortages of qualified labor, especially welders, it could be easily brought back to life. “The time is right, right now,” they write, “to cement the Abrams as the single go-to tank for America’s allies and partners.”
Doing so, including by showcasing Abrams’ strengths in Ukraine, would not only benefit our national security but create economic opportunity, showing the skeptics that America’s domestic material interests and a values-based foreign policy are not necessarily in conflict.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.