The Battle Tank Dilemma

JAMES FRYER  –  Jan 22, 2023

On 20 January, defence ministers from across NATO gathered in Ramstein, Germany to discuss the latest effort to render military assistance to Ukraine. As the latter’s war with Russia lurches grimly toward its one-year anniversary, the allies found themselves deadlocked over whether to grant Ukraine’s request to supply heavy armour in the form of main battle tanks. Although the United Kingdom had previously announced it would furnish a squadron’s worth of Challenger 2 tanks, no agreement on the transfer of the more numerous German-made Leopard 2 was secured at the meeting.

Under intense pressure from allies, Germany, which holds the export licence for the Leopard 2, hasn’t ruled out sending battle tanks to Ukraine, but its anti-militarism position is conflicting with its recognized leadership role in global stability – Chancellor Olaf Scholtz remains on the fence about a transfer.

Initial optimism that Berlin would ‘come around’ is now mixed with frustration over its current refusal to budge unless the United States pledges some of its M1 Abrams tanks – an option the U.S. has deemed financially and logistically unfeasible. 

Why Tanks?

Tanks have acquired an almost mythical status in the debate over how best to support Ukraine militarily. Known for their awesome firepower and shock value, tanks have frequently been cast as relics of wars past, only to charge back into relevance when states go to war or embark on muscular peace support operations.

Yet tanks are not the panacea that they are often (unwittingly) being made out to be. They must be situated within well-trained combined-arms formations (comprising infantry, artillery, combat engineers, and other supporting arms) if they are to take/re-take and hold territory. This in turn requires significant training and logistical efforts to put them into the field and keep them in operation. Strangely, little has been said about the critical need for spare parts and ammunition, and whether NATO allies can provide these in quantity. Similarly, other heavy armoured vehicles that are designed to support the tanks in combat will need to be furnished. Armoured recovery vehicles – based on the Leopard 2 tank chassis – will be needed to haul tanks out of the late-winter muck, or tow damaged tanks back to friendly lines for repair. These specialist vehicles typically exist in smaller numbers than tanks.

And adversaries may be less impressed with an opposing tank fleet if they have been given time to re-constitute their own armoured forces, as well as construct extensive fortifications, mine fields, and other obstacles to manoeuvrability. Russian forces in occupied Ukraine may be heavy with conscripts, but their professional counterparts will know how to direct them toward that end.

Thanks, but no tanks (yet)

Germany's refusal to provide Leopard 2s out of its own stocks, or readily approve the re-export of allied Leopards to Ukraine, borders on the inexplicable. At best, it's a non sequitur. Berlin does not need American permission to proceed, nor is there any legal or military requirement that Washington move first to supply Kyiv with M1-series Abrams tanks. In any case, other allies have pledged to donate Leopard 2s, which begs the question of why a willing coalition of European neighbours is not enough to stiffen the German spine.   

It is also illogical. Already Germany has transferred weaponry that has undoubtedly killed plenty of Russians – including heavy artillery systems, anti-armour weapons, air-defence systems, and munitions. Adding tanks would be an evolutionary move, not a revolutionary one. It would merely complete the combined-arms ‘triad’ involving infantry and artillery.

The suggestion that it would be an escalatory move is an odd argument to make given that the invasion itself was an escalation of the crisis of 2014 in which Russia seized Crimea and supported a separatist war in the Donbas. Further escalation came in the form of the brazenly illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2022 (territory that Russian did not even control), and in the deliberate and repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure. Rather than being escalatory, the use of German tanks would be intended to reverse Russian aggression – to clear an invading force from territory on which it has no business trespassing. Such would be consistent with the United Nations Charter, which both stigmatizes wars of conquest and enshrines the right to individual and collective self-defence – a right that even Berlin claims to cherish.

At worst, Germany's hesitation is an abdication of political and moral responsibility, animated by a selective and ultimately self-serving reading of its history. Residual guilt over the Wehrmacht's swath of destruction on the Eastern Front during the Second World War may still cause Germans of a certain vintage to wince at the thought of German tanks locking horns with their Russian counterparts. But this cannot mask the reality that Germany today is in no way like its Nazi forbears. Today, Germany is a responsible liberal democracy that has proven its pacifist bona fides since the founding of the Bundesrepublik. The notion that a brigade or two of tanks would irrevocably tarnish its reputation, brand it Napoleonic, or empower Ukrainian forces to march on Moscow is beyond absurd. Misused, war guilt gives Germany a perpetual ‘out’ from shouldering the burden of putting aggressors back in the box.

In fact, it is Russia's behaviour that is now reminiscent of the last Reich. The Kremlin has spouted ethno-nationalist rhetoric not seen in decades, while claiming a right to forcefully revise borders and gather 'our' people into a new super-state. It is Vladimir Putin who has launched a latter-day version of Operation Barbarossa to subdue a country he considers artificial and a people he considers beneath him. So, as Ukrainians were among the first to suffer from Germany's wartime depredations, surely preserving modern Ukraine's existence as a free and sovereign state is a way of righting an old wrong.

There may also be an unintended dose of cynicism in Berlin’s position – shifting the onus onto the U.S., which has done far more than any other country to buttress Ukraine’s defences. Washington has and continues to exercise leadership. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Scholz seems to prefer to take his cue from opinion polls while stating that Germany is doing just enough, thank you.                                                              

Canada (and others) to the rescue?

Canada has made no promises of heavy armour, either. This is not surprising; it is not the style of the Trudeau government to be proactive on strategic or military matters. It would also go against the grain for almost any Canadian government to apply pressure on an ally to change its tune on such a sensitive issue. Yet Canada’s decision not to join Poland or Finland in pledging tank support in advance of German re-export approval may be explicable given Canada’s neglect of its own land forces. Better to not call out Germany than draw attention to the capability gaps that have emerged in the Canadian Army since the end of its engagement in Afghanistan a decade ago.

The role/salience of the main battle tank in the Canadian Army reflects its self-image as a medium-weight force (based on LAV 6.0 and variants) complemented by limited light and heavy forces. Tanks are complex and expensive systems, and their weight and logistical demands make them difficult to transport to and sustain in distant theatres. Along with resource constraints and, until recently, a NATO-wide view that major land combat in the Euro-Atlantic area was unlikely, these factors have resulted in an under-capitalized tank fleet in various stages of obsolescence. Yet the state of the tank fleet belies its importance to the Canadian army. The Leopard 2 represents the army's sole mounted anti-armour capability. It will remain so until the service acquires a portable or vehicle-mounted anti-tank missile, and this may not happen until much later this decade. 

Whether the current conflict, or Canada's pledge to reinforce its contingent in Latvia, will elevate the status of the tank in the army's force development plans is uncertain. It is possible that DND will want to focus efforts on restoring non-existent capabilities to the army (i.e. ground-based air defence, portable anti-armour weaponry), rather than devote scarce resources to buttressing an extant, albeit fraying, heavy-armour capability.

In the meantime, Canada has proceeded with gifts of lighter armour. A donation of 36 8-wheeled Armoured Combat Support Vehicles (ACSV) made last year is now being effected. On 18 January, Defence Minister Anita Anand pledged 200 Roshel Senator 4x4 multi-purpose armoured vehicles to go along with the eight copies that had been previously ordered.

We don't know if Ukraine asked for combat support or multi-purpose vehicles; Kyiv may have been convinced to simply accept what is available – either out of the Canadian Army’s stocks or what could be produced at short notice by Canadian industry. Experts noted that Canada’s first donation of weapons – aging Carl Gustav recoilless rifles and various small arms – appears to have been based on what was lying around in store houses rather than what would deal effectively with Russian armoured columns. The multi-purpose vehicles were undoubtedly offered with the best of intentions, but despite being armoured, both options provide limited utility in a high-intensity conflict. Each offers a degree of protected mobility suitable for rear areas rather than the forward edge of the battle area. As donations, they have other drawbacks. Thanks to Western largesse, Ukraine has an intolerably wide variety of armoured vehicles in its inventory. Canada's ACSV, being limited in number and not supplied by any other NATO member, will be difficult to support logistically over the medium term.

While the Senator multi-purpose vehicles are more numerous, they are geared more toward law enforcement, border patrol and other security operations in low-threat environments. Their minimum ballistic protection and limited mine protection will restrict their use to rear-area security. Describing them as “armoured personnel carriers” may be consistent with the company brochure, but may also be a lawyerly move by Minister Anand – a semantical sleight-of-hand which places the vehicles into a class to which they do not belong, and hoping that the Canadian public (i.e., the 'jury') will be unaware of the distinction. Whatever the case, the Senator vehicles will protect troops shuttling back and forth from the front, or patrolling the border with neighbouring Belarus. But, like the ACSV, they are not combat platforms and will have no direct role in liberating Ukrainian soil.

Tanks, on the other hand, would demonstrate a more robust commitment to reversing the gains made by Russia since last February. But the availability of Canadian Leopard 2s is based both on their quantity and quality, and the tank fleet’s current state provides insights into how generous Canada can be. Canada began acquiring Leopard 2s from Germany during the Afghan war, and added to its stocks from Dutch sources as the war began to wind down. Currently there are 82 in the army's inventory in three disparate versions. The majority – 42 Leopard 2A4s – are restricted to training roles and are said to be near-unsupportable by the original manufacturer. Overall, the fleet suffers from poor serviceability.

Nevertheless, Canada is a member of the ‘Leopard Club’ and will face questions as to whether it will contribute to an allied effort to assist Ukraine. Only a portion of the tank fleet (about 20 vehicles) could be considered fit for combat against a capable opponent. But a dearth of spare parts, ammunition, infrastructure, and trained technicians amply demonstrate the low priority accorded to the fleet by the army and the Government of Canada in its 2017 defence policy, where a life-extension of the tank fleet merited no mention whatsoever. Any contribution to Ukraine’s land forces is therefore likely to be limited.

Yet even a small contribution of tanks would be a morale booster for the recipient. Alongside allied contributions of various sizes, it could result in the (re-)constitution of two or more Ukrainian mechanized brigades. If the allies could agree to pool spare parts, main gun ammunition, and training resources, and if a logistical/repair hub could be established in, say, neighbouring Slovakia, this would enhance Kyiv’s chances of imposing real costs on the invader in the months ahead. Scale is important, as there would be no point in feeding small numbers of tanks into theatre and committing them to battle piecemeal. Accordingly, Canada may have to consider whether to part with one or more of its highly-prized Wissent 2 armoured recovery vehicles to keep the donated Leopards in the fight.

But just as the war has showcased Ukrainian resilience, it has also demonstrated the value of creativity in adversity. Innovative repair techniques may be put to use in supporting Western armour. Just as doctors have long advised medical practitioners in remote areas using ‘tele-medicine’, allied maintainers and civilian specialists could potentially render on-going technical assistance to Ukrainian troops via ZOOM.

Spearhead to victory?

The Russo-Ukrainian war has seen impressive Western unity in countering the Kremlin’s revanchism. The deep pockets and deeper magazines of NATO allies have thus far sustained Ukrainian resistance, and demonstrated that there are real costs to would-be aggressors bent on territorial aggrandizement. But neither Western nor Ukrainian resilience should be taken for granted in perpetuity. Knowing that a stalemate or ‘frozen conflict’ will only benefit Moscow, the allies are taking the risk that a partial liquidation of their own weapons inventories is a fair price to pay to terminate hostilities on terms favourable to themselves and to Ukraine. Heavy armour – often seen as yesterday’s currency – will be a key component of future manoeuvre battles to secure a just peace.    

When asked if Canada would agree to Ukraine’s request for heavy armour, Prime Minister Trudeau responded cryptically: “We will look at all the requests from Ukraine but we’re not there yet for the Leopard 2 tanks.” Theoretically, this leaves the door open for a modest Canadian contribution to Ukraine’s efforts to free itself from the predations of its would-be overlord.

To be sure, even a sizeable donation of tanks holds no guarantee of battlefield success. And a full German awakening to its responsibilities – to both its neighbours and to international peace and security – is unfortunately not assured. But if this changes, if heavy armour is supplied in quantity and with sufficient logistical support, Ukraine’s hand may be strengthened in the next (and hopefully final) phase of this terrible war.

James Fryer is an independent defence analyst based in Toronto.