Ukraine is stepping up its counteroffensive just as the United States announces it has completed the delivery of 31 M1 Abrams tanks ahead of schedule. Ukrainian tank crews who have trained on the M1 with American troops in Germany have also returned to take up the fight.
Earlier this year, the German government announced that it would initially transfer 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other NATO allies to transfer Leopard 2s to Ukraine similarly. This announcement concluded months of wrangling among NATO members over transferring high-end main battle tanks to Ukraine.
On the same day, the Biden administration announced that it would transfer 31 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine in an emergency aid package worth $400 million. The Biden administration stated that Ukraine could expect to receive “hundreds” of tanks. No further details were provided at that time. Also, in January, the British government promised 14 Challenger 2 tanks for Ukraine.
On April 14, the Canadian Defense Minister announced that Canada had completed the delivery of eight Leopard 2A4 tanks to Poland for transfer to Ukraine.
Since these announcements, the entire defense world has focused on the technological sophistication of the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams and Challenger 2 compared to the Russian tanks they will face in Ukraine. In doing so, defense experts and armchair analysts fall into a trap, overlooking the most fundamental impact of training and tactics on the success of armored warfare on the modern battlefield.
Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. military spent much time, effort, and anguish searching for the answer to one specific question: Could the M1 Abrams survive against Soviet tanks in a force-on-force confrontation? At that time, the Soviet tank force consisted mainly of T-64, T-72 and T-80 main battle tanks (an evolution of the T-64 powered by a gas turbine). The T-64, T-72 and T-80 share a number of basic design elements and are equivalent in terms of combat capability and survivability.
In 1991, after only 100 hours of ground combat in Iraq, it was shown that not only could the M1A1 Abrams survive, but the Iraqi T-72s were not even a match for the Abrams and the British Challenger.
During Operation Desert Storm, the Abrams and Challenger could attack and destroy T-72s beyond the range of the T-72’s 125mm 2A64M main gun, allowing American tank crews and British to shoot down T-72s at long range with impunity. In fact, an FV4034 Challenger managed to shoot down more than 5,100 meters, the greatest distance achieved by a tank against another in history.
In close combat, the T-72 fared no better. The Abrams and Challenger crews engaged, maneuvered, and defeated the T-72s faster than the Iraqi tanks could react. During the Battle of 73 Easting (February 26, 1991), elements of the US Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, including some 36 M1A1 Abrams tanks, defeated two Iraqi armored brigades in close combat. In the battle, the 2nd ACR lost no Abrams tanks and only one M2 Bradley fighting vehicle to enemy fire. The Iraqi army lost 160 tanks, 180 personnel carriers, 12 artillery pieces and 80 wheeled vehicles.
Taking on an American Abrams or a British Challenger in a Russian-made T-72 was much better than bringing a knife to a gunfight.
3 decades later…
The Russian army’s tank force invading Ukraine mainly comprises T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks. The T-90 is essentially a later hull and turret model of the T-72, integrating the new V-84 MS diesel engine and advanced turret components from the later T-80U. Reports from open sources indicate that tank losses in Ukraine are forcing the Russian military to re-equip even older T-62 tanks for combat service. With introducing the Challenger 2, Leopard 1, Leopard 2 and M1A1 Abrams into Ukrainian Army service, Russian Army tank crews in Ukraine may find themselves at an even greater disadvantage.
But technology alone is not the key to modern armored warfare. How these tanks are used tactically is, and always will be, the key factor. Therefore, we must look beyond technology and focus on tactical doctrine, training and employment.
In terms of tactical doctrine and training, the Russian and Ukrainian armies are branches of the same tree, inheritors of the same heritage of the Soviet Red Army. As such, their common doctrine for tank warfare was shaped by the pioneering tactics of Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov. Zhukov’s doctrine employed tank forces as a monolithic moving sledgehammer: straight to the center, Crush everything that gets in your way. The design of Russian tanks reflects this tactical philosophy.
On the other hand, the tactical doctrine of Western tanks is based on the philosophy of cavalry: move fast, attack hard. Don’t give the enemy the opportunity to react effectively. While Zhukov inspires the Russians, Western armies are inspired by Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel and the most magnificent horseman of them all, George S. Patton. The design of Western tanks reflects this tactical philosophy, emphasizing the platform’s speed and maneuverability, combined with the crew’s situational awareness and tactical initiative.
In Ukraine, if the Leopard, Challenger and Abrams are deployed with crews and commanders well-trained in Western armored warfare doctrine, the impact on the battlefield will be devastating for Russian forces. But if Ukrainian forces attempt to employ these Western tanks under their current Soviet-style doctrine, the results on the battlefield will be mixed at best and disastrous at worst.
Ukrainian personnel must be trained to operate, maintain and effectively use these combat tanks. This level of training is not achieved overnight. Even the world’s most sophisticated weapon is useless in inexperienced (or poorly trained) hands.
Technology does not win battles. Well-trained soldiers win battles. To ignore this permanent reality is to invite disaster and defeat.