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OPINION

Tank audit. Why Western arms take so long to reach Ukraine and how they will affect war

Western countries have finally approved deliveries of dozens of Abrams, Leopard 2 and Challenger tanks to Ukraine. Deliveries of combat aircraft and long-range ATACMS missiles remain questionable, but the already-approved weapons will not reach combat positions any time soon. Military expert Pavel Luzin explains why the slowness in replenishing the Ukrainian army with new heavy weapons is not so much due to Moscow's “red lines” and fear of escalation as to the objective problems of introducing high-tech weapons to an active army.

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After a long 11 months of full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine and nine months since the first meeting of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, which now includes nearly 50 countries, at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany the West is expanding its support. The arms shipments that will soon follow will include heavy tanks manufactured by Britain, Germany and the United States – the Challenger 2, the Leopard 2 and the Abrams, respectively. Their total number is already measured in dozens. It may again seem to many that the armaments are arriving late and in insufficient quantities, and the leaders of the major Western countries are acting indecisively and, perhaps, are inclined to heed the regular cries about “red lines” coming from Moscow. But that is not the main reason for the delay.

Russia's malleable “red lines”

The war shattered the illusion of a considerable part of Western elites that Russia itself would be able to pursue a normal political course once certain “dormant institutions” started to work. Since last spring, the Americans and Europeans have been aiming for a military defeat of Russia, one after which it will not be able to regain its military strength. Of course, European and American politicians wish to avoid excessive risks and their own responsibility for the imminent problems along the way. They are closely watching the reactions of Moscow and other countries to their actions, seeking to maintain their foreign policy positions and to preserve maximum room for maneuver for their next steps.

What observers have taken for concern regarding Moscow’s certain “red lines” (which are constantly shifting) is in fact caution and coordination of the process both at the level of each country’s domestic policy department and at the level of the entire coalition. Of course, the human factor and bloated staffs do not contribute to quick decision-making either. The price of the delay is human lives.

Quality and complexity of weapons

The complexity of weaponry has a much greater impact on the pace of supplies. We all remember how the start of deliveries of American and European HIMARS and M270 multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine felt like a breakthrough. However, far less often do we remember that MLRS are much more than just launchers and high-precision munitions. Supply logistics is far from being a trivial task, and the more of these weapons, the more complicated it is. About 10,000 missiles are produced for MLRSs annually for - many times more than for their Russian counterparts, but they are also being consumed at a very high rate. Modern MLRSs also need air and space reconnaissance: the Ukrainian military was able to combine HIMARS with its commercial remote sensing systems. The Americans themselves, who rely on their own reconnaissance satellites and use commercial systems mainly for communications, did not have such experience.

The same applies to long-range howitzers, which, in addition to shells, need a well-coordinated maintenance and repair system - especially for worn-out gun barrels. They also need experienced artillerymen and rocket launchers who know English and can retrain quickly.

In addition to all this, each weapon system is embedded in the overall system of national and coalition forces and the concept of warfare. Understanding how to fit it into the kind of war Ukraine is waging requires a serious joint intellectual effort.

Each weapon system is embedded in the overall system of national and coalition forces and the concept of warfare

The same applies to armored vehicles. Armored vehicles, and their maintenance procedures, are relatively easy to learn, regardless of the model, because there are many interchangeable parts. That's why many countries, from the U.S. to Turkey to Australia, supply them by the hundreds. The situation with armored personnel carriers and BMPs is more complicated - they also require experienced servicemen and technicians with knowledge of English, and they can be sent abroad from the front only in small groups.

This makes the tank problem much clearer. If the supply of Soviet T-72 and T-80 tanks from the armies of other countries did not immediately cause much of a problem (except that those tanks needed to be replaced with something at home), the problems with heavy modern tanks were quite obvious.

First, these tanks themselves are much more complex than Soviet/Ukrainian/Russian tanks. It is not enough to learn how to push buttons - you need to understand how to use the tank in combat operations in conjunction with other tanks, other armored vehicles and branches of armed forces. It is especially important that Ukraine is severely limited in aviation for covering them from air, and Russia still has a significant number of attack planes and helicopters designed to fight tanks, among other things. In general, there is a problem of fitting the tanks adapted to the local conflicts of recent decades into the realities of the current war, including geography-related ones (terrain, level of urbanization, etc.).

Russia still has a significant number of attack planes and helicopters

Second, Western tank crews consist of four men, not three, as in the T-64, T-72, and T-80. In other words, it is necessary not just to retrain the existing tank crews, but also to reorganize and expand them. Accordingly, it is also necessary to prepare replacements for the Soviet tank crews who will soon transfer to the Challenger, Leopard, and Abrams tanks.

Third, tanks need to be serviced, not just supplied with shells and fuel. It’s true that unlike even the latest modifications of the T-72 and T-80, whose engine life is under 1000 hours, the service life of Western tank engines reaches several thousand hours (and the Challengers and Leopards have unified engines), yet those engines still require specialists who can read and speak English, and special equipment. Besides, the service life of guns on Western tanks is also finite and depending on the type of projectile is determined by the number of shots: from a couple of hundred to a thousand plus, which is longer that of Soviet tanks and their modifications, but not by a several-fold factor.

Having said this, it is clear why the issue of supplying combat aircraft, which Ukraine also needs, is being resolved even more slowly than the issue of tanks. Also, the issue of airfield infrastructure must be added to all the human, organizational and technical aspects. Any airfield will be a priority target for Russian missiles and will require a powerful air defense system. The only modern fighter that allows covert deployment with the ability to use a highway instead of an airfield is the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen, but so far it is only a hypothetical option.

At the same time, there have been no particular problems with the supply of Soviet-made aircraft and helicopters since the first months of the Russian invasion. Western countries gave Ukraine everything they could give. Moreover, Great Britain was able to train 10 crews and a team of engineers in a six-week program for the three Sea King helicopters being transferred to Ukraine - the first such Western-made machines to be supplied to the Ukrainian army. In other words, the aviation issue is likely to be resolved this year, but not quickly.

Western countries have given Ukraine all the Soviet aircraft and helicopters that could give

As regards missiles that would allow Ukraine to extend the range of its attacks against Russian troops, the most desirable option, the ATACMS missiles with a range of up to 300 km, seems to be the most difficult. Again, it is not about Moscow’s half-mythical “red lines”, but rather about the missiles themselves. About 3,800 of them have been produced since the late 1980s, and their production stopped many years ago; mass production of the PrSM missiles, which are to replace them, will not be launched until later this year.

It's not about Moscow’s half-mythical “red lines”, it's rather about the missiles themselves

However, since their first combat use in 1991, just over 600 of these missiles have been expended – to provide fire support in offensive operations and to target command posts and troop concentrations using operational reconnaissance systems. Simply put, what Ukraine needs these missiles for is different from what these missiles were designed for. For example, dozens of such missiles are needed to destroy at least one Russian military airfield. Hundreds of such missiles are needed to take out several airfields or, for example, armament depots, rear encampments, railway junctions and bridges, which are visible to commercial satellites.

It turns out that Ukraine needs far more missiles than have been used in the past 30 years. This does not mean that the ATACMS will not be given to Ukraine, but it is necessary to develop new ways of their use, effective not only psychologically, but also in practical terms. Or it is necessary to find an alternative which will allow the Ukrainian army to solve necessary tasks.

When is the victory?

We are witnessing a difficult and even painful process of qualitative evolution of the Ukrainian armed forces. The process has been made easier by the fact that it began back in 2014. However, at the time of the Russian full-scale invasion, it was still far from being over. It is both about resources and even the state of the Ukrainian ruling class, which has radically changed over the past few months.

Ukraine's rearmament and rethinking of the concept of modern warfare are taking place today amid heavy fighting, which makes it difficult for the Ukrainians and the donor countries alike. However, the achievements of the Ukrainian military and its allies are tremendous, and the Ukrainian army is transitioning to a new quality.

The achievements of the Ukrainian military and its allies are tremendous, and the AFU are transitioning to a new quality

It is impossible to predict when Russia will be finally defeated in this war. Under favorable circumstances, this could happen as early as this year, but it could also take longer. Even the international coalition took years to defeat ISIS, which had seized significant territories in Syria and Iraq since late 2013, but did not have a large fleet of armored vehicles and artillery and had no aviation at all. It was not until the end of 2017, four years into the conflict, that ISIS was crushed. We have to be prepared for the fact that even with a shortage of tanks, missiles, artillery and aviation and with the organizational degradation of the Russian army, the Kremlin will be able to prolong the war as much as possible, since the physical survival of Kremlin inhabitants and their families is at stake.

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