It’s possible to take a dark view of the Ukraine war. The astonishing courage and sacrifice of the Ukrainians has stopped the Russian onslaught when very few, initially, thought this could be done. But now the fighting has stabilised into an attritional bloodbath. Putin is assembling a new invasion army, ready to launch a fresh offensive in the spring. Some Western experts believe that Russian successes are imminent.
And yet the war in Ukraine has also exposed Russia’s weaknesses. Firstly it has become clear that Russian air power is a mere shadow of what the West had thought it to be. Neither side has been able to make much use of the skies during the fighting, which has created a unique, strangely old-fashioned combat environment on the ground – one very different to that seen in recent conflicts such as the Gulf War, the Iraq invasion and the destruction of Colonel Gaddafi’s army in Libya.
Russia’s air forces were thought to have some of the world’s most advanced aircraft, weapons and sensors at their disposal, together with the knowledge to employ them effectively above Ukraine.
Yet those forces have made little contribution other than in the war’s earliest days. Ukraine’s occasional air sorties across the battle lines have proved so costly that they, too, are rare.
So far there has been a lot of talk about supplying Ukraine with Western jets – but only talk, despite President Zelensky’s difficult-to-refuse requests for “English planes” this week.
Sadly the practical reality is that getting Ukrainian pilots and ground crew trained to operate Western planes would take a long time: and Britain, at least, simply doesn’t have any suitable jets to send. This week the Prime Minister suggested “nothing is off the table” when it comes to supplying the Ukrainian air force, although in reality the timescale for producing combat-ready pilots trained to fly and fight with Nato procedures is measured in months or even years.
In this unique situation there may be purely ground-based ways to break the current stalemate – or at least to knock the Russians back. Some in the West believe that the Russians might be driven back not just to their start lines of 2022, but those of 2014. That means recapturing the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas.
One way the West could perhaps help Ukraine achieve this lofty ambition is to supply the Ukrainians with more powerful battlefield weapons than it has done so far. Among other things, the Ukrainians have asked for 300 modern, Western-built main battle tanks (MBTs). The West has pledged to hand around 130 such vehicles to Ukraine’s armies to date.
Shock action: speed and power
Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British tank officer, believes that a division-sized armoured force equipped with Western tanks could mean a swift Ukrainian victory.
“If there are 130 Western tanks, a brigade, I think the Ukrainians can successfully defend against any spring offensive that the Russians might mount,” he says.
“When it comes to defeating the Russians, I think that’s where you need a tank division, which is 300 tanks. A division can move very rapidly through static Russian lines to get behind them in the Crimea and the Donbas and cut off their lines of communication: attacking them in effect from the rear where they’re weakest.
“That could all happen very rapidly. The whole thing about shock action is its speed and power. But it’s essential that tanks are supported by infantry and artillery.
“That is why I’m being fairly upbeat and saying, yes, an armoured tank division could defeat the Russians. A tank brigade would at least prevent the Russians getting any further. I think there is a chance for optimism.”
Col de Bretton-Gordon is not alone. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, also believes that a division-sized Ukrainian armoured force could sweep the Russians out of Crimea, especially if it had long-ranging ATACMS missiles at its disposal. Gen Hodges does not think that the Ukrainians would need all 300 tanks to be Western: he considers that many could be Ukrainian tanks or captured Russian ones.
The decision by the UK to send a limited number of our current Challenger 2 MBTs is to be endorsed, even by those who doubt that MBTs in general and Challengers in particular are a sensible way for the West to spend its money.
Unleash the Leopards
The decision may be no more than a gesture – and at the moment Britain has committed to sending just 14 Challengers – but it is the right gesture to make. It shows that we stand with the Ukrainians: that we are not cowed by Putin’s bluster.
Rishi Sunak’s pledge of Challengers also helped jostle timid German politicians into making the right decisions regarding the hugely more important German-made Leopard II MBT. Many nations apart from Germany have the Leopard, but are bound by their purchase agreements not to pass their tanks on to anyone else without German permission.
International pressure has helped bounce German chancellor Olaf Scholz into doing the right thing, argues William Alberque, director of strategy and arms control at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. There may also be internal political factors in play.
“Scholz is trying to position himself against an incredibly popular foreign minister,” says Alberque.
Now that the Germans have finally agreed, hundreds of Leopards have potentially become available to the Ukrainians.
It is also important to point out that MBTs and their various supporting weapons and systems are things that the Ukrainians can credibly operate for themselves, and do so soon. Armoured force on the ground is perhaps the most powerful technology the Nato powers can give to Ukraine quickly.
It’s also worth noting that the Challenger 2, as far as the UK is concerned, is now obsolescent. Very few tank experts outside the UK were supporters even when it was new. It finally struggled into service with the British army at the end of the ‘90s after being held up for years by failures in reliability testing – and, unlike the highly regarded German Leopard, failed to find much of an export market.
The Omanis did buy 38 Challenger 2s off the drawing board but once the tank was actually in operation, nobody else could be persuaded to take any.
Col de Bretton-Gordon has previously argued that the Challenger 2 is reliable and that his own command tank once went 2,500 miles without breaking down. Nonetheless, spare parts availability is an absolutely crucial factor in armoured warfare.
Ammunition supplies are also vital, adds General Sir Richard Shirreff, former British tank officer and ex deputy commander of Nato.
“Remember that what we’re seeing here is usage on a Second World War, if not higher, scale,” says the general.
“Particularly artillery; massive use of artillery. And the challenge here is that the Western armies post-Cold War have effectively revised down their war stocks, their anticipated requirements and their daily ammunition expenditure estimates. Defence companies have reduced production. And so there’s going to be a big gap.”
Gen Shirreff is nonetheless bullish on the prospects for a substantial armoured force in Ukrainian hands, saying that Western MBTs will “wipe the floor” with the Russians.
“I think what the Ukrainians are going to aim for is a couple of targeted attacks to break the Russian lines in the areas where they’re weakest and run into their rear areas and be able to roll them right up towards the Russian border in the Donbas region,” he says.
Diverse Western tank offers bring their own set of challenges, however, as Gen Shirreff and others have cautioned. Nobody really wants to operate an armoured division with many types of MBT in it. The point of Britain and America’s promises on Challenger and Abrams was to get the Germans to “unleash the Leopards”, as the Ukrainians put it.
We were getting rid of our Challengers anyway
Until quite recently, Britain had no plan to replace the Challenger when it retired. Since 2021, the aim has been to modify and upgrade 148 of our 270-odd Challenger 2s, creating the Challenger 3. Our remaining MBTs will be sent to the boneyard, occasionally to be mined for spare parts to keep the Challenger 3s serviceable.
We are effectively sending the Ukrainians cast-offs, even as they charge around the plains of Bovingdon to familiarise themselves with their new steeds. Indeed, if the Ukrainians get enough Leopards they may not need to use British Challengers: nor the US Abrams, which is very powerful but as high maintenance as the Challenger, and extremely fuel-hungry owing to its gas turbine engine.
The Ukraine war bears little resemblance to a conventional conflict between Nato and Russia, which is what the tanks being supplied to Ukraine were largely designed to fight in. It is unlike any occasion in living memory when Western forces have faced Russian/Soviet tanks in battle.
During the fighting in Libya in 2011, and in the Iraq invasion of 2003, and during the first Gulf War of 1991, Western countries including the US, the UK and various other nations went to war against Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The dictators’ armies were equipped with ex-Soviet armour, like the Ukrainians and the Russians today – albeit the Russians today have somewhat more up-to-date models.
In all three wars, Western air power swiftly smashed the enemy air defences and took control of the skies above the battlefield. This was increasingly done with advanced weapons such as the Tomahawk cruise missile. Libya’s air defences were neutralised almost entirely by Tomahawk.
Control of the skies mattered as the smart weapons age dawned in 1991. It became possible at that time for Western forces to make a direct hit on a pinpoint target (such as a tank) from high altitude, above the reach of all but the heaviest enemy anti-aircraft missiles, almost every time. Over the last few decades, manned jets have become largely unnecessary for this sort of mission: drones such as the Reaper nowadays do a lot of the tank-busting.
The enemy armour in all three of those post-1991 wars was wiped out en masse from the sky. Smart weapons had not yet become ubiquitous at that point and a limited amount of tank-on-tank fighting did take place back then, but even in 1991 the enemy armour was defeated mostly from above.
It’s reasonable to suggest that in Britain we should be buying Tomahawk missiles and Reaper drones, not Challenger 3s: nor the planned Tempest “optionally manned” jets, either. And we should perhaps stop using so much of our shrinking army in attempts to man up our own largely fictional division-sized tank force, the more so as our generals openly admit that only a third of it – one brigade – is actually combat-worthy. Our previous plan, of not bothering with MBTs any more after the Challenger 2, made perfect sense in the pre-Ukraine War world.
The situation is different for the Ukrainians, however. Initially, most experts expected Russia to dominate Ukrainian airspace as the West did above Iraq and Libya, leading to a similarly inevitable defeat for the Ukrainian ground forces. Russia had, and still has, hundreds of apparently powerful combat aircraft stationed in the region. The Ukrainian air force was, and still is, tiny and obsolete.
But it turned out that Russian air power is largely mythical. Rather than strong Russian air-dominance forces systematically hunting and smashing Ukrainian air defences, so allowing their strike aircraft to operate freely above the battlefield, Russian planes to this day go over Ukrainian-held territory only in handfuls.
As a result Russian ground attack pilots fly very low because they fear being shot down by Western-supplied Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles. Surviving Ukrainian pilots and drone operators, surprisingly active despite the odds against them, must also fly low, as Ukraine’s airspace at high levels is menaced by heavy, long-ranging Russian anti-aircraft missiles, the S-300 and S-400, mainly based over the borders in Russia and Belarus.
Neither side can make effective use of the air. This is why Ukrainian officials have said that the Ukrainian air force wants modern Western jets. The Netherlands has already made noises about potentially offering Ukraine some of its US-made F-16 Vipers.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear this week that he wants Western planes to break the current stalemate in the skies. As with the Challenger, any British commitment on these lines is likely to be useful mainly for breaking loose more useful things from other nations, although experts are unanimous that sending some of the RAF’s obsolescent Tranche 1 Typhoon fighter jets is a non-starter. Simply sending jets and training pilots won’t magically let the Ukrainians fight like the US-led West.
“When Nato conducts air operations you have a Combined Air Operations Centre, managing airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, aerial refuelling and penetrating aircraft,” says Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, the defence think-tank.
“And you have your fighter wings, with the full panoply of munitions, and those are all operating collectively. There is no viability to get the Ukrainian Air Force to operate all of those components. And so they don’t have and they cannot have the tools to conduct Nato-like air operations.”
‘The last decisive tank battle was in 1973’
It’s fairly clear, then, that even if the West collectively decides to furnish Ukraine with airpower capable of pushing Russia back, this would take a long time. Perhaps the current situation where neither side can employ air power at scale might restore the MBT to its dominant 1980s position on the battlefield.
MBT dominance is certainly questionable in any other situation. General Sir Rupert Smith, the last man ever to command British armour in combat at division strength, wrote after the 1991 Gulf War: “The last real tank battle known to the world, one in which the armoured formations of two armies manoeuvred against each other supported by artillery and air forces, one in which the tanks in formation were the deciding force, took place in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
“Use of the tank as a machine of war organised in formation, to do battle and attain a definitive result has not occurred during three decades [now five]. Nor, for that matter, is it ever likely to occur again.”
Tank aficionados would doubtless suggest that Ukraine tends to prove General Smith wrong, but has it really?
Certainly Russia sent in plenty of tanks – so many, to begin with, that they hugely outnumbered the Ukrainian ones opposing them. The Russians mostly had T-72s or later models, considerably more advanced than the main Ukrainian tank, the T-64.
The much-modernised T-72B3, the primary Russian tank in theatre, has many of the features that are put forward as advantages for Western tanks like the Challenger and Leopard, such as thermal gunsights which let it fight effectively at night. Later Russian types also to be found on the front line, such as the T-90, are supposedly better still.
Conventional armoured warfare thinking, of the sort which is now leading former Western armour soldiers to say that 300 Western MBTs could defeat the Russians by speed-and-power shock action, would have predicted an immediate Russian victory on the battlefield as soon as the invasion began.
It’s quite clear that having large numbers of tanks – even ones significantly more advanced than the enemy’s – has not been a decisive factor in the war so far, as Russia’s battlefield showing demonstrates. Neither has this been because of air power, which has been mostly absent.
In other words, Gen Smith is still right: the tank still hasn’t delivered a definitive result in battle since 1973.
Nonetheless, Watling believes that success or failure on the battlefield this year will hinge on the Ukrainians’ ability to build up an armoured striking force without it getting sucked into defensive operations.
“If the Russians can succeed in making the Ukrainians commit their reserves, then the Ukrainians will have had their offensive pre-empted,” he says.
“It’s not going to be ‘Leopard is here, there’s nothing the Russians can do’. Yes, it’s more survivable than a T-64. But it’s not invulnerable. The numbers really matter.
“It doesn’t guarantee victory, especially if you don’t invest in being able to replace the barrels on them, maintain the spares and keep them in service.”
Kryptonite for the Russians
There are reasons to doubt, then, that Western tanks – no matter that they are better than many of the Russian ones – will win the Ukraine war this year. And there are those who doubt the idea that any likely number of Western tanks could remove the Crimean peninsula from Russian control.
Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a Falklands veteran and former head of the British military’s in-house forecasting think-tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), says: “Ukraine will do well to leave Crimea alone for now. It is absolute kryptonite to the Russians, and they will die in numerous ditches to hold onto it, even if they lose everything else.”
The admiral also suggests that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons if its hold on Crimea becomes untenable. This may be a step too far even for Vladimir Putin, but the spectre of a mushroom cloud billowing over Simferopol as part of a scorched-earth retreat by Russia will concentrate minds in Kyiv, London and Washington alike. Crimea is Ukrainian, and Ukraine has been clear that it will regain possession of the peninsula, but now is not the time while Russian forces continue their offensive in the east.
The coming year will show whether Western tanks can change the game in Ukraine or not.
But the Ukrainian situation is unique and strange, not at all the same as a Nato confrontation with Putin. The greatest care should be taken by Nato nations such as Britain when trying to learn lessons from it: particularly if those lessons seem to involve setting the clock back to the 1980s and the heyday of the MBT.