WASHINGTON – For months, US officials refused to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, insisting they were too complicated and difficult to maintain and repair.
The dramatic reversal was the culmination of intense international pressure and diplomatic infighting that has unfolded over the past week. And it prompted a rapid succession of announcements: the US said it would send 31 of the 70-ton Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine, and Germany announced it would send 14 Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to do the same do.
A look at the massive combat weapon, why it’s important to Ukraine’s war with Russia, and what drove the Biden administration’s tank turnaround.
WHAT ARE THE ABRAMS?
M1 Abrams tanks have led American combat raids for decades.
With a crew of four, the Abrams first saw action in the war in 1991. It features thick armor, a 120mm main gun, armor-piercing capabilities, advanced targeting systems, thick sprockets, and a 1,500hp turbine engine with a top speed of approximately 42mph (68km/h).
Crews surveyed in a 1992 Government Accountability Office review after the Gulf War praised its high survivability, saying, “Several M1A1 crews reported receiving direct head-on hits from Iraqi T-72s with minimal damage.”
More recently, the Battle Titans led the attack on Baghdad during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, when units of the 3rd Infantry Division performed so-called “thunder runs” to breach Iraqi defenses.
The Abrams’ powerful jet engine can propel the tank through almost any terrain, whether it’s heavy snow or heavy mud, said Kevin Butler, a former Army lieutenant who served as an Abrams tank platoon leader. Butler recalled a muddy drill in the late 1990s at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where he had expressed concern that the tanks were getting stuck because the Humvees were already stuck.
The Abrams, he said, “didn’t even notice” the mud.
WHY THE US ALWAYS SAID NO
The Abrams jet engine requires hundreds of gallons of fuel to function.
It will burn through fuel at a rate of at least 4.7 liters per km (2 gallons per mile) whether the tank is moving or idling, Butler said, meaning a constant supply convoy of tank trucks remain within range must keep moving forward so he can.
The US feared that fuel demand would create a logistical nightmare for Ukraine’s armed forces. While an Abrams can charge through snow and mud, tankers cannot. In addition, like any jet engine, the Abrams turbine needs air to breathe, which it draws in through filtered rear vents. If these vent filters become clogged — whether by sand, soldiers told GAO in 1992, or debris they might encounter in Ukraine — they can’t function.
“The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive, it’s hard to train on. … It’s not the easiest system to maintain. It may or may not be the right system,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
The Abrams will also require months of training. The Ukrainian Armed Forces must learn to operate their more complex systems and keep them running and fueled.
THE ARM-TWISTING TURN
Despite all the downsides voiced by the US, it ultimately came down to political realities and a diplomatic dance.
Germany had been reluctant to send the Leopards or allow allies to send them unless the US put its Abrams on the table, over fears that supplying the tanks would incur the wrath of Russia. The US, meanwhile, argued that the German-made Leopards were more suitable because Ukrainian troops could get and train on them much faster and easier.
The impasse frustrated European allies like Poland, who wanted to send Leopards but couldn’t without Germany’s OK. Thus began the more violent negotiations.
Both US and German officials used the word “intense” to describe the talks that eventually led to both countries’ Panzerwende.
“This is the result of renewed intensive consultations with our allies and international partners,” said Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an address to the German legislature on Wednesday.
Echoing Scholz, a senior U.S. government official said talks had been going on for some time but “have become much more intense in recent weeks.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to share details of the decision.
From President Joe Biden on the phone, also at Scholz. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke and met with their German counterparts and other allies.
The pressure was palpable last Friday. Top defense leaders from more than 50 countries met at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss Ukraine’s ongoing arms and equipment needs. Tanks were a central theme. Leaders from countries that have Leopard tanks met with the new German defense minister.
Gradually, German stance began to soften publicly, leading to Wednesday’s announcements. When asked repeatedly what had changed, officials in the Biden administration dodged. Asked directly about the German pressure, Biden told reporters, “Germany didn’t force me to change our minds.”
HOW LONG IT WILL TAKE
The schedule for both the delivery of the tanks to Ukraine and the training of Ukrainian troops is unclear. US officials would say only that it would take “many months” to deliver the Abrams tanks, but that the Leopards would arrive sooner.
Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, said the US is no longer buying new Abrams, but is using older ones as “launch vehicles” and overhauling them. However, this is neither quick nor easy, he said.
Training can begin more quickly, and the Pentagon is developing a program.
“We want to make sure that they (the tanks) fall into operational hands and that the Ukrainians know how to use them, they know how to keep them running and that they have the supply chain for spare parts and supplies in place,” he said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Bush said Ukrainians have shown they have the knowledge and skills to learn new systems quickly.
“We can often cut corners and speed up what we can do in terms of training Ukrainian army soldiers,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “With enough motivation and dedicated 24/7 access to them, we can train people very quickly,” he said. “The US Army knows how to do this.”
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.
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