Ukraine’s arsenal to be boosted by Western ‘light tanks’

AMX-10 - EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images
AMX-10 – EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

You wait ten and a half months for a tank, then three come along at once.

Since the war in Ukraine began, officials in Kyiv have been begging Western allies for modern armoured vehicles to help them hold back the Russian offensive and retake occupied territory.

Last week, France, Germany and the US all agreed to send their version of the weapons – the AMX-10 RC, Marder and Bradley respectively.

Ukrainian soldiers will soon be transported at rapid speed across the frontlines in these light vehicles, which can then provide fire support as the troops mass over dug-in Russian positions.

First, the caveats: These vehicles are not, technically speaking, true tanks. They lack the armour or firepower to play the breakthrough role of those machines.

Germany is still ignoring Ukrainian demands to release the Leopard II, a 63-ton Nato-standard main battle tank which some think would turn the tide of the war.

Nonetheless, this week marks a turning point in Western policy.

The US Bradley is the most advanced of the three. Introduced in the early 1980s, it fought with distinction in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

US Bradley - ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
US Bradley – ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

The turret has a 25mm cannon fired from a chain gun and a pod on the side that fires TOW anti-tank missiles, easily capable of taking out Russian battle tanks.

The Marder, about a decade older, was the envy of the British and US armies during the Cold War but never saw action. It is well protected and has a reputation as an exceptionally reliable motor vehicle. Its 20 mm cannon packs a serious punch.

Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a defence think tank, calls it a “respectable but old” fighting vehicle.

The AMX-10 RC, which the French classify as a “light tank”, is a stranger beast.

Its armour is too thin to serve as a true tank, and it lacks the troop-carrying capability of an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). But it is very fast, has exceptional cross-country ability, and carries built-in water jets for crossing rivers.

And its 105-mm cannon was designed to destroy exactly the older Cold War tanks like the T-64 Russia is increasingly putting on the battlefield.

“In Bosnia, they tended to use them as light tanks. But if there was a prospect of a lot of shooting they would ask for British Warriors, which were better armoured even if they had less firepower,” said Mr Barry, who himself served in Bosnia in the 1990s and had a number of the vehicles under his command there.

“But if someone said to me, ‘Ben, I want you to build an armoured brigade would you like these things?’ I’d say ‘absolutely’. They are just what you want for a reconnaissance echelon or rapid reaction force.”

The French, American and German announcements have political as well as battlefield imports. They signal to the Kremlin that Western resolve and unity is hardening, not crumbling, and are designed to undermine Mr Putin’s conviction he can win by waiting for Ukraine’s allies to get bored.

It also suggests there is now a consensus in the West that Ukraine can win on the battlefield. IFVs are for the offensive, crucial to protecting infantry from artillery and direct fire in combined arms advances against a dug-in enemy.

But these are not war-winning wonder weapons. All are either already retired or soon to be replaced by their home nations.

Their advantages over the Soviet-pattern BMP and BTR vehicles used by both Russia and Ukraine are considerable, but not overwhelming.

And there are not enough of them.

Valery Zaluzhny, the head of the Ukrainian armed forces, said he needed 300 tanks, 600 to 700 infantry fighting vehicles, and 500 howitzers to push the Russians back to the February 23 lines.

France has not said how many AMX-10 RCs it will send. Der Speigel reported the Marder consignment might be around 40 vehicles – roughly a battalion’s worth – although that has not been confirmed by the German government.

US officials told Reuters the next aid package would involve “around 50” Bradleys.

The shortfall could reflect disagreement. Western officials privately often express irritation with Ukrainian shopping lists, complaining they often do not match actual battlefield needs and that Kyiv often won’t share the reasons for such demands.

That is not the case here, though. Gen Zaluzhny’s list, said Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence think tank, is “quite reasonable”. The problem is simply one of supply.

“It would be great for them to have that stuff. But there are not fleets of that size available without handing over frontline equipment from Nato formations,” said Mr Watling.

The workaround – a few dozen Marders here, fifty US Bradleys there – will exacerbate an already acute headache for Ukrainian logisticians managing multiple training, maintenance and spare parts supply chains for each system.

And no Ukrainian offensive will succeed without “real” tanks. Ukrainian government officials have been publicly begging for Nato MBTs like the Leopard, or the US Abrams and Britain’s Challenger II since last summer.

These would have a significant impact on the battlefield, Mr Barry said.

Of the three, the Leopard would be the simplest to slot into the Ukrainian arsenal: it is operated by several European countries besides Germany and does not require specialised ammunition, like the Challenger, or consume insane amounts of fuel, like the Abrams.

Some Western sources have voiced concern about the logistics of delivering Nato tanks to Kyiv, saying they are too heavy for bridges or to tow across country without specialised loaders.

The Leopard, Mr Barry said, can be bought in a package with its own recovery vehicles and low-loafers and rail capability can be provided.

“In terms of military science, it is perfectly possible for Ukraine to win the war this year,” said Mr Watling. “There are other plausible scenarios – what if Russian military industry gets its act together and increases munitions production? What if the Russians sort out their training?

“The question for the West is: you have a lot of agency over the future. Victory is possible. If that is an outcome you want, you can make it happen.”

Published by anthonyhayble

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