Get a load of this thing:
Looks thoroughly badass, right? That, folks, is an M1A2 SEPv.3 Abrams, and all these years after Desert Storm, having received continuous upgrades to armour and electronics, it might still be the best tank in the world. It’s certainly fit to tear right through the pathetic T-72s and T-62s that the Russians are now scraping out of the bottom of their armour barrel – hell, earlier, much inferior marks of this monster were popping the lids off T-72s in the Gulf over 30 years ago. So, when Ukraine gets its M1s, watch out! They’re going to rip all those poor, witless mobiks and Wagner Group orcs a bunch of new ones! The Russian bastards will think Heinz Guderian is back!
Yeah, well, forget that.
See, when Biden finally relented on giving tanks to Ukraine, the promise was for only 31 of them. 31!! Exactly enough for one standard Ukrainian tank battalion, when what they need is about ten times that (at least ten times that). Plus, they’re not getting them any time soon – maybe sometime in 2024, if there’s still a Ukraine to which they can send them. Oh, and one other thing, the snazzy M1A2 SEPv.3 pictured above won’t be what they’re getting, probably. Actually, it’s not at all clear what version they’ll be sending Zelensky’s way, because to date, no export customer for the Abrams has ever received the real deal, but only downgraded versions that are quite a bit less tough and survivable. The all-singing, all-dancing US front line M1s are decked out in a classified armoured hide of mixed composites and depleted Uranium armour (about the densest substance on Earth), and the way it’s put together is highly, highly classified. The Americans don’t want it compromised by anybody else on some foreign battlefield. Even the Saudis didn’t get it (and I’ve seen claims that they’ve lost something like 400 of their B-grade M1s in Yemen, partly, mind you, because they’ve no idea how to use tanks properly), and if the Saudis can’t buy it, then buddy, it can’t be bought. There’s a chance that the moral and geopolitical imperatives of resisting the Russians will compel them to make an exception this time, but thus far, all I’m getting in the OSINT is “we’ll see”.
O.K., you say, but other countries are pitching in too. Look at this:
That’s a Challenger 2, a very tough customer, and Britain has pledged some to the war effort. Russian tankers beware!
And look at these:
Those are Leopard 2 A7s, and on balance they might be the best tanks in the world. You’ve probably heard that NATO members – including Canada – are donating their Leopard 2s to Ukraine, and that they’re already arriving, so, watch out you Wagner Group bastards etc. etc.
Except the U.K. has thus far promised to send but 12 of their tanks to Ukraine. Big deal.
As for the Leopard 2s, it’s not clear what version(s) the Ukrainians will be getting. It exists in a number of marks, many of them quite inferior to the ones pictured above. Canada’s main variant is the Leopard 2 A4:
There goes one now, on its way to Poland for delivery to Ukraine:
Now, don’t get me wrong, it might be outclassed by the A7 version, but the A4 is still a hell of a tank. Turkey lost a passel of them in northern Syria, fighting with ISIS jihadists, but as with the Saudis, it looks like they don’t know how to use tanks properly (hint: roaming across open ground without infantry support and then parking on a little hill, presenting your less armoured flanks to the enemy, and sitting there immobile is not the right way). I wouldn’t want to see one coming at me from the insides of a T-72, or even a T-90, if they still have any of those left, but – but – here’s the thing: Canada’s donating eight of them. The Germans have pledged 18, variant not certain. Poland has promised 14. Together, other NATO countries have promised maybe twenty more, which will not be the end of it, but you get the picture. Again: Ukraine needs hundreds of tanks. They’re saying about 300, while I’m figuring, given the inevitable losses (on the modern battlefield, no tanks, however tough, are invincible), that 500 sounds more like it; and at least as many armoured personnel carriers and/or infantry fighting vehicles (armoured vehicles that transport troops on the battlefield), so that mechanized infantry can support the tanks. To that end, the Americans have pledged to send M2 Bradley IFVs, these things:
…and no, that’s not a tank, you civilians drive me nuts thinking anything with tracks is a tank; and Germany is pulling a number of its Marders out of storage:
…and the U.S. is also sending some of its Stryker vehicles, not sure which variant (there are many):
And you know what, that’s great, that’s just exactly what they need, but you can guess what comes next: so far, the commitment is to send 60 Bradleys, 90 Strykers, and 40 Marders. 190 vehicles! That’s getting there, but it’s not nearly enough. Not by a damn sight.
Moreover, all this stuff, such as it is, is trickling Ukraine’s way in penny packets, a few at a time. This headline almost made me weep from sheer frustration:
Please, sir, can we have some more?
The last time I wrote about this awful war, I expressed the hope that Ukraine might be able to break out of the dreadful trench warfare on the stalemated Eastern Front, and start prosecuting what we in the West call “maneuver warfare” – if you remember what U.S. forces did in the last 100 hours of Desert Storm, tearing through Iraq at 45 MPH while destroying everything in their path, you’ll understand a bit what that looks like, done right. It seems clear, now, that the Ukrainians just don’t have the means, not yet. Partly, it’s the shortage of the sort of armour and other gear we’re now delivering in intermittent lots of twos and fours, and partly, by some accounts, it’s because Ukrainian forces don’t yet know, really, how to mount that sort of offensive. A number of expert sources I’ve been reading are making that assessment. I’m not so sure. They’re superb soldiers, all of them, much better than they were in 2014, when this all began, and very much better than the Russians are now. While it’s possible they still have a ways to go, it’s obviously not true that they can’t yet mount an effective counter-offensive – they already have, a few months back, with significant, albeit still only partial, success.
The expectation is that Ukraine will be mounting new offensives in the Spring, perhaps to further erode the Russian’s strategic position, particularly as regards Crimea. If it’s as successful as the efforts late last year, incremental but significant gains will be made. What’s needed, though, is a decisive counter-offensive, and to conduct the sort of fast-moving, deeply-penetrating assault that might finally roll up the invaders and eject them from all the land they’ve stolen, you need to be adept at what’s called “combined arms”. This, at its highest, means using all varieties of force in a sort of interlocking, mutually-supportive juggernaut of artillery, mechanized infantry, heavy armour, airborne infantry, and close air support, and it’s only the most sophisticated militaries that can do it. The Russians, shockingly to many analysts in the West, clearly cannot. The Ukrainians, I think, have shown that they can, maybe not quite like NATO forces, yet – after all, they don’t have all the tools – but they’re clearly benefitting from the years of training they’ve been receiving from our side since 2014. No doubt they need a lot more instruction on how to use our varied systems and equipment, but that won’t help much if we’re not giving them that equipment.
I’ve been all over the map on this, I know. For most of the past year I’ve concurred with the NATO/U.S. strategy of careful, incremental, potentially escalatory steps, which has seen us supply Ukraine, slowly, with an increasingly capable set of weapons systems. First it was shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, then it was guided artillery, after that rocket artillery, also guided (the vaunted HIMARS), then better, radar-guided anti-aircraft systems, until finally, we agreed to train them on Patriot, which still won’t be delivered for many months, while Ukraine’s infrastructure takes its daily poundings. We’ve been lucky on that last front, as for some reason Iran, long expected to supply Russia with literally hundreds of ballistic missiles, has held back from sending any, and this means that for the moment, Patriot isn’t urgently required (that could change any time, of course). In general, though, the Ukrainians never seem to have enough of what they need, and Putin’s bluster (especially his repeated huffings and puffings about his damnable nuclear arsenal) haven’t amounted to anything, no matter what we’ve sent.
It’s time, then, to change our approach.
The next year of this godawful conflict may well be decisive. It’s still going poorly for the Russians, to be sure. Their latest offensive, launched about a month ago, has seen them trading enormous casualties for trivial gains on the ground, with what’s left of their finest units, as well as all those Wagner Group mercenaries, being thrown into the meat grinder in repeated human-wave style attacks of a sort, if reports are accurate, not seen since the Chinese deliberately sacrificed tens of thousands of men in the Korean War. We now estimate the Russians have suffered 200,000 casualties, and fully 60,000 dead (a little more than America lost throughout the entire Vietnam War), and still, it’s stalemate. Think about that for a second – 200,000 casualties, in only one year! That’s 20,000 more than composed their entire invasion force at the outset, and I bet our estimate is low, too. In a few days, they may finally take the little town of Bakhmut, the conquest of which seems to have become a psychological necessity for Putin, but the majority view among the analysts I follow seems to be that it won’t make a whit of difference, strategically, and certainly won’t have been worth the price.
But the Ukrainians have been bloodied too. We think their losses may have risen to as much as half of the Russian total, terrible for a nation of their size, and I’m hearing reports that morale may be flagging and the effort to replenish the ranks, despite having instituted conscription, may be falling short. Given the circumstances, stories like this aren’t what we want to hear, and if true must be alarming to NATO policymakers:
This is perfectly understandable, of course, but sadly it fits all too well with what may be Putin’s strategy, and last best hope: that he can simply outlast us. Yes, he’s got himself into a miserable re-enactment of the First World War on the deadlocked Eastern front. Yes, he’s having to replace his front-line casualties with an increasingly untrained, disshevelled, ill-equipped mass of unhappy mobiks, whose lives must be thrown away by the thousand to keep grinding away at the defenders. Yes, he’s lost fully half – that is, about 1,700 – of all the main battle tanks in his entire army, and perhaps twice as many other pieces of heavy equipment, plus maybe 300 precious jets to boot. Yes, he’s forced to make good those losses as best he can by pulling Cold War antiques out of storage, including somewhat upgraded versions of vintage tanks that weren’t good enough to go toe to toe back in 1973 with the Israelis, who were using a prior generation of Western armour that beasts like the M1 would eat for snacks.
The hell of it is, though, that he seems fine with that. He’s fighting an attrition war now. He thinks he can stay the course, and his people will take it and be quiet about it, as they have so many times before throughout their invariably dismal history. He thinks Ukraine can’t possibly do likewise, and is bound to crack at some point. He thinks the West – oh, the fickle, tentative West – may soon tire of supplying all that expensive support (just look at what the Freedom Caucus is saying in the Americans’ absurd, decadent so-called Congress!). He probably anticipates keeping this up straight through 2024, even longer, and then, inevitably, the frail human nature of his opponents will do the rest. I hate like hell to say this, and I’ve never really thought so before, but God help us, he might be right.
Therefore Ukraine has to break out of this gory, meat-grinding, deadlocked artillery-fest soon. Within the next year. We have to bend every sinew to make that happen. We have to! It is absolutely vital that Russia loses this war, and loses it badly. A victory for Putin would be a humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe, with knock-on effects that might make us yearn for the good old days of the Cold War, with its unwritten rules of the game, mutual deterrence, and general stability where it mattered most. We cannot let the ugly world of Putin’s imperialist fantasies come into being. We have to wake up. This is an emergency.
We’ve risen to this sort of challenge before, in the not-too-distant past. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, massed Syrian and Egyptian assaults on two fronts threw the Israelis back on their heels, coming very close to a victory that would have eradicated the Jewish state. Most frightening were the dreadful losses suffered early on by their air force, upon which Israel had always relied for a decisive edge. Desperate measures were suddenly under serious consideration. We now believe that Golda Meir authorized preliminary steps toward the use of their secret cache of nuclear weapons; some accounts have the nukes loaded under the bellies of A-4 Skyhawks, or F-4 Phantoms, ready to go. It was that bad.
The U.S. response? Well, it sure as shit wasn’t incremental. They didn’t set about building new jets for the heyl ha’avir, promising to deliver them down the road some time, or pull old models out of the boneyard for refurbishment. It was an emergency, right? Something needed to be done right away. So, just for starters, front line Phantom jets were transferred directly from U.S. squadron service to the beleaguered defenders. Their pilots were told they’d be flying to Israel in their fighters, and taking Pan Am for the return trip. The US navy likewise supplied A-4 Skyhawks. Then, within days, a massive airlift of weapons, huge C-5s flying in ’round the clock, helped the Israelis turn the tide, and when the Russians got angry that their surrogates were getting creamed, and started making noises about doing something about it, the Americans went to DEFCON 3 and essentially told them to bring it (while working frantically behind the scenes, of course, to defuse the crisis).
That’s how you do that. That’s pretty much what we should be doing now, as soon as possible. In retrospect, it’s a pity that the Ukrainians weren’t already training on our armoured vehicles, surface to air missiles, and, yes dammit, fighter aircraft, 11 months ago, but it is what it is. We have to step it up right now. Meanwhile, why is Canada sending eight tanks ? What do we need tanks for? We didn’t even own the current inventory until they were hurriedly bought second-hand to buttress our forces deployed to Afghanistan. We’re no longer in Afghanistan. We should be giving Ukraine all we have, about 110, last I checked (though how many are operational and “good to go” is another question). Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, anybody not on the NATO front line, should do likewise. How is it that Britain has promised the Ukrainians just 12 Challenger 2 tanks? Those are damn fine tanks. Britain doesn’t need them, not right now, and if they’d like to keep it that way they should send them all, just as fast as they can. What are the Germans doing, piddling around with 18 tanks? Does Norway have any decent tanks in service? If they do, do they suppose having them trundle up and down the hills around Trondheim Fjord, or some place like it, is the highest, best use for them just now? What’s with 31 lousy M1s, and possibly downgraded ones at that, showing up some time in 2024? Have we gone mad? Are we utterly insensible to the realities here?
NO NO NO. As soon as possible, just as soon as the Ukrainians know what to do with the gear, we must figure out a way to get them much, much more of it. Listen, if I was running the show, swear to God, the boys at Fort Bliss would be told they’re taking 1st Armoured to Poland, lock, stock and barrel, and they’ll be coming back home on a rented Carnival Cruise liner. We have to start treating this conflict as the emergency it is, and that means thinking about transferring some of our own front-line strength to the actual geopolitical front line. We can backfill it later. For example, just as soon as we can train their pilots, F-16s should be delivered directly from NATO squadrons. Hell, if they can handle them, give them a couple of squadrons of F-15s too, I know we use them for continental air defence, but the Russians are tied up elsewhere these days, and we can spare them. While we’re at it, how about a nice bunch of Apache helicopter gunships too? Long range missiles like ATACMS would be awfully useful too, yes? For God’s sake, give ’em the lot. Whatever it takes. Maybe we can’t turn them into a crack Western army with all the fixings, but we have to get them as close as we can, and it seems to me they’re pretty damned close already when it comes to what matters most: quality of personnel.
If Putin rattles his nukes at all this, he should be told, unequivocally, that he can have it his way and die within the following 18 minutes beginning any time he pleases, but meanwhile he’d be doing us all a favour if he shut his goddam pie hole.
We can’t get involved directly, but we can give our noble, battered friends the tools. Ukraine is now, for all practical, geopolitical purposes, the NATO front line. We can’t allow a western-leaning democracy to be forcibly assimilated and essentially destroyed by a ruthless autocracy, using raw, brutal force of the kind that was once widely supposed to be a thing of the past. Now, I won’t lie to you – I don’t know how this ends, and stays ended. Honestly, I don’t see Ukraine stopping until every inch of stolen territory, including Crimea – perhaps especially Crimea – is taken back; and I don’t see Russia deciding not to give it another try as soon as they can absent Ukraine joining NATO, a step the cooler heads out there still advise strenuously against, the serious prospect of which might actually prevent future peace negotiations. Putin, they think, could simply never live with the idea that not only is his long border with Finland now a NATO bulwark, but the Ukrainian one will be too. If you’re determined to see what it takes to finally push him into going apeshit, that might do the trick. So say the experts. What do I know? For now, only this: Russia must be beaten. It’s that frigging simple.
Update, March 3, 2023: