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The M1 Abrams Is the Right Tank for the Job in Ukraine

Sending American tanks now helps guarantee a safer world tomorrow.

By , the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and , an associate professor of information science and technology at the University of Houston.
U.S. Army M1 Abrams tanks pictured at Mockava railway station in Lithuania.
U.S. Army M1 Abrams tanks pictured at Mockava railway station in Lithuania.
U.S. Army M1 Abrams tanks pictured at Mockava railway station in Lithuania on Sept. 5, 2020. Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

Main battle tanks (MBTs) are a critical missing piece for the Ukrainians as they battle Russia’s invasion. Adding MBTs alongside modern infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs)—such as the 109 Bradleys being transferred by the United States and the 40 Marders promised by Germany—and mobile artillery yields a lethal trinity of modern mechanized warfare. MBTs’ thick armor, speed, 120 mm main gun, and thousands of machine gun rounds make them invaluable assault assets. They can work despite enemy shellfire to destroy armored vehicles and concrete obstacles, all barriers to the Ukrainians as they battle this year against dug-in Russian forces along the roads to Crimea and the Donbas.

Ukraine’s path to reclaiming its territorial sovereignty lies in leveraging machines rather than sacrificing men. This requires help from abroad. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a recent Washington Post op-ed, NATO hesitance toward supplying more equipment will allow Russia to harden its grip on stolen territories and regroup for new offensives. To continue making gains on its eastern steppe and approaches to Crimea or stall a major Russian counterattack, the Ukrainian military will need a substantial number of new tanks—and soon.

With its defense industry seriously damaged by months of Russian missile strikes, Ukraine has two primary paths to acquire the additional MBTs it needs. One is to obtain and modernize the diminishing stock of Soviet-era tanks scattered across Eastern Europe and scour for whatever 125 mm smoothbore ammunition remains—or they could be procured from a handful of non-Russian facilities vulnerable to Russian covert action. The other is to obtain one (or, more likely, a mix) of the top, large-fleet NATO MBTs—the German Leopard 2 and the American M1A1 Abrams. The Korean K2 Black Panther MBT would be a dark-horse candidate given Hyundai Rotem’s existing production line commitment to Poland and the Korean government’s reticence thus far concerning direct weapons transfers to Ukraine.

Main battle tanks (MBTs) are a critical missing piece for the Ukrainians as they battle Russia’s invasion. Adding MBTs alongside modern infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs)—such as the 109 Bradleys being transferred by the United States and the 40 Marders promised by Germany—and mobile artillery yields a lethal trinity of modern mechanized warfare. MBTs’ thick armor, speed, 120 mm main gun, and thousands of machine gun rounds make them invaluable assault assets. They can work despite enemy shellfire to destroy armored vehicles and concrete obstacles, all barriers to the Ukrainians as they battle this year against dug-in Russian forces along the roads to Crimea and the Donbas.

Ukraine’s path to reclaiming its territorial sovereignty lies in leveraging machines rather than sacrificing men. This requires help from abroad. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a recent Washington Post op-ed, NATO hesitance toward supplying more equipment will allow Russia to harden its grip on stolen territories and regroup for new offensives. To continue making gains on its eastern steppe and approaches to Crimea or stall a major Russian counterattack, the Ukrainian military will need a substantial number of new tanks—and soon.

With its defense industry seriously damaged by months of Russian missile strikes, Ukraine has two primary paths to acquire the additional MBTs it needs. One is to obtain and modernize the diminishing stock of Soviet-era tanks scattered across Eastern Europe and scour for whatever 125 mm smoothbore ammunition remains—or they could be procured from a handful of non-Russian facilities vulnerable to Russian covert action. The other is to obtain one (or, more likely, a mix) of the top, large-fleet NATO MBTs—the German Leopard 2 and the American M1A1 Abrams. The Korean K2 Black Panther MBT would be a dark-horse candidate given Hyundai Rotem’s existing production line commitment to Poland and the Korean government’s reticence thus far concerning direct weapons transfers to Ukraine.

Some U.S. lawmakers have pushed hard to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, which would resolve German unwillingness to transfer—or allow anyone else to dispatch—the Leopard 2s. Reports indicate that this move may be coming very soon. Critics of sending U.S. tanks have pointed to the difficulty of maintaining the Abrams and the greater versatility of the Leopard. But a mixture of the two, using the Abrams as an immediate stopgap and the Leopard as a longer-term solution, could be powerfully effective and timely.

In a December 2022 interview with the Economist, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the supreme commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said he believed that Ukraine needs 300 MBTs, 600-700 IFVs, and 500 self-propelled guns to reconquer the territory Russia stole. NATO’s own deployments suggest these numbers are generally aligned with reality. Consider that for a 2017 rotational exercise, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team deployed four battalions with 87 M1A1 tanks, 136 Bradley fighting vehicles, and 20 Paladin self-propelled 155 mm howitzers—and that was for a reassurance deployment not oriented toward offensive operations.

The Leopard 2 is a popular NATO MBT outside the United States, with nearly 2,000 units in service across more than a dozen current and prospective alliance members. This is, in part, a legacy of Germany offering competitive pricing for a solid basic capability set. Leopard 2 was the first NATO tank to field a 120 mm smoothbore gun, which offers longer barrel life and the ability to fire higher-velocity and more lethal anti-armor rounds than its 105 mm rifled predecessor. Its MTU turbo diesel engine is efficient and reliable. Yet finding 300 of them that are not already in active service, or which could be reconditioned rapidly, will be a steep task. Until the recent deal, the present German government spent months sought reasons not to transfer Leopard 2s to Ukraine while also failing to authorize transfers from other Leopard 2 operators that would require Berlin’s permission to re-export tanks obtained from Germany.

Poland is now pushing to create a tank coalition that would ask Germany for approval to re-export Leopard 2s to Ukraine, but it will send them regardless so long as multiple countries participate. Still, Europe’s collective action problem on tanks, combined with the urgency of maintaining Ukrainian momentum in its struggle to eject Russian forces, suggests a new approach is needed. Ukraine’s armed forces may eventually choose the Leopard 2 as their long-term tank, but they will need the Abrams to fight and win the war they are in now. It is the only modern Western tank of which hundreds could be transferred in months.

Consider the raw numbers. The U.S. military has about 3,500 M1A1/A2 tanks in storage, according to estimates from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Moreover, the United States Marine Corps divested its 450-unit Abrams fleet as part of its long-term strategic reorientation toward Pacific conflict. More than 300 of these tanks have already been transferred to the Army, and the balance that are stored overseas and on maritime prepositioning vessels are slated to be transferred this year. Used U.S. Abrams are already in regional demand, with the State Department approving a sale of 116 M1A1s to Poland in December 2022, along with 12 M88A2 combat recovery vehicles, eight M1110 Joint Assault Bridges, and other miscellaneous items—a transaction that illustrates the approximate contours of what an initial Abrams package to Ukraine might look like.

These tanks would serve U.S. national security interests far better pressed into Ukrainian military service than collecting dust at the Sierra and Anniston Army depots. They could be eligible for transfer under a presidential drawdown, an authority used 30 times thus far to support Ukraine. The U.S. could also use the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 to lend or lease surplus (or even active-duty) Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

As tanks are transferred from storage or active formations, more could be reconditioned at the Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, over time as losses mount or new Ukrainian formations transition to the M1A1/A2. The U.S. Army also has about 1,000 M88A1 armored recovery vehicles in storage, according to IISS, which provides a ready reserve of mechanical support to accompany the Abrams into combat.

The Abrams is proven in combat, including major engagements in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where it savaged Russian-designed  Iraqi armor that is often nearly identical to what Russia now pulls from its depot stocks for the war in Ukraine. Ukrainians can drown the Russian infospace with images of Iraqi armor catastrophically destroyed by the Abrams in 1991 and 2003. Psyops could even include testimonials by (verified) living U.S. tank crews who, courtesy of the Abrams’s Chobham armor and crew-survivability features, survived hits that would have killed everyone inside a Russian MBT and sent its turret flying.

It’s true that the Abrams, like other armor, requires a significant amount of support in the field. Nonetheless, it has been supplied to many U.S. partner armies, including those of Australia, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, and has been used by several of them in actual combat. Experience thus far demonstrates Ukrainian aptitude at maintaining complex NATO-origin arms under intense conditions. And as retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan noted recently, “If the Australian Army with its very light integral logistic footprint (and lack of tank strategic sustainment for the first decade in service) can run an M1 tank fleet … the Ukrainians definitely can!” The Abrams and Leopard 2 also both use a Rheinmetall gun with common ammunition, which simplifies the supply chain and helps preserve Kyiv’s options for deciding which tank it likes best once the smoke settles.

Furthermore, one of the Abrams’s key items—its gas turbine power plant—comes in modular pack form and could be moved several at a time by truck for maintenance and repair in rear areas with the help of U.S. technicians. NATO could have a twofer by establishing maintenance zones in Poland that would allow the sustainment of Ukrainian Abrams MBTs while training Polish tank technicians to support their army’s pending acquisition of the M1A2. Drawing on large depot stocks stateside would allow Ukrainian forces to potentially avail themselves of a power pack swap system to support intense battlefield usage.

To be sure, the Abrams Honeywell AGT1500 gas turbine is thirsty. U.S. Army logisticians have estimated its cross-country fuel use—the most representative mode for fighting in Ukraine’s mud—at approximately 57 gallons per hour. This suggests a pack of 100 Abrams tanks fighting through mud as they blast Russian defensive lines and armor could burn up to 6,000 gallons of fuel per hour—roughly two and a half  large tanker trucks’ worth. Adding 200 Bradley-class IFVs that burn 18 gallons of fuel per hour in cross-country operations to the mix could take the average hourly fuel consumption closer to 10,000 gallons per hour—equal to four eight-wheeled tanker trucks.

In contrast, a Leopard 2 could use around 40 gallons of fuel per hour, assuming the tanks are each moving cross-country at 30 kilometers per hour. The bright side is that the Abrams readily runs on the diesel fuel already used by other Ukrainian mechanized forces. Alongside tanks and IFVs, the White House should thus also consider urgently transferring a large number—50 or more—of large off-road-capable fuel tankers to help Ukraine sustain battlefield fuel supplies. Tanker fleets can be scaled up at manageable cost and, unlike the United States in its recent wars, Ukraine does not face the challenge of long expeditionary supply lines across hostile territory. Underused civilian fuel infrastructure provides a backbone for getting fuel to the urban centers nearest the battlefield, after which temporary pipelines and trucks bridge the last 20 miles.

Any arrival of new weapons will be met by more saber-rattling from Russia, including the specter of nuclear warfare. This should not stop the United States from sending tanks. Since the summer, NATO has supplied more than $20 billion in military equipment, including artillery, more than 1.5 million rounds of artillery ammunitions, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems that helped turn the tide of the war late in the summer of 2022. Tanks move kilometers per day and cannot realistically strike into Russian territory the way Army Tactical Missile System rockets could, for instance.

Like the mass of heavy weaponry NATO has already transferred, adding MBTs is unlikely to materially worsen the nuclear risk equation. But failing to provide them at scale certainly will tip the conventional balance against Ukraine, with magnified nuclear consequences later. Continuing to self-deter based on Russian nuclear blackmail weaponizes time in Russia’s favor. With every square kilometer of Ukrainian territory that Russia seizes and retains, U.S. hesitance communicates to nuclear-armed revisionists worldwide that they can pull off similar measures.

Pyongyang, Tehran, and Beijing are watching closely. Main battle tanks, whether German or American, are an important piece in the mosaic of military investments necessary to ensure that today’s war establishes tomorrow’s deterrence against further revisionism.

Gabriel B. Collins is the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, whose funding sources are listed here, and a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

Christopher Bronk is an associate professor of information science and technology at the University of Houston.

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