It now appears that Germany, Britain and the US have all decided to send consignments of main battle tanks to Ukraine. These will include American Abrams tanks, the British Challenger 2 and the German Leopard 2 tank.
The discussion around the Leopard 2 has drawn much attention due to Germany's seeming reluctance to release any of their own tanks, or to sanction the use of tanks that had been sold to Poland and other countries. There were various reasons for Chancellor Olaf Schloz's reluctance, ranging from an unwillingness to give away German combat capacity, to fears of how this escalation will be perceived by Russia. It became obvious in recent weeks that both the German government and public have reservations about sending German tanks to Ukraine, a country that was so ravaged by combat in the Second World War.
The prime place given to the Leopard 2 in these discussions is due to the fact that there are large numbers of this highly-regarded tank that are relatively proximate to Ukraine. The Leopard 2 series began production in the late 1970s and, as a third generation main battle tank, it is seen as being more advanced in terms of design and its integrated technology.
The later Leopard 2 A5 version was redesigned to lower its profile and incorporates a narrow, wedge-shaped turret, which mounts a 120mm gun. This makes for a lower target on the battlefield and the main gun has an advanced fire control system, night-vision and laser range-finding. Its twin V12 turbo diesel allows for a top speed of 68kmh to a maximum range of 500km. The armour protection has been upgraded several times in the Leopard series’ lifetime, potentially making it a resilient tank on the battlefield.
If its success as a design can be indicated by export orders, it is worth noting that the Leopard II has been evaluated and purchased in the hundreds by many countries across Europe including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Hungary and Spain among many others. It is also in use further afield in Canada, Turkey, Indonesia etc. The Leopard 2 series is also backed up by ongoing R+D, tactical experimentation and large supplies of spare parts.
A consignment of Leopard 2s would undoubtedly raise Ukraine’s combat capacity in the coming months and act as a force-multiplier for Ukrainian tank formations. It would outclass many of the Russian tank variants still in use and it was actually designed to counter Soviet tanks in the context of the Cold War.
But a note of caution needs to be factored in: these tanks cannot simply be driven "off the lot" and into combat. Their crews will need to undergo intensive training. In NATO armies, such training would be carried out over a number of months and this programme will now have to be seriously truncated. The maintenance of these main battle tanks also requires significant training and a supply of specific spare parts. They are totally different to the Soviet-designed tanks that the Ukrainian army is used to operating and maintaining.
In overall strategic terms, they cannot arrive soon enough for Ukraine. At the moment, the initiative seems to rest with Russia and an offensive is likely. In that context, the Leopard 2s and other main battle tanks would play a key role in Ukrainian defensive actions and counterattacks.
How the war unfolds in 2023 is harder to predict. Neither side seems currently placed to inflict decisive damage on the other. For Ukraine, it could be a question of carrying out a successful defence to blunt Russian offensives and, from there, perhaps move towards peace talks.
This article was previously published on RTÉ Brainstorm