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Ukraine finally has its Western tanks – now it’s time for the hard part

Leopard tanks Germany Ukraine Russia invasion war Europe defence military - Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images
Leopard tanks Germany Ukraine Russia invasion war Europe defence military - Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

Barring any final twists in this particular act, it looks as if Ukraine’s leaders will finally have their dream of Western tanks realised. But can they use them?

Tanks cannot take enemy positions and hold ground on their own, of course. For that, battlefield commanders need other parts of the military orchestra to all be in tune.

First, infantry, at least in vehicles capable of withstanding anything up to a direct hit by artillery or anti-tank weapons and preferably in specially designed fighting vehicles able to blast enemy positions as they close the critical last few hundred metres.

Then, engineer assets, to breach minefields or get the force across rivers that have had bridges blown.

Next, artillery, to cover the flanks and depth targets, preventing the enemy from counter-attacking. The whole performance also needs an umbrella of air defence to stop Russian jets and helicopters interfering.

Prior to all this, low loaders will be required to get the tanks as close to the front as possible. Tanks rarely travel under their own steam as increased “track mileage” adds wear and tear to an already taut maintenance chain, meaning that low loaders – long wheel-based trucks – are required. They need protecting, too.

Of course, when offered very capable Western main battle tanks such as the Leopard, Abrams and Challenger, the correct response is “Yes please”, even if their logistic tails are largely bespoke and intricate.

So, for Ukraine the (likely) tank decision is just the start of a wider industrial headache, albeit one clearly falling in the bracket of “a nice problem to have”.

Donations of weapons from multiple sources throw up their own set of problems. In the medium term, Ukraine is likely to slim down to an all-Leopard fleet (mostly Leopard 2, but likely also including some Leopard 1 still held by German industry).

Kyiv finds itself now in a similar position to Britain circa 2006, when military and political chiefs in London realised that the kit they had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan was not up to the job.

So started a colossal, and expensive, process of rapidly bringing into service “urgent operational requirements” to plug the immediate gap.

The resulting equipment was generally very good, but hampered by being designed to solve only one problem.

New vehicles could rarely operate together. Existing communication equipment had to be clunkily integrated, sometimes literally bolted on. The logistic tails were the polar opposite of the slick, efficient, fat-free, just-in-time architectures beloved of supply professionals.

After a hesitant start, the Treasury took to fire-hosing cash around to save lives and fend off military defeat.

The Duke of Wellington said after the Battle of Waterloo: “Napoleon built his campaigns of iron and when one piece broke, the whole structure collapsed. I made my campaigns using rope and if a piece broke, I tied a knot.”

For the foreseeable future, Ukraine will be tying knots. The time for tidying up the industrial mess is far in the future.

For now, Ukrainian troops and civilians will have to rely on their ability to be adept at battlefield innovation. However, they will need to do even more patching up on a systemic industrial scale to meet this challenge.

They may need to shift to something approaching a war economy, at great cost to their domestic industrial output.

They may need a newly-built maintenance and production facility to make this work in the long term – perhaps in Poland as Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Commons defence select committee, suggested on the Today programme.

Time will be an important factor. Getting tanks and other armoured equipment into the country and even to the front line is likely to be measured in weeks for the Leopards and Challengers, perhaps months for the Abrams.

But that’s just the delivery service. Extra time, and locations outside the country, will be needed to train the crews and maintainers.

How does this fit with Ukraine’s operational plans and the anticipated Russian spring offensive? Even if the latter relies largely on under-trained and equipped troops, they are still expected to number in their tens of thousands.

So, many logistic, industrial, political, societal and operational hurdles to overcome.

But what if? If Ukraine can pull it off, can they win?

An armoured attack needs many different moving parts to work together as a seamless, co-ordinated, lethal machine. There are countless reasons why an armoured thrust by Ukraine could be absorbed and even repelled by Russia.

But done correctly, Ukraine could use these tanks to form the core of an armoured division to punch through Russian lines.

Moscow’s exhausted forces have underwhelmed so far in this war. There is every reason to expect Ukraine could make that problem worse for them with the application of a heavy metal fist.