WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. will send 31 M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, reversing months of persistent arguments that the tanks were too difficult for Ukrainian troops to operate and maintain.
As Russia’s war approaches one year, the new tanks could shift control of the battlefield Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls it “an important step on the path to victory.”
The U.S. decision came on the heels of Germany agreeing to send 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from its own stocks. Germany had said the Leopards would not be sent unless the U.S. put its Abrams on the table, not wanting to incur Russia's wrath without the U.S. similarly committing its own tanks.
Biden said that in total European allies have agreed to send enough tanks to equip two Ukrainian tank battalions, or a total of about 62 tanks.
“With spring approaching, Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for additional counter offenses," Biden said in his announcement of his decision to send the tanks. “To liberate their land, they need to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term.”
The announcement ends a standoff between Germany and the United States. Biden administration officials on Wednesday sought to downplay any friction between the two countries as both unveiled their plans.
Both sides had participated in "good diplomatic conversations” that had made the difference and were part of the “extraordinary shift in Germany’s security policy" over providing weapons to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February, said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity to describe the new tank package before the announcement.
The $400 million package announced Wednesday also includes eight M88 recovery vehicles — tank-like tracked vehicles that can tow the Abrams if it gets stuck.
Altogether, France, the U.K., the U.S., Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden will send hundreds of tanks and heavy armored vehicles to fortify Ukraine as it enters a new phase of the war and attempts to break through entrenched Russian lines.
The U.S. tanks will be purchased through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which means it will take some time for the Ukrainian forces to receive the tanks and be able to deploy them on the battlefield. The Pentagon plans soon to begin training Ukrainian forces on the system outside of Ukraine.
The U.S. has thousands of Abrams in stock. Still, it does not have “excess stock,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. He said Ukraine’s military will have to go through significant preparation to learn to operate, maintain and sustain the Abrams. It’s a process that will take some months.
Using the assistance initiative funding route, instead of dipping into the existing U.S. stockpile, means it is unlikely the tanks will be available to Ukraine before Russia's anticipated spring offensive.
Kirby declined to pinpoint when the Abrams will be delivered, but said the German-made Leopards are expected to make their way to Ukrainian forces more quickly. The deployment also suggests that the U.S., and allies, are girding to support Ukraine for a long war that shows no signs of coming to an end.
Doug Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, said the U.S. stock includes both the older variants and newer M1A2 Abrams variants, and when a “new” tank is needed, it starts with an older hull.
“We don’t produce any tanks from scratch anymore,” Bush said. “We have a large stock of older M1s that we use as seed vehicles. Were we to ever run out of those, sure we would build new. But right now, no matter which option we go, we don’t have to build completely new.”
The Russian ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, called Berlin’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine “extremely dangerous” and said it “shifts the conflict to a new level of confrontation."
Biden insisted the decision to provide the tanks should not be seen as an escalation by Russia.
"It is not an offensive threat to Russia,” he said. “There is no offensive threat to Russia. If Russian troops return to Russia, where they belong, this war would be over today.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy applauded Biden for the “powerful decision to provide Abrams,” declaring on Twitter that “the free world is united as never before” in the 11-month-old war.
Until now, the U.S. had resisted providing its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, citing extensive and complex maintenance and logistical challenges with the high-tech vehicles. Washington believes it will be more productive to send the German Leopards since many allies have them and Ukrainian troops will need less training than on the more difficult Abrams.
Biden in an exchange with reporters bristled at the notion that Germany, which had declined to provide tanks until the U.S. agreed to provide its Abrams, forced his hand.
“Germany didn’t force me to change (my) mind,” Biden said. “We wanted to make sure we were all together.”
For the Abrams to be effective in Ukraine, its forces will require extensive training on combined arms maneuver — how the tanks operate together on the battlefield — and on how to maintain and support the complex, 70-ton weapon. The Abrams tanks use a turbine jet engine to propel themselves that burns through at least two gallons a mile (about 4.7 liters a kilometer) regardless of whether they are moving or idling, which means that a network of fuel trucks is needed to keep the line moving.
“When they get there, we want to make sure that they fall on ready hands, and that the Ukrainians know how to use them, they know how to keep them running, and they’ve got the supply chain in place for spare parts and supplies, and anything else they need so that they can be more effective on the battlefield,” Kirby said.
“Armored vehicles are important – you don’t go after a crocodile with a cornstalk,” said John Kirby, NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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