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Why Ukraine wants Leopard 2 tanks: NPR

A German Leopard 2 battle tank pictured during a NATO training exercise in Lithuania last October.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


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Sean Gallup/Getty Images


A German Leopard 2 battle tank pictured during a NATO training exercise in Lithuania last October.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even as the United States and its NATO allies announced another package of military aid to Ukraine, full of military vehicles, air defense systems, rockets and missiles, a notable omission is the only piece of equipment that has come to dominate the recent discussions: reservoirs.

For months, Ukrainian officials have lobbied the West for hundreds of modern battle tanks like those made by the United States and Germany.

“I can thank you hundreds of times, and it will be absolutely fair and just, considering everything we have already done,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at the meeting of defense officials this week in Ramstein. , in Germany.

“But hundreds of ‘thanks’ are not hundreds of tanks,” he said.

The recent debate has focused on the Leopard 2, a German-made battle tank operated by some 20 countries around the world, including more than a dozen NATO members.

Germany is under increasing pressure to supply some to Ukraine – or to allow other countries, such as Poland, to send their own.

So far this has not happened. “We cannot say today when a decision will come and what it will look like,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Friday.

What is Leopard 2?

The German-made Leopard 2 is one of the most famous battle tanks in the world, perhaps second only to the American-made M1 Abrams tank, military weapons experts have said.

The Leopard 2 was originally designed in the 1970s for the West German military in response to Soviet threats during the Cold War. They’re built to move quickly through a variety of terrain and take on enemy armor – like the tanks Russia has been using on the ground in Ukraine since the early days of its invasion last year.

Each tank is equipped with a 120mm main gun of 44 or 55 caliber and a 1,500 horsepower engine that allows it to move at a speed of 44 mph, according to Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the German defense company that manufactures the tank. Some 60 tons of armor protected their crews from return fire.

Among the countries operating the Leopard 2 is Poland, which has pledged to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but must await German approval to do so.

Why are tanks important to Ukraine’s war effort?

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last February, tanks have played an important role on the battlefield.

For its part, Ukraine has relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks. The West has already supplied other armored vehicles and has pledged to send even more, including Bradley fighting vehicles and Stryker fighting vehicles from the United States, as well as an announced new delivery of Challenger 2 tanks. from the United Kingdom.

But none represent the combination of precision, firepower and mobility of modern German-made battle tanks and Ukrainian American officials have said these tanks could be the key to a quick Ukrainian victory – maybe even this year.

It’s a rosier picture than that painted by Western military experts.

“There is no silver bullet. There is nothing that can completely change the whole conflict,” said retired US Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

Still, Western tanks could play a role this spring, when Russia and Ukraine are expected to launch new efforts in the conflict, he said.

Last month, the United States announced that he would train large units of Ukrainian soldiers in combined arms tacticsin which large-scale military operations use different types of weapons together, including aircraft, artillery, and armor (such as tanks).

“The ability for us to train the Ukrainians to carry out these very complex maneuvers is really essential for them to build their combat capability as they continue their offensive,” said Raphael Cohen, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, in an interview with NPR earlier this month.

How could Ukraine deploy Western tanks?

So far, Russia’s main victory in the war has been its control of Ukrainian territory between Donbass and Crimea. Russia has controlled Crimea since its illegal annexation in 2014, but before last year’s invasion Crimea’s only connection to Russia was a long road and rail bridge. By seizing Mariupol and the lands around it, Russian forces have essentially established a land bridge between Russia and the Donbass region of Ukraine and Crimea.

This territory could be the setting for a new Ukrainian counteroffensive, said Hodges, the retired lieutenant general. “Ukrainians know that the decisive ground is Crimea,” he said.

With tanks from the West, Ukraine could create an armored brigade that could serve as “the spearhead of a force capable of breaking through Russian defenses towards Mariupol”, Hodges said. “The goal is to continue to isolate Crimea from everything else.”

More generally, he says, tanks can make more effective use of infantry. In open terrain, tanks can lead, allowing infantry to follow safely. In urban or wooded areas, infantry may move first, preventing the enemy from hiding and striking with concealed anti-tank weapons.

What is the heist?

Germany has continually delayed its decision on the Leopard 2s. Because it manufactures the tanks, its approval is needed so that these allies, like Poland, can re-export them elsewhere.

Ukrainian leaders had hoped for an announcement on Friday, but their wait will continue after German officials declined to make a decision at the Ramstein meeting.

On Friday, Pistorius, Germany’s defense minister, said officials were still weighing the pros and cons of sending the tanks. “I’m very sure there will be a decision in the short term,” he added.

The United States has also been reluctant to send M1 Abrams tanks, which defense officials say are not as practical for the Ukrainian battlefield as the Leopard 2s, which are lighter than the new Abrams variants and are easier to maintain.

“The maintenance and high cost it would take to maintain an Abrams – it just doesn’t make sense to provide that to Ukrainians right now,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said during a briefing. Thursday.

Another disadvantage of the Abrams is that it is less fuel efficient than the Leopard 2, which is designed to use diesel fuel – and diesel is more readily available in Ukrainian wartime supply chains.

Additional reporting by NPR’s Greg Myre.

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