WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, the Biden administration relented after months of pleas from Ukraine and agreed to send the country its most lethal armored vehicles: the Abrams tanks.But with Ukraine gearing up for an expected spring counteroffensive in its war with Russia, these powerful tanks are months away from reaching the frontlines of the battlefield. Abrams tanks won’t be part of the initial spring assault.
That is because the tanks are being modified to remove sensitive technology that could fall into the hands of Russian forces. It is a necessary precaution in case the Russians capture one of the vehicles and exploit them for intelligence, U.S. officials and military experts said.
“It may or may not present opportunities for Russia to do testing on it, and to look for vulnerabilities,” said Colin Smith, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corp., a non-partisan think tank.
As is the case with other weapons, the U.S. government sends stripped-down versions of its tanks to foreign governments. The Pentagon reserves its highest-end capabilities for U.S. troops. A complicating issue with sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine, officials and experts say, is the probability that one will fall into Russian hands on the battlefield.
Developed during the Cold War, battle-tested in Iraq
Abrams tanks are powerful, fast and heavily armored. Weighing about 70 tons, the Abrams was developed during the Cold War and the first tanks delivered to the Army in 1980. They saw combat in 1991 for the first time during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
For this war, the tanks are painted green, a shift from the desert tan familiar after decades of fighting in the Middle East.
This time around, a big concern is armor protection on the more advanced version of the tanks and how that could be breached, Smith said. Unlike the Reaper drone that Russian pilots downed last month over the Black Sea where it broke up and sank in deep water, a damaged tank might be recovered largely intact.
The lower-tech tanks the Ukrainians will receive won’t have sensitive components that the Russians can exploit, according to two U.S. officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. Both tanks share the same, powerful 120mm gun, but the more advanced M1A2 has improvements, including targeting systems.
In January, the Pentagon announced plans to ship 31 Abrams M1A2 tanks to Ukraine after months of requests from the Ukrainians. They want modern armor to claw back territory Russia had seized since it launched its invasion in February 2022. A Ukrainian offensive is expected to begin within weeks.
In March, the Pentagon announced plans to speed the deployment by supplying a less-sophisticated version of the tank, the M1A1, saying those vehicles could be refurbished more quickly. The tanks, and armored vehicles needed to recover damaged ones from the battlefield, should be ready for combat in Ukraine by fall.
Meantime, fighting in eastern Ukraine, where the tanks will be sent, has been bloody and brutal. Since December, 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in fighting there and another 80,000 wounded, according to the White House. The Russians have also had thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed or captured.
Some military officials say the needed retrofitting is not delaying the deployment. Even if the tanks were ready today, the Ukrainians would not be ready to take them into combat, said Army Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesperson for U.S. Army Europe and Africa. The troops need about 10 weeks of training, which is set to begin later this month in Germany.
Tanks on a fast track
In actuality, the M1A1 tanks are on a fast track for Ukraine, O’Donnell said. It can take years to refit a major weapons system like a tank.
Ukrainian troops will train on tanks similar to those being refitted for them in the United States.
“We’re moving as quickly as possible,” O’Donnell said.
Sen. Tom Cotton scoffed at the Pentagon’s definition of speedy deployment. During an Armed Services Committee hearing April 27. Cotton, R-Arkansas, chided the Biden administration for dragging its feet in supplying Ukraine with weaponry, including tanks.
“I think we could supply them faster than eight or nine months, if there was the political will,” Cotton said.
Still, some in the military warn that the tanks are not the be all and end-all for Ukraine to defeat Russia.
Abrams tanks will give Ukraine an edge but not the decisive one, Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said last month at a meeting of Ukraine’s allies in Germany.
“There is no silver bullet in this case, Miley said. “But I do think the M1 tank, when it’s delivered and it reaches its operational capability, that it will be very effective on the battlefield.”
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