U.S. to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, in major reversal

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“You see multiple countries across the broad coalition we’ve built stepping up to send a strong message of support to our long-term commitment to Ukraine,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to speak ahead of Biden’s announcement.

The news comes after weeks of discussions between U.S. and European leaders, particularly the Germans, who have long resisted sending their own Leopard 2 tanks. Biden has spoken with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz multiple times this month about providing assistance to Ukraine, and the two nations announced last month that they would send Patriot missile systems to help defend Ukrainian cities, said the senior administration official.

Top members of Biden’s national security team — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and national security adviser Jake Sullivan — also met frequently with their German and European counterparts, including most recently at a meeting of defense ministers at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, last week.

Top U.S. officials urged Germany to send their Leopard 2s, which are abundant across Europe and easier for the Ukrainians to use and maintain than the Abrams. But Berlin stood firm, with senior German leaders privately telling Washington that they would only send Leopards if the U.S. sent Abrams.

The president knew Ukraine needed Leopards on the battlefield as soon as possible, so he worked with his national security team to approve the Abrams. He ultimately decided to send American tanks after Austin’s recommendation, according to two other U.S. officials.

Biden “knew the only way Germany would do Leopards is if we did Abrams and allied unity is the most important thing to him. So Secretary Austin sent a proposal on how to make it happen,” one of the officials said.

The U.S. could have sent just one tank to seal the deal with Germany, but Austin decided to send a full battalion, said the second U.S. official. This shows the decision was “not a symbolic gesture, but something the secretary thought was the right thing to do.”

As news of Biden’s decision emerged in media reports Tuesday, including POLITICO, the government in Berlin announced on Wednesday that Germany and its European partners planned to “quickly” send two Leopard 2 tank battalions to Kyiv. Poland, Spain, Norway and Finland are also likely to join in the coalition of nations sending Leopards.

The decision comes after Pentagon leaders argued publicly and privately that now may not be the right time to send the Abrams. The tanks are too complicated for Ukrainian forces to learn to operate quickly and maintain on the battlefield, they argued.

“The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive, it’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine, I think it’s about three gallons to the mile of jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain,” said Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, after a trip to Kyiv. “It may or may not be the right system.”

The administration’s thinking on the challenges the Abrams presents hasn’t changed. But the decision was made to procure them now so that when they arrive on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces will be able to maintain and operate them.

The tanks won’t be drawn from DoD’s stocks, as has been the case for other military aid. Rather, DoD will procure the weapons with money provided through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. This means it will be months before Ukraine actually gets them.

“There are technical aspects to the Abrams, which makes it a little bit more challenging than some systems that we have provided,” said a second senior administration official. “There’s supply chain issues that have to be dealt with, certainly training and maintenance issues that has to be dealt with.

“That’s why we’re doing it this way, through USAI, so that we can take the time, not too much, but take enough time to make sure that when they get into the field that the Ukrainians can use them and maintain them and keep them in the fight effectively offensively on our own.”

Another reason to procure the Abrams through contracts rather then sending them directly from DoD stocks is because the Pentagon does not have sufficient tanks in its inventory to transfer them to Ukraine, said a third senior administration official.

“As with other capabilities, you’ve seen us do this before if we do not have readily within U.S. stocks, then we go the procurement route to make sure that we can procure the right capability for Ukraine,” the person said. “That is what we’re doing here with the Abrams.”

The M1s will build on the capabilities the Pentagon has provided in previous aid packages, including hundreds of armored vehicles, air defenses and artillery shells, officials said.

DoD is now working through the challenges of delivering the Abrams and supporting them on the battlefield. The military will be setting up a “very careful” training program to teach the Ukrainians how to maintain, sustain and operate the weapons, “which do require a good deal of assistance,” the official said.

In addition to the tanks themselves, DoD is also procuring eight M88 recovery vehicles, which are designed to repair or replace damaged Abrams parts during a fight, as well as extricate vehicles that become bogged down. These vehicles “go with the Abrams to be able to provide coverage of your operation, to make sure Ukrainians will be able to keep these Abrams up and running,” the official said.

At the same time, DoD is training Ukrainians on combined arms maneuver tactics, which will allow Ukrainian forces to integrate the Abrams and other armored capabilities into their overall operations.

All of these weapons are aimed at helping Ukraine continue fighting Russia over the coming weeks and months, particularly in the wide-open terrain of the northeastern Donbas region, said the third senior administration official. The Abrams, in particular, is reflective of the administration’s long-term commitment to the war.

“We’ve said all along, the capabilities we’re going to provide are going to evolve with the needs of the war. And I think that’s what you’re seeing here,” said the second senior administration official.

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( With inputs from : )

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