Coming Soon To A War Near You

In a stunning reversal of policy, the Biden administration has decided to provide the Ukrainian armed forces with 31 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks. The announcement comes on the heels of Germany capitulating and agreeing to send 14 of their Leopard 2 tanks to the besieged nation. Berlin also gave the green light for other countries to send German-made Leopard 2s to Ukraine.

Despite multiple requests from Ukrainian President Zelensky, for months, the White House insisted that the Abrams tanks were too challenging to use in Ukraine, that there would not be enough training available on how to use them, and maintenance demands would be almost impossible. So what changed, and when can we expect to see American Abrams tanks sending rounds downrange at the Russians? And what’s the catch?

Picture of a tank
An M1A2 Abrams tank is pictured at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Photo by US Army Specialist Nathan Franco from DVIDS.

I may be biased, but I think the Abrams is one of the top three tanks in the world and probably number one. The others would be South Korea’s K2 Black Panther and Germany’s Leopard 2. The venerable Abrams is by no means a new machine, but they have been constantly improved over the years and proven battle-worthy. Each new iteration of the tank has seen improved electronics, armor, and armaments.

During the first Gulf War, way back in the Bush I era of 1990-1991, Business Insider tells us that over 1,800 Abrams main battle tanks were deployed to Iraq, and only 23 had to leave the fight for one reason or another. None of them were destroyed by the enemy, and, more importantly, no tankers were killed.

Back to Iraq

Fast forward to 2003, and the Abrams was back in Iraq again, playing a significant role during the initial ground invasion against Saddam Hussein’s regime. That year, however, we lost a Marine Corps Abrams crew when their tank fell off a bridge over the Euphrates River near Nasiriya. All four men aboard drown. And two tankers were killed by militants in an attack that disabled the main battle tank.

Following the invasion of Iraq, Abrams were deployed to Anbar Province in 2004 and 2005 and Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2010.

OK, What’s the Catch?

We’ve undoubtedly committed the tanks to Ukraine, but don’t expect to see them there anytime soon. We are not providing the M1A2s from our existing inventory of tanks; the Ukrainians will get shiny (OK, dull OD green ones, actually) new ones fresh off the assembly line. It could be several months before tanks can be assembled and shipped overseas to the warzone. And we can make them in only one place; a government-owned General Dynamics-operated plant in Lima, Ohio.

Building a tank is slow going, and the Ohio facility can only put out a dozen new units per month. But wait, there’s more holding up the delivery. The assembly line is now full, fulfilling orders for Poland and Taiwan. These are paying customers; we can’t exactly toss them to the back of the line and throw them on the proverbial backburner. Poland has ordered an impressive 250 M1A2s at a cost of at least $9 million each (who says war isn’t big business?). They are supposed to be delivered in 2025. Politico tells us that, in the meantime, we are supplying the Poles with over 100 M1A1 tanks recently retired by the Marine Corps. You see, Warsaw needs them to replace the more than 250 old T-72 tanks they gave to Ukraine last year.

The Taiwanese placed their order for 108 M1A2 Abrams in 2019, anticipating possible future issues with mainland China. The first of these units was supposed to be delivered in 2024. Things are starting to get a bit sticky, and someone has to decide who gets what and when.

Abrams tanks are no longer “stick-built” from the ground up. Instead, “seed vehicles” are used. These seed vehicles are bare-bones A1 tanks that General Dynamics modifies to meet the customer’s needs. Each one is custom-built according to the technology and armaments that the customer chooses.

An M1A2 Abrams is unloaded from a C17 in Bulgaria in June 2015. It was later used in the joint training exercise Operation Speed and Power. US Army photo by Spc. Jacqueline Dowland, 13th Public Affairs Detachment. DVIDS

Why Don’t We Send Them What We Already Have?

Great question. I was just wondering that. Wouldn’t it be easier to send them the M1A2 Abrams from our existing inventory and slowly replenish our stockpiles, as we are not currently at war? Yes, it would, but it would also be against the law. US federal law prohibits the export of tanks with classified armor packages. This includes those that utilize depleted uranium as a critical component. So, we strip off all of the high-speed classified stuff and custom-make the new tanks for export to our allies. This takes time. Time that the Ukrainians can ill afford.

What are the Ukrainians to do in the many months it will take to build and ship their tanks? We plan to begin training them on the care and maintenance of the tanks they do not yet have, and we will be teaching them how to operate the vehicles individually and instruct their leaders in American combined arms maneuver tactics.

Prediction: I don’t see this war ending anytime soon, and that’s a shame for all involved.