From Washington, Berlin and Paris, a sudden influx of armor bound for Ukraine
BELFAST and PARIS — Outside of items like refurbished Soviet-era T-72 tanks, Western leaders have been generally hesitant to send advanced armored vehicles to Ukraine, in part for fear of escalation and the conflict pouring over NATO’s borders.
But this week has seen a spate of announcements from Washington, Berlin and Paris that will send lethal vehicles to Kyiv, in what may be part of a Western strategy to slowly but surely ratchet up the tension on Moscow and could presage mobile armor transfers to come.
The transfer of a German Marder infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) package, of around 40 vehicles, along with a Patriot air defense system was signed off by Chancellor Olaf Schultz after a Jan 5. phone call with US President Joe Biden. The same day, Washington agreed for the first time to send 50 M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Those equipment pledges come on the heels of France agreeing to supply Ukraine with the nimble AMX-10RC armored reconnaissance vehicles.
The Bradleys headline a new $3.75 billion American package, including a $2.85 billion drawdown from US weapon stockpiles for delivery to Ukraine. In addition to the Bradleys, which will come with 500 TOW anti-tank missiles and 250,000 rounds of 25 mm ammunition, the US is sending 100 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, 18 155mm self-propelled Howitzers and 36 105mm towed Howitzers.
Speaking at the Pentagon on Friday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Laura Cooper said that the time is ripe for these deliveries due to growing confidence that the Ukrainian forces can sustain them on the battlefield, adding the Bradley “complements” the French and German moves.
“This is the right time for Ukraine to take advantage of [the Bradleys’] capabilities to change the dynamic on the battlefield,” Cooper said, later adding that the “dynamic” in question is the gaining and losing of “inches” on the battlefield from both sides. “What we are looking at is providing [Ukraine] what they need, when they need it, and the Bradley is a capability that we can envision them really using to great effect, along with the training. It’s not a capability whiteout the training, its just a piece of equipment.”
Broadly speaking each Bradley is crewed by three people — a commander, gunner and driver — and can transport six soldiers. Although the service does not deem these vehicles as tanks, they are heavier than similar combat vehicles in its class and are armed. Each one typically weighs in at 28 tons, has a range of 482 kilometers, is outfitted with a 25 mm chain gun, and can carry two TOW (Tube-launched, optically tracked, Wire-guided) missiles designed to pierce tank armor.
“It is so that they can not just apply artillery to a given position but can also integrate with maneuver and actually be able to regain territory. The Bradley, specifically, has formidable anti-armor capabilities which will work against every kind of armored capability that Russia has fielded in Ukraine. But the Ukrainians need more than that and that’s why you see us surging other types of mobility capabilities, not just the United States, but also allies.”
The French and German governments have largely avoided weighing in on the question of why they decided to send their tank-like vehicles now, but it is impossible to ignore that the three nations all made moves in the same week.
“This is a sign the three governments are managing escalation using a ‘boil the frog’ kind of strategy by gradually increasing support to Ukraine not through grand gestures but by adding different pieces of equipment in intervals,” said Ed Arnold, Research Fellow for European Security at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute. “The last step change was approval of heavy artillery and HIMARS, which has been a game-changer and now we are seeing [approvals for] armored vehicles.”
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Bringing In Berlin
The German decision to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles was motivated less by any new strategic assessment of the battlefield in Ukraine but rather on the say-so of the US, according to Christian Molling, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“This is public [knowledge] as I asked the chief adviser to the [German] chancellor, what is his assessment of the situation and how Germany could help and he said ‘they don’t have this assessment,’” Molling told Breaking Defense. In response to an inquiry about the matter a spokesperson for the German government pointed to a general statement released on Friday.
Molling said there’s “still a bitter taste in all of this because it has taken so long for Germany to take leadership and at the end of the day it was somebody else [US government] that needed to hold their hand to make this possible. The US has been angry since the end of last summer with Germany using it [Washington] as an excuse not to contribute more to Ukraine.”
A reliance on “consensus politics” both at a domestic and international level was highly influential in convincing Germany to act, added Arnold. “Once the French [AMX-10RC] decision was made it opened the way forward for Germany,” he explained.
“Timing-wise, there’s also probably an element to consider around these [Marder] vehicles getting ready for some time, because what happens generally is that older equipment is cannabalised to service newer equipment,” he said.
If three separate logistics chains for the Marders, Bradleys and AM-10RC vehicles are to be built by Germany, the US and France, that will raise sustainability issues, said Molling, but added that “it is doable.”
At a capability level, the tracked Marder IFV can be used to attack or engage main battle tanks and enemy armored vehicles through integration of the MILAN guided missile and the Marder’s 20mm automatic cannon. Arnold suggested Germany would be looking to rid itself of MILANs close to the end of their life cycle, which could find a use in Ukraine.
Though the exact type of Marder model to be supplied to Ukraine has not been confirmed by officials, manufacturer Rheinmetall currently supplies 1A3 variants, from old German stock, to Greece under a backfill arrangement commissioned by the German government. Ironically, the Hellenic armed forces is already supplying Ukraine with older Soviet era land vehicles, receiving the Marders in return as part of Germany’s “Ringtausch” equipment swap program. Overhaul and repair of the 1A3 models first started at the manufacturer’s Unterlüß, Lower Saxony, facility in 2022, with deliveries to Greece already underway.
“I’d be very surprised if Western militaries were of a mind to send their most modern variants to Ukraine at the moment, so I’d imagine the Marder supply will pretty much follow the same arrangement [as Greece],” added Arnold. “My understanding is that the broader Marder fleet, when [Angela] Merkel [former German Chancellor] was still in charge was not modernized fully, or basically modernized on the cheap, so there are plenty older variants available.”
“A ‘Particularly French Concept’
Meanwhile, just how significant to Ukrainian operations the supply of AMX-10RC armored recon vehicles could eventually prove to be “depends entirely on how the French teach the Ukrainians to use it and how many they are given,” explained Marc Chassillan, an armored vehicles expert.
France has not specified how many of the vehicles it will send, but Chassilian recommended supply of at least 30.
“Sending them 10 is useless because they need a critical mass for them to be useful,” he said. “Thirty or so vehicles is equivalent to a regiment so you’re starting to have a real effect.”
The AMX10-RC, built by the French firm GIAT (which became Nexter in 2006), has been in French service since the early 1980s. It was revolutionary at the time: A 105mm gun mounted on a 17.6-ton armored vehicle, which made it extremely powerful and very light.
It shouldn’t take Ukrainian personnel more than two to three weeks to master the AMX10-RC. “From a purely driving aspect, any pilot of a T-72 tank would find their way quickly around. But the AMX-10 RC is a particularly French concept,” Chassillan commented. “It’s a fast, wheeled vehicle with a big gun, so the French are going to have to give the Ukrainians instructions in tactical use because if they try and use it like one of their old Soviet-era tanks then they’ll be useless.”
Although the AMX-10 RC is a reconnaissance vehicle, Chassillan said that “there’s not much point in the Ukrainians using them for reconnaissance missions on a frontline that is currently stuck. They need to be used for infantry support missions behind the frontline from which they can demolish Russian resistance.”
He said that the 105mm canon “is extremely precise” and has a very good gunsight “which will easily allow identification of the enemy.”
But the vehicle is only lightly armored “so the Ukrainians must not expose it to heavy artillery fire,” Chassillan warned. Its best defense is speed. “It can cruise along at 80 kph (50 mph) on roads and tracks,” he said, adding that like “almost every other vehicle” it would have trouble in the thick, sticky Ukrainian spring mud known as “bezdorizhzhia” (бездоріжжя).
The French army has 248 of the vehicles in its inventory, which are slowly being replaced by the ERBC (Engin de Reconnaissance et de Combat) Jaguar. Thirty-eight of these have already been delivered, freeing up some AMX-10s for Ukraine. “Of course, usually the new vehicles replace those that are in the least good condition,” Chassillan remarked, “but in this case those that will be sent to Ukraine will have been serviced and be in good working order.”
For retired Gen. Thierry Puig, former deputy director of the French association of land armaments’ industries, GICAT, the crucial question is how to maintain the vehicles in operational condition. “That’s the most complicated issue,” he told Breaking Defense in a telephone interview.
“The French state has a contract with Nexter to supply spares and there is a state stock of spares. So I think the most likely is that there will be a state-to-state contract between France and Ukraine and that France will supply Ukraine with spares from its own stocks and then have Nexter replenish those stocks,” he said. He remarked, however, that the spares in stock are those linked to normal wear and tear “so it might take a bit longer when spares are needed to replace parts that have suffered artillery damage.”
Chassillan reckons it will take a minimum of two months before the vehicles can be transported to Ukraine, but Puig thought it could be faster. “The AMX10-RCs in the regiments that have already got Jaguars are just sitting there doing nothing. If some of those are not in very good condition, they can be swapped with excellent condition vehicles in other regiments and then those in excellent condition be sent to Ukraine whilst those in mediocre condition are repaired. It’s not as though we need them urgently in France,” he said.
Alongside the AMX10-RC package, Macron and Zelenskyy also agreed on the supply of Bastion troop transporters to Kyiv, though it remains unclear if Ukraine will buy them directly from manufacturer Arquus or receive them as a gift from France. These 13-ton vehicles are NATO qualified and most likely to be delivered at the same time as the APX10-RCs.
A Tankless Job
In her Friday briefing, Cooper was asked about the possibility of the US eventually sending M1A1 Abrams tanks or other heavy vehicles to Ukraine. Her response was to acknowledge that “Ukraine does need tanks” before pointing out that logistics remain a concern.
“We have to be cognizant of maintenance end sustainment operations with tanks, and we certainly know the Abrams tank, in addition to being a gas guzzler, is quite challenging to maintain,” she said. “So we want to look across the board at the range of tank capabilities and see where we can all support Ukraine.”
She also noted that other allies have tank and tank-like capabilities that could be added to the fight — notable, as the US, French and German moves this week seem to have triggered a new wave of discussions among other nations about what is and isn’t okay to send to Ukraine.
In the wake of this week’s announcements, Poland is reported to be assessing a request from Ukraine for German Leopard tanks. And a key Finnish lawmaker on Friday suggested it was time to send Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv as well. Given the prevalence of older Leopard 2 tanks around Europe — one report states over 2,000 tanks spread over 13 European nations — the breaking of that taboo could lead to a flow of armor towards Ukraine’s aid.
“There’s not much else that the West collectively can provide that’s sort of missing from Ukraine’s inventory at the moment other than [main battle tanks],” Arnold said. And if the Poland or the US goes ahead, Berlin might not be far behind.
“The German position has always been that they don’t want to be the only ones to send Leopards, but it’s not a very convincing argument.”
Ashely Roque in Washington contributed to this report.