US to Send Abrams Tanks to Ukraine: Will it make any Difference?

January 29, 2023 (Brian Berletic - New Eastern Outlook) - The recent announcement that the United States will be sending at least 31 M1 Abrams tanks along with a growing number of German Leopard 2 main battle tanks comes as Ukrainian forces find themselves losing ground across much of the line of contact.

Articles like the Guardian’s, “US joins Germany in sending tanks to Ukraine as Biden hails ‘united’ effort,” claim:

Joe Biden has approved sending 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, a significant escalation in the US effort to counter Russian aggression as international reluctance to send tanks to the battlefront falls away.

The reversal of the US’s previous position came after Germany confirmed it will make 14 of its Leopard 2A6 tanks available for Ukraine’s war effort, and give partner countries its permission to re-export other battle tanks to aid Kyiv.

It also says:

“Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve,” Biden said in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. “He expected our support for Ukraine to crumble with time. He was wrong. He was wrong. He was wrong from the beginning and he continues to be wrong.”

Yet despite the apparent uptick in support, upon closer analysis it appears practical support for Ukraine has long-since been exhausted and the West has now resorted to “wonder weapons” that will have even less impact on the battlefield than previous aid packages.

Not the “Game Changer” Many Think 

The idea that the West transferring their main battle tanks to Ukraine will be a “game changer” is rooted in the myth of Western main battle tanks being “superior” to their Russian counterparts. In turn, this myth is owed to their performance in Iraq in 1991 and again during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 where modern US and British main battle tanks went up against Soviet-era export versions of the T-72.

Not only do several experienced US military officers warn against this misconception, the performance of Western main battle tanks in recent conflicts tells a much different story.

Former US Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis in a recent article published by 1945 helps dispel the myths surrounding Western tank performance in Iraq and asked the question whether or not these high-tech tanks will make a difference – allowing Ukrainian forces to drive Russian forces from territory Kiev claims is Ukrainian.

He points out the critical factors that actually lead to a US victory in Iraq. He explains:

In Desert Storm, U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks wiped out Saddam Hussein’s fleets of Soviet-made T-72s, and again the American Abrams-led invasion in 2003 revealed the T-72 was no match for U.S. tanks. And truly the American tanks were witheringly successful. During Desert Storm, for example, the U.S. and its coalition partners destroyed more than 3,000 Iraqi tanks. Saddam’s armored force, however, did not destroy even a single Abrams tank. It’s understandable, then, why anyone would want to have an Abrams or equivalent tank, especially when it has proven so effective against exactly the type of tanks Russia has.

Lt. Col. Davis omits, however, that the tanks used by Iraqi forces during Desert Storm are not comparable to the type of tanks Russia has today.

The Trouble with Western Tanks in Ukraine

January 18, 2023 (Brian Berletic - New Eastern Outlook) - Western nations have begun pledging a variety of Western armored vehicles to Ukraine including infantry fighting vehicles and even main battle tanks. Until now, the majority of armored vehicles sent to Ukraine had been Soviet-era weapons Ukrainian forces were familiar with both in terms of operating and repairing them.

However, following Ukraine’s Kherson and Kharkov offensives, much of this equipment has been destroyed, leaving the West little choice but to begin sending Western systems or leave Ukrainian forces in the field with only small arms.

While Western leaders and the media claim that Western armored vehicles represent a significant increase in Ukrainian capabilities, the reality is quite the opposite. Far from giving Ukraine an advantage on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces will struggle merely to get the vehicles on the battlefield and keep them there. Additionally, recent conflicts elsewhere in the world have proven Western armored vehicles including main battle tanks are neither “invincible,” nor “game-changing.”

Thus, if Ukraine’s hundreds of Soviet-era tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers failed to achieve favorable outcomes for Kiev, it is unlikely replacing these systems with Western hardware will make any difference.

Logistics, Training, and Maintenance 

In order to get Ukrainians into Western armored vehicles they will have to be trained in their basic operation, in using them effectively on a modern battlefield together with other tanks and weapon systems, and keeping them on the battlefield (maintenance). Entry-level tankers can take up to half a year to acquire these skills – time Ukraine doesn’t have, meaning that unless Western operators will be manning them posing as Ukrainians, heavily abbreviated courses will be given instead, producing subpar operators compared to the training and effectiveness Ukrainian tank crews had on the battlefield using their own equipment at the beginning of Russia’s special military operation.

Another aspect of most Western main battle tanks is that unlike Soviet and Russian main battle tanks which feature autoloaders for their main guns, Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and M1 Abrams require a crew member to manually load their main guns. So, while Soviet-era and Russian tanks have three crew members, a driver, a gunner, and a commander, Western main battle tanks require a fourth, the loader. This means that for every 3 Western main battle tanks sent to Ukraine, four Ukrainian tank crews will be required to man them – more trained tankers spread across fewer tanks.

Before these newly trained Ukrainian tankers can crew their Western armored vehicles, they have to be moved onto the battlefield. Western infantry fighting vehicles like the US Bradley and the German Mauder are heavier than their Soviet and Russian counterparts. So are the Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks pledged by the UK and Poland. The US M1 Abrams is heavier still.

This presents a challenge to moving the vehicles by truck or rail just to reach the battlefield. The second option, rail, is complicated even further by the fact that much of Ukraine’s rolling stock is moved by electric traction which has been severely inhibited by Russia’s systematic targeting and destruction of the Ukrainian power grid. There is also the matter of sustaining these armored vehicles on the battlefield as they operate. They will consume much larger amounts of fuel than Ukraine’s previous armored vehicles, meaning more fuel will be required and much more often.

Heavier vehicles place more wear and tear on mechanical components including the vehicles’ transmissions, suspension, road wheels, and tracks. Increased maintenance required by newly trained, inexperienced crews will prevent the vehicles from being operated to their maximum potential. More problematic still is that Western armored vehicles – both infantry fighting vehicles and especially Western main battle tanks – possess complex optics and computerized fire control systems. It takes months just to train technicians to diagnose these systems, and a year or more to train and gain experience in actually repairing them.

China’s COMAC C919 Passenger Jet and a Leap for Multipolarism

January 14, 2023 (New Eastern Outlook - Brian Berletic)  - Right at the end of 2022 the first of China’s COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) C919 airliner jets was delivered to a domestic Chinese airline company, China Eastern Airlines.

Reuters in an article titled, “China Eastern takes delivery of the world’s first made-in-China C919 jet,” would report:

The world’s first C919, a Chinese-made narrowbody jet, was delivered to launch customer China Eastern Airlines (CEA) in Shanghai on Friday and took off for a 15-minute flight to mark the historic moment.

The plane, a rival to the Airbus (EADSY) A320neo and Boeing (BA) 737 MAX single-aisle jet families, is expected to make its maiden commercial flight next spring, according to state-owned Xinhua News Agency.

Between delivery and its first commercial flight, the first C919 will undergo up to 100 hours of flight tests, Simply Flying has reported. The test flights will include flying between multiple destinations. Meanwhile China Eastern has already trained a range of personnel to operate the aircraft including 9 pilots, 24 flight attendants, and 13 maintenance personnel.

The milestone is obviously a major achievement for COMAC, China Eastern, and the People’s Republic of China, but it is also a leap forward for multipolarism.

More than Airplanes at Stake

Together with Russia’s Irkut MC-21 airliner which is already certified to fly, and the prospect of both aircraft and the companies behind them fulfilling not only domestic but also international demand, the duopoly enjoyed by the West’s Boeing and Airbus corporations may be coming to an end.

Germany’s Deutsche Welle in an article titled, “New competition for Airbus and Boeing,” would note:

New aircraft are entering the highly lucrative main segment of the airliner market. And Airbus and Boeing need to take it seriously. The MC-21, in particular, could offer superior performance in some areas, compared to the common types of Airbus and Boeing now being sold. And it is no wonder as the giants from America and Europe have been resting on their laurels for many decades: The Boeing 737 traces its origins back to 1967, while the Airbus A320 premiered in 1987.

To prevent Russian and Chinese airliners from challenging Western monopolies, everything from national security to human rights have been cited particularly by the US government in a bid to place crippling sanctions on Russian and Chinese aerospace companies. Just as the US government has done in terms of Chinese telecommunication companies, these sanctions will seek to prevent Russian and Chinese aerospace companies from competing internationally, and if possible, eliminate these companies altogether.

However, China with a population larger than that of the G7 combined, has a potential air travel market that could boost COMAC and other Chinese aerospace companies regardless of its access to international markets. Russia and adjacent markets provide the MC-21 with similar prospects of being sold in large numbers, proving themselves and becoming appealing and accessible to a larger number of nations over time.

Acutely aware of the impact and intentions of US sanctions, both Russia and China are developing alternatives to components they once depended on the West for including engines and control systems.

Multipolarism Requires Multiple Alternatives 

Multipolarism is not merely a political declaration or desire for an alternative international order to the Western-led unipolar “rules-based” order that currently prevails. It is the physical creation of alternative systems of financing and trade but also of industry and production.

The power the West possesses stems from monopolies like Boeing and Airbus and the immense profits concentrated into the hands of their shareholders. Those profits translate into likewise concentrated power and influence. The creation of alternatives to these monopolies dilutes that concentration of profits and thus redistributes the resulting power and influence.

US Patriot Missiles in Ukraine: A Desperate & Dangerous Escalation

January 2, 2023 (Brian Berletic - New Eastern Outlook) - US appears to be in the process of transferring its Patriot air defense missile system to Ukraine. CNN in its article, “Exclusive: US finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine,” claims the US will approve and then quickly ship the system or systems into Ukraine in just days after the decision is made.

Paradoxically, CNN admits that training the large numbers of Ukrainians necessary to operate the system will take months. This has left analysts speculating that in fact NATO personnel already familiar with the system will operate it merely posing as “Ukrainians.”

This represents a significant escalation. While Western forces are believed to be covertly operating across Ukraine against Russian forces in a variety of roles, Western personnel operating an ever-growing number of sophisticated weapons may lead to mission creep in terms of other sophisticated Western weapons including Western aircraft and tanks entering the conflict with Western operators behind the controls.

The decision to send Patriot missiles follows a now steady tempo of Russian missile and drone strikes across Ukraine targeting military and dual-use infrastructure including the power grid. The Western media admits Ukraine’s own Soviet-era air defense systems are dwindling in number and running low on interceptor missiles.

The Financial Times in its article, “Military briefing: escalating air war depletes Ukraine’s weapons stockpile,” admits:

…ammunition and spares for the S300 and Buk systems, the mainstay of Ukraine’s air defences, are dwindling. Ukrainian officials have confirmed a claim by British military intelligence that Russia has been firing X-55 nuclear missiles — with the nuclear warhead replaced by an inert one — simply to exhaust Ukrainian air defences.

The article notes that buying additional ammunition and spare parts for the systems is not practical. It also notes efforts by the West to provide Ukraine their own air defense systems, however such systems suffer from similar problems in terms of limited quantities and limited access to ammunition.

Financial Times cites the German “Gepard” mobile anti-aircraft gun as being “highly effective.” No evidence was provided to substantiate that claim and ironically, shortly after the article was published, shortages of ammunition for Gepard systems were reported as was Switzerland’s unwillingness to supply additional ammunition to Ukraine.

Germany’s Rheinmetall company has announced it would expand ammunition production to compensate for Switzerland’s decision according to Anadolu Agency, but production would not begin until June at the earliest and Ukraine would not begin receiving ammunition until at least July and only if the German government places an order for the 35mm rounds the Gepard fires.

IRIS-T and NASAMS, two Western short to medium range air defense missile systems have been provided to Ukraine, albeit in small numbers that will increase incrementally over the course of several years. This represents a rate far too slow to replace Ukraine’s dwindling Soviet-era air defense systems.

Considering this reality, the decision by the US to transfer Patriot missile systems to Ukraine may not be because Washington believes they can make a difference, but simply because the US and its allies have nothing else more appropriate or numerous to send in its place.

But even the Patriot air defense system is plagued with problems ranging from its own critical shortage of ammunition to its inability to provide defense against drones and cruise missiles, the very systems they will be tasked with protecting Ukrainian skies against.

Patriot Missiles: Too Few, Too Feeble 

Far from “Russian propaganda,” the Patriot’s shortcomings have been reported by the Western media for years. Al Jazeera in an early 2022 article, “Saudi Arabia may run out of interceptor missiles in ‘months’,” would admit to Saudi stockpiles of Patriot interceptor missiles running low and the inability of the US to manufacture enough to replace them.

The Ukraine Arms Drain

December 27, 2022 (Brian Berletic - New Eastern Outlook) - After months of feigned confidence and optimism from both the West and Ukraine’s senior military leadership, cracks are beginning to appear. During Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhny’s recent interview with the Economist, Ukraine’s desperate need for additional arms and the consequences for not receiving them was made very clear.

The discussion revolved around the desperate need for resources – everything ranging from air defense missiles to tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces and artillery shells themselves – all things that both the West and now Ukraine are admitting are in short supply, and perhaps cannot be supplied any time in the near or intermediate future.

From “Extending Russia” to “Demilitarizing” NATO

Washington’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine is the manifestation of the RAND Corporation’s 2019 paper “Extending Russia” which recommended US policymakers to “provide lethal aid to Ukraine” hoping it would expand hostilities in eastern Ukraine and “increase the costs to Russia, in both blood and treasure, of holding the Donbass region.”

The paper had hoped that Russian losses in equipment and lives in the Donbass would replicate the costs the Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan. While the Russian Federation is indeed facing mounting costs in Ukraine, it can easily be argued that the US, the rest of NATO, and most of all – Ukraine itself – are suffering at least as much if not more.

What’s perhaps more important than how much either side is losing in the conflict is how much either side can afford to lose because of their respective military industrial capacity to regenerate manpower and equipment throughout the fighting. After nearly a year of fighting, it is clear that Russia’s stockpiles and military were prepared for this type of protracted, intense, large-scale military conflict. Ukraine and its Western sponsors were not.

Ukraine’s General Zaluzhny shared with the Economist a “wishlist” of weapons he claimed he needed in order to restore the February 23, 2022 borders of what Kiev claims is Ukraine. The list included 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles, and 500 howitzers – numbers NATO couldn’t provide Ukraine no matter how much it wants to.

This “wishlist” follows Ukraine expending a massive reserve made up of weapons, vehicles, and ammunition the collective West transferred to Ukraine ahead of the so-called Kharkov and Kherson offensives. In addition to losing multiple brigades worth of men, huge amounts of equipment were also lost as Russian ground forces withdrew and instead used long-range weapons to strike at Ukrainian forces now out from behind well-laid defenses.

The temporary political points Ukraine’s offensives gained by taking territory came at the cost of expending the vast majority of what the West could afford to transfer to Ukraine.