Diplomacy filter
February 28, 2023 5:31 PM   Subscribe

EU / NATO countries are allegedly concerned about capacity gaps donating Leopards to Ukraine. Why?

One of the issues highlighted delivering Leopard2's to Ukraine is that countries (such as Poland) would be left with little in reserve until they are able to purchase replacements.

Outside of non-NATO countries (like Finland), I don't really understand this. For example, Poland also purchased Abrams, of which there are many in US stockpiles. These tanks aren't the newest (which is what they want), but it could be temporary. Also, the army that they would be going against (RF) is pretty occupied. The US has re-deployed some forces, and given the state of the Russian ground forces, it would seem that the US is more than capable of a security guarantee for NATO for conventional warfare for the time being.

So what is going on here? I appreciate that diplomatic issues like this are complex, but it's perplexing from the outside given that Poland and the US have both been very interested in delivering tanks to Ukraine.
posted by a robot made out of meat to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Even though it's probably true that most or all NATO Allied tanks are best used in Ukraine at the moment, simply being a member of a military alliance with a country (the US) with plenty of surplus equipment is not fully reassuring to eastern European countries. This is because even though countries like Poland know that NATO will respond in the event that they are attacked, they don't necessarily have full control over HOW NATO responds.

In particular, since Russia's most recent invasion there has been concern about NATO's strategy of "deterrence by punishment" - that is, making sure that Russia or any other antagonist is deterred from attacking NATO Allies because they know they will be met with significant consequences. The problem is that these efforts don't necessarily focus on preventing every Russian antagonist from ever setting foot on (for example) Polish land. Instead, if Russia were to invade Poland, NATO Allies would counterattack in the most advantageous way available. This might be by sending thousands of tanks to Poland to defend every inch of Polish territory, but it might instead be by carpet bombing Moscow or effecting a counteroffensive from Finland or something else entirely. This probably makes sense for the Alliance as a whole, but Poland understandably wants resources that are dedicated 100% to immediately and completely defending its own citizens and territory, not just punishing Russia for its aggression.

Eastern Allies' counterproposal is "deterrence by denial" - that is, antagonists are deterred from attacking Allied territory because any aggression is immediately unlikely to succeed. That means having sufficient military resources actively deployed to all vulnerable areas that could immediately repel any potential attack where and when it might take place. NATO has certainly taken significant steps to strengthen its forward presence in Europe, but I'm not sure it's committed to a full-blown strategy of deterrence by denial. Thus, countries like Poland are still preoccupied by losing nationally-controlled military resources and putting their fate entirely in NATO's hands.
posted by exutima at 6:23 PM on February 28 [5 favorites]

Also, the US won't send Abrams tanks from the US stockpiles to Ukraine unless American soldiers are manning them. The export version of the Abrams isn't as feature-rich as the domestic version. The pledge of Abrams tanks is for several months down the road, after new export tanks are prepared or manufactured.
posted by lhauser at 6:57 PM on February 28

Here are some of the main issues with the concept of swapping out a country's Leopard 2 for Abrams tanks:
  • export grade Abrams have weaker armour than L2A6 and above and weaker optics, it would be a serious step back
  • all parts and servicing for Abrams are done in the US, this creates serious supply chain issues when the war happens to be in Eastern Europe
  • Abrams use turbine engines that essentially burn fuel at the same rate when idling as when they are moving
  • All the existing supply chains, parts, training has been on Leopard 2, they'd need to retrain not just everyone who operates the tank, but also need to retrain their mechanics for servicing them, and they'd have to rewrite their service manuals in that country's language, update their tactics, buy new munitions, buy new spare parts, replace their coax, the list goes on...
As far countries worrying about having few leopards in reserve, look at Canada as a typical example. This is a bit oversimplified, but we've got about 70 leopard 2 of the 2A4M variant and of the 2A6M variant. We only ever have about 60% of them working at any given time, they take a lot of maintenance and are regularly receiving upgrades. And when parts are in short supply (which they are) some of those tanks are scavenged.

That leaves us with about 45 tanks available. Of those 45 we keep 2/3 of them with one regiment as two squadrons with 13-16 tanks per squadron. The first squadron in that regiment is maintained in anticipation for our own operational needs and NATO commitments, we save our best 2A6M for that job. We have another squadron 13-16 tanks that are essentially their replacements, so while one squadron is deployed (as part of a battle group) the other squadron is training at an accelerated pace to relieve them within 6 months. Often their tanks might be shipped away by train to a training area for manoeuvres.

We keep another squadron (13-16 tanks) with another regiment, so that they can train on leopards and so that if ever we need to mobilize they can share that training with more people. They also might act as a replacement for the other two squadrons, so that in the event of a major deployment the first regiment isn't fighting every other 6 months.

If you're keeping track, that's 39-48 tanks right there out of 45. Except we need another dozen for training mechanics, gunners, drivers, and crew commanders, and we don't have those. And we just gave 8 tanks away to the Ukraine, so now we're in a deficit. So now we either cut back on training new armoured soldiers and mechanics, or we cut back on training the people who will replace the people who are tasked to be deployed. And if any of those are deployed, well then they better not lose or break any of their tanks or it'll have a cascading effect.

In short, things are tight.

Source: in another life I was an armoured crewman and crew commander.
posted by furtive at 7:14 PM on February 28 [14 favorites]

and given the state of the Russian ground forces, it would seem that the US is more than capable of a security guarantee for NATO for conventional warfare for the time being.

Something that is showing up clearly is how unprepared and underfunded almost all European militarizes have turned out to be and how dependent they are on the US. You may have seen it already, but this NY Times article about the struggles to find tanks to donate lays out the situation pretty directly:

“The trend across the board in European armies has been cutting, cutting, cutting,” said Christian Mölling, a defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But at the end of the day, many were on the same track as Germany: War is a theoretical thing. So we have theoretical tanks.”

The US has real tanks, not just theoretical ones, but mostly they are in storage in North America, and almost entirely they are not export versions. Backfilling Europe's tanks, real or theoretical, would be a major undertaking that the US probably isn't willing to fund on its own. At some point Europe is going to need to increase its military spending, but right now they are caught in a serious bind.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:58 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

If Trump is elected in 2024 I think US guarantees to NATO would be worthless. If I were an Eastern European government I'd want to be holding something besides promises from an unreliable partner.
posted by rdr at 2:15 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think the 2 examples given are good exemplars. What is Canada's tank regiment likely to do in the next 2-3 years other than a NATO commitment? If Canada had an armored capacity gap while an order with Rheinmetall is filled (and Rheinmetall has stalled increasing production for want of hard long term orders) or un-usable L2s are serviced, it's hard to see how their security is negatively affected. Poland is the only NATO ally who (just started) operating the Abrams and could theoretically easily accept them. As I understand it, they are in the midst of a large-scale transition to K2 with some kind of joint production plan and Abrams for heavier needs. Training on older M1A2's while their order for M1A2SEPV3 is filled is what I am asking about.

The points above are well taken: US politics could cause security guarantees to be less reliable than I am assuming, and a temporary dependence on US forces + older tank models would remove the ability for e.g. Poland to dictate the strategy of its own defense should RF overrun Ukraine. Poland's large tank purchases show that they really believe in an immediate need for the highest-capability tank forces inside their borders. The article that we linked suggests that it may take some time for other European nations to sort out L2s that are serviceable, even if they are willing to be stuck with mostly tanks that they need to refurbish for the next few years (although you would think that they would have thought about this earlier ...).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:12 AM on March 1

I read some policy papers after this thread last night and Canada actually has 82 L2s and is short by about at least 8 to get to where they should be (and that was before giving 8 to Ukraine). There could still be a strong argument for Canada to add a squadron of Abrams with roughly an additional squadron of training/spares and I figure if any country could get the non-export version it would be Canada. Canada has said they would replace the 8 leos they've donated, but they have said with what or whether it would be 1 for 1 or part of a bigger order to fill the gap they currently have.
posted by furtive at 7:53 AM on March 1

Also for Poland and Abrams in particular: it's a damn heavy tank and a lot of road infrastructure isn't rated for these loads.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:20 AM on March 1

One perspective of many I've read is that to win a war, you're ideally continuously manufacturing more weapons and then using them to shoot down your enemy and the sites where *they* produce weapons. This is the American WWII model, I gather. The trouble is that nobody's really been manufacturing lots of weapons to replace what Ukraine is using on a monthly basis, which makes it more likely to war will go on longer than it needs to.
posted by Violet Blue at 6:01 PM on March 1

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