An online acquaintance recently sneered at the UK for pledging to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, asking, “What possible difference can 14 tanks make?” It’s a good question, but a questionable sneer.
It’s important to remember that there are a LOT of different armored combat vehicles being used in the war in Ukraine. Most of them aren’t tanks; some are personnel carriers with heavy weapons, some are fighting vehicles designed to be fast and maneuverable, some are self-propelled artillery or rocket launchers. They sorta kinda look like tanks, but aren’t; they don’t have the same level of armor or armaments. Of the actual tanks, most are light or medium tanks. Very few are main battle tanks.
Light tanks are, obviously, lighter and smaller and faster. They’re mostly used for reconnaissance and skirmishing, probing enemy lines, getting in and out quickly. Medium tanks have better armor and guns, but aren’t quite as mobile; they pack a better punch and are designed to be used in groups, which means they use different tactics. Then there are the heavy tanks, the main battle tanks (MBTs). These are big, heavy bastards, not as mobile, but massively armed and armored. MBTs are designed to act as the hub of a combined force–infantry on foot, infantry in armored fighting vehicles, and medium tanks. They’re the centerpiece of group operations, the tip of the spear.
How good is this Challenger 2 MBT? They’ve been in service since 1998 and, as near as I can tell, only four have been rendered inoperable in combat. Four. One was destroyed in 2003 in Iraq, killing two of its four-person crew. However, that tank had been hit while its crew hatch was open–and it was a friendly fire incident; it was mistakenly fired on by another Challenger 2 tank. Even then, it took two rounds to destroy the tank. Two other Challenger 2s were made inoperable when their front underbelly armor was penetrated–one by an RPG and the other by an IED. Since then the underbelly armor has been upgraded. And one Challenger 2 had been hit by an anti-tank missile PLUS 14 RPGS, and was still able to retreat; unfortunately, it backed into a deep ditch and lost a track. The crew was quickly rescued unharmed, the track was replaced, and the tank was back in action within six hours. That’s four times in 25 years. I’d call that a success.
This is a seriously badass tank. So when the UK is sending 14 Challenger 2 MBTs, they’re essentially providing Ukraine with the core unit around which a larger ground fighting force can be arrayed. The same is true for all the MBTs being sent by other nations. The US has sent/will be sending 31 M1 Abrams tanks, and a half dozen European nations have sent/will be sending 49 German Leopard 2 tanks.
Even without all these MBTs, Ukraine has proven adept at destroying and capturing Russian tanks. Oryx, the Dutch defense analysis website, can account for 1761 Russian tanks destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured in the last year. These are confirmed numbers, verified by photographic evidence; the true number of destroyed tanks is significantly higher.
My online acquaintance says, “But Russia has something like ten thousand tanks in reserve, right?” Probably not. Russia may claim thousands of tanks in reserve, but who can rely on that? They also claimed they could take Ukraine in three days. But even if they DO actually have 10,000 tanks in reserve, they’d be mostly older models–not Russia’s primary MBT, the T-90. We’re already seeing the Russian Army deploying old T-62 tanks in Ukraine, and they haven’t been manufactured since 1975; that’s almost half a century ago.
Given what we know of the corruption in the Russian Army procurement system, we can be pretty confident many of those ten thousand tanks won’t be battle-ready. Not only are manufacturers producing military equipment and parts that don’t meet military specifications (and pocketing the cash), there are also multiple sources reporting Russian commanders selling parts and equipment necessary for vehicle maintenance (and pocketing the cash). We’re hearing about radical equipment failures; for example, cannon barrels (on both tanks and field artillery) need to be regularly replaced because of the tremendous pressure of repeated fire. If they’re not replaced, they…well, explode. That’s hard on the crew.
And if that’s not enough, remember that Russia has a LONG border and needs to keep a large chunk of its military defending that border. It’s not as though Russia can send ALL of its tanks to Ukraine.
So, what possible difference can 14 British Challenger 2 main battle tanks make in the defense of Ukraine? In conjunction with the MBTs and other armored combat vehicles NATO allies are sending, they can make a big difference. This is partly because of the tanks themselves, but also because the Ukrainian Army has proven to be incredibly creative and adaptable in their approach to combat. They’ve learned combined arms operation tactics, at which Russia has failed miserably.
The fact is, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been stalled for months. They not only lack the ability to advance, they lack the ability to sustain major combat operations at this same stalled level. The arrival of new, powerful MBTs will very likely allow Ukraine to advance into Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine by the end of the coming summer.
There’s no way Russia can win this war. The only questions are how they’ll lose and how much suffering they’ll cause as they lose. The most likely outcome (and, of course, this is just my opinion) will be Russia withdrawing from much/most of Eastern Ukraine, followed by the same sort of long, consistent, localized border war Russian and Ukraine have fought since 2014.