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What you need to know about M1 Abrams tanks and why they are important to Ukraine

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President Biden announced on Wednesday that his administration will send 31 of its best main battle tanks – the M1 Abrams – to Ukraine, a significant escalation of military aid as fighting is expected to intensify in the spring.

The move comes after US officials spent weeks raising concerns about the Ukrainian military’s ability to operate and maintain the tanks. But pressure to send the Abrams mounted as it became clear that Germany was also reluctant to supply its Leopard 2 tanks – which are more ubiquitous and easier to use – without a similar move from the United States.

Germany also said on Wednesday it will deliver 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about the American Main Battle Tank:

Why does Ukraine want the US M1 Abrams?

Kiev has begged its partners to send Western heavy battle tanks that could play to its advantage on the front lines. where the conflict has largely stagnated in recent months. The American main battle tank, in service since 1980, is one of the most powerful in the world. In modern versions of the vehicle, layers of depleted uranium armor provide substantial protection to the occupants.

The United States and its allies have said Ukraine needs heavy armor as they expand training for Ukrainian troops to fight Russian forces in the east of the country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week described the delivery of tanks and other armored vehicles as “urgent”.

Russian forces are expected to launch a new offensive in the spring, and Ukraine is looking to launch its own counter-offensive to take back Russian-held territory. Tanks will be crucial in giving Ukraine the upper hand, officials in Ukraine and partner countries say, especially as allies train Ukrainian troops to conduct “combined weapons” maneuvers against Russian forces dug in along the frontline in the east.

Main battle tanks are heavier and more powerful than the infantry fighting vehicles that Ukraine currently uses or will soon receive. They are intended to attack other tanks and break through enemy lines. And their tracks are made to move across open terrain, similar to the landscape in eastern Ukraine.

How Western combat vehicles on their way to Ukraine can change the war

The Kremlin, commenting on a possible delivery of Abrams tanks to Kiev on Wednesday, said they “will burn like the rest” and their potential to help Ukraine has been overestimated, Russian news agencies said.

Abrams’ donation could have more symbolic than strategic value: Ukrainian officials urged Washington to approve an Abrams delivery, arguing that it would prompt Germany to send its own tanks and break a blockade on sending such weapons from across Europe.

Those tanks are ubiquitous across Europe, but deliveries require approval from Germany, the manufacturer, which was hesitant to make such a move unilaterally. The US decision to send Abrams tanks appears to have convinced Berlin, which said on Wednesday it would allow other countries to deliver their Leopard 2s as well.

Why is Germany under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine?

Why was the United States hesitant to send the tanks?

Biden administration officials previously said the US-made tanks, which weigh about 70 tons, pose logistical problems for the battlefield in Ukraine. They are heavier than the Leopard 2 tanks. Instead of diesel, which powers the Leopards, the Abrams’ multi-fuel engine usually runs on jet fuel, which can be more difficult to maintain.

Promises of more modern equipment for Ukraine have also raised questions about how its allies would train Ukrainian troops to use them.

US officials have said the Abrams requires complicated maintenance, logistics and special training. “It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. … It’s not the easiest system to maintain,” Deputy Defense Secretary Colin Kahl told reporters last week after a visit to Kiev.

Throughout the war, US officials also weighed carefully whether sending a particular weapon system to Kiev might provoke Russia into escalating the conflict.

But after discussions with German counterparts, the Biden administration decided to donate the tanks, while Berlin signed on to send Leopards. Biden said Wednesday that the decision does not represent an “offensive threat to Russia” but was intended to help Ukraine defend itself against “Russia’s truly relentless aggression.”

“To liberate their country, they must be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield at very short notice,” Biden said of the Ukrainian armed forces.


Similar battlefield

heavyweights

The Leopard 2 main battle tank in Germany and the M1 Abrams in the United States have similar dimensions and capabilities; indeed, some of the agreements are deliberate, to ensure the tanks can work together on NATO battlefields.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF / THE WASHINGTON POST

Comparable heavyweights on the battlefield

The Leopard 2 main battle tank in Germany and the M1 Abrams in the United States have similar dimensions and capabilities; indeed, some of the agreements are deliberate, to ensure the tanks can work together on NATO battlefields.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF / THE WASHINGTON POST

Comparable heavyweights on the battlefield

The German Leopard 2 main battle tank and the United States’ M1 Abrams have similar dimensions and capabilities; indeed, some of the agreements are deliberate, to ensure the tanks can work together on NATO battlefields.

120mm gun

120mm gun

About 70 tons

About 55 tons

Sources: Federation of American Scientists; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF / THE WASHINGTON POST

Comparable heavyweights on the battlefield

The Leopard 2 main battle tank in Germany and the M1 Abrams in the United States have similar dimensions and capabilities; indeed, some of the agreements are deliberate, to ensure the tanks can work together on NATO battlefields.

120mm gun

120mm gun

About 70 tons

About 55 tons

Sources: Federation of American Scientists; Military-Today.com

WILLIAM NEFF / THE WASHINGTON POST

How many Abrams tanks will Washington send – and when?

The United States plans to send 31 tanks — enough for one battalion, a Biden administration official told The Washington Post. Delivery can take months, if not years. The delay is partly because the US government will buy the tanks from manufacturers rather than acquiring them from existing stocks. They will be paid for with the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a fund intended for the purchase of military equipment for Ukraine that the United States does not yet have on hand.

Ukrainian troops must also be trained in operating and maintaining the Abrams and deploying the tanks in offensive operations.

The leopards from Germany and European allies are likely to arrive earlier and could shape the battlefield this spring.

US gives Ukraine advanced M1 tanks

Adam Taylor, Loveday Morris, Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

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Russian guess: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western attempts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior US, Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

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