The West Is Sending Light Tanks to Ukraine. Will They Make a Difference?
Ukraine is set to receive dozens of light tanks from the United States, France, and Germany. How will these weapons bolster Ukraine’s defense against Russia?
French President Emmanuel Macron surprised many observers last week with the announcement that France will be providing “light tanks” to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia. This was quickly followed by similar commitments from the United States and Germany. These systems offer Ukrainian forces important new capabilities, but they also present logistical hurdles and the potential for an escalation of conflict.
What are light tanks?
To begin with, they aren’t tanks at all. Light tanks are typically armored fighting vehicles that are smaller, lighter, and more agile than main battle tanks. The French government pledged to provide an unknown number of AMX-10 RC armored fighting vehicles, while the United States and Germany will provide approximately fifty Bradley Fighting Vehicles and forty Marder infantry fighting vehicles, respectively. Most light tank variants are equipped with a smaller caliber main gun than a typical tank and have less armor. They are meant for use in a variety of roles, including troop transport, support for infantry, support for anti-armor warfare, and reconnaissance. By comparison, the M1 Abrams main battle tank is more heavily armored, equipped with a 120-millimeter cannon for increased lethality and range, and designed to close ground with and destroy enemy armor.
Will they make a difference on the battlefield in Ukraine?
There are three aspects, or levels of warfare, to consider when answering this question: tactical, operational, and strategic.
At the tactical level, the addition of armored vehicles will give Ukrainian forces greater mobility, agility, and protection in support of infantry operations. Both wheeled (AMX-10 RC) and tracked-based (Bradley and Marder), these light tanks can be used in a variety of terrain and weather conditions and will respond faster to changing situations on the battlefield. Depending on which weapon systems the Western countries supply, these light tanks could also provide much needed stand-off firing capabilities that would allow them to defeat Russian tanks with anti-tank missiles. For example, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle is equipped with a tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missile system meant to be used against enemy armor that is in range and visible to the operator.
Operationally, the Ukrainian army has proved that it understands and is expertly executing combined arms operations. This means it can effectively synchronize infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, aviation, and other joint capabilities into one mission with a shared objective. The new systems will add to Ukraine’s combined armed capabilities, but it will not happen overnight. With their delivery likely to be timed for a spring offensive, these systems will require weeks of training to operate and maintain. They could require adjustments to existing doctrine and the establishment of a logistics trail to provide parts and repairs. This is a demanding process for one new weapon system—the addition of three systems will make the process even more complex and likely cause significant logistical challenges.
Ukraine still wants tanks, and for good reason. Western main battle tanks would clearly have the advantage against Russian systems. But these lighter, more mobile armored vehicles will offer an anti-armor capability that can match up with Russian systems in most scenarios. In addition, as Russia continues to launch drone attacks, these light tanks will provide protection to infantry troops as they are transported on the battlefield.
What does this mean for Russia?
The Russian military’s response to the introduction of Western armored vehicles will be interesting to watch. It continues to use old Soviet doctrine and has yet to effectively employ combined arms maneuvers. It also uses stovepiped leadership models without empowering decision-making at the lowest level. The Russian military will likely look to mass to address the problem, attempting to add more weapons and soldiers to the mix; but without a change in its tactical and operational approach, it will continue to suffer heavy losses and cede territory.
The introduction of these vehicles could have significant strategic consequences, some of which will be unknown for some time. But it is fair to say that these vehicles could tip the balance of the fight on the ground, which could in turn escalate tensions between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely paint the provision of these systems as Western aggression. They could be seen as crossing a red line, leading to increased saber-rattling and threats of the use of nuclear weapons.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not the views of the U.S. Army or U.S. Department of Defense.