US to fast-track Abrams tanks for Ukraine by choosing older version
Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of Ukrainian units likely receiving Abrams tanks. Thirty-one tanks can outfit three tank companies.
WASHINGTON ― The Pentagon announced it will speed up its delivery of Patriot missiles and M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, opting to send a refurbished older model that can be ready faster and reach Ukrainian troops fighting Russia’s invasion force by this fall.
The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or two to build and ship. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved new plans to send the older M1A1 version from Army stocks, which will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain as they fight Russia’s invasion.
“DoD, in close coordination with Ukraine, made the decision to buy the M1A1 variant which will enable us to significantly expedite delivery timelines, and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year,” said the Pentagon’s press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
The U.S. will refurbish excess M1 hulls and ship them as the M1A1 SA variant, outfitting the 70-ton behemoths with 120mm cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. Poland in January signed a contract for 250 M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 tanks; U.S. Defense Department officials could not immediately say how they planned to juggle the Ukraine purchase and foreign military sales.
The Pentagon is committed to training Ukrainian troops on using and maintaining the tanks, but no details or timeline were forthcoming on Tuesday.
Separately, Patriot surface-to-air guided missile defense systems will be deployed to Ukraine faster than originally planned, Ryder said. That’s because Ukrainian soldiers will complete their training on the systems at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, faster than scheduled.
The U.S. pledged one Patriot battery in December, and Germany pledged an additional Patriot battery.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced in January he would send 31 General Dynamics Land Systems-made tanks to Ukraine, reversing course after Germany cleared the way for Europe to send its own main battle tanks.
Ukrainian leaders have pressed for the Abrams to strengthen their defenses in anticipation of Russia mounting a spring offensive, and earlier this year Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that August would be “too late” for the weapons to make a difference.
After visiting the Abrams factory in Lima, Ohio, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who co-chairs the Ukraine Caucus, criticized the Biden administration’s pace in deciding to send tanks to Ukraine.
“To folks who think I’m being too strong,” Quigley said, “what do you want the Ukrainians to do? Hurl rocks at the Russian tanks?”
Army officials were saying publicly for weeks that they were wrestling with faster options, once the decision had been made, but it was tough.
“A tank by itself is not a military capability. You have to send the whole package, and that includes ammunition, vehicles to maintain it, fuel, and you have to do the training on the system so that it can be sustained in combat,” Army acquisition chief Doug Bush said at a Defense News webinar earlier this month. “Efforts are underway to do it as quickly as possible.”
Beyond concerns about how quickly the tanks will arrive, it’s unclear whether they will arrive in large enough numbers to make a difference. Thirty-one tanks is enough to outfit three tank companies, said retired Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, former commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“They need brigades, not companies. Right now we’re seeing this kind of ‘drip, drip’ with platoons and companies,” Donahoe said. “If you only give them one battalion, you don’t give them the capability to overmatch the Russians, which a number of Western-style armored brigades would give them.”