Kris Osborn - President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) There has been much discussion of the strategic success with which Ukraine employed anti-armor weapons, dispersed hit-and-run-attacks and disaggregated formations to cripple a larger, invading mechanized force.
The success with which Ukrainian tactics and attacks have thwarted Russian advances continues to influence military thinkers around the world and even played a role in the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 text. The Corps vision for future war specifically mentioned Ukraine as evidence of how a lighter weight more dispersed and disaggregated force armed with anti-armor weapons can achieve great battlefield success against a heavier force.
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Ukraine’s somewhat unexpected success has also lead their defensive forces to shift momentum in the war and actually reclaim territory as part of a counteroffensive, particularly in areas near Kharkiv. This operational shift may indicate that Ukraine now needs some heavy armor with which to enter, occupy and “hold” territory. Pentagon leaders explain that indeed Ukrainian forces are effectively using tanks.
‘We know the Ukrainians have been operating Soviet style tanks. We know they’ve been employing them to pretty good effect,” a Senior Pentagon official told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript. Ukrainians have also reclaimed abandoned tanks left by Russian soldiers during invasion attempts due to Ukrainian resistance, difficult terrain or efforts by Russian soldiers to simply abandon their vehicles and refuse to fight.
“They’re using a number of tanks that they were able to secure from the Russians. Most recently in Kharkiv, but also before that at the beginning of the fight back in the March and April timeframe when the Russians were abandoning equipment,” the Senior official said.
Will Ukraine get more tanks? It might make sense for many reasons.
GlobalFirepower.com lists that Ukraine operates a number of T-72 Russian-built tanks. Do they have more upgraded T-80s and T-90s? Will they potentially receive Abrams tanks? The Pentagon official did not say one way or the other, however there are interesting factors to consider, as there are likely many Soviet-Era T-72 tanks in Eastern Europe and Poland is now in the process of receiving a large number of US built Abrams tanks. As the war continues to evolve into a protracted conflict, and Ukraine potentially continues to advance, their force would certainly benefit from more tanks and heavy armor.
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Ukraine’s military has been successful avoiding a linear-type of force-on-force mechanized confrontation, in large measure to their own tactical benefit. Such an approach will likely continue to be quite useful, as Ukrainian fighters have been able to ambush Russian armored vehicles on bridges, intersections and other key cross points. As they advance, they may be inclined to employ more of a traditional Combined Arms approach wherein they use artillery, long-range precision rockets and advancing armored vehicles all in tandem with one another to achieve a synergistic, impactful battlefield effect.
The Pentagon’s most recently announced $1.1 billion support package to Ukraine reflects an interest shift or repositioning into a new posture intended to support long-term military prowess and offensive or expansive operations for Ukraine.
Called the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the support effort is clear in that it establishes a contracting mechanism for the US to approach industry to develop and produce weapons systems for the Ukrainian military. Alongside this clear focus to enable long-term military strength for Ukraine through contracting and industry, a close look at the equipment being sent in this latest increment suggests a slight pivot toward supporting a more “offensive” posture for Ukraine. Certainly the package contains HIMARS and radar for drones which have consistently been sent to support Ukraine, but there is also an interesting amount of tactical vehicles and a large number of trucks and trailers to transport heavy equipment, the Pentagon says.
The Pentagon announcement says the support package contains 150 HMMWVs, 150 Tactical Vehicles and 40 trucks for moving heavy equipment. The number of tactical vehicles appears to suggest a move to support Ukraine’s advances in combat, meaning as their forces reclaim territory previously held by Russia, Ukrainians will need tactical trucks and transport, logistics and supply chain support. Advancing Ukrainian forces will need to move forward in larger formations than may have previously been necessary, and they will need to transport supplies, troops, weapons and other critical items forward in support of Ukrainian fighters reclaiming territory.
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These vehicles can help Ukrainian forces establish a secure and reliable supply chain for their force reclaiming areas opened up by retreating Russian forces. This may also suggest that more heavy systems are on the way as Ukraine may need more mechanized forces to seize territory as their forces move forward. Unlike a purely defensive fight in which Ukrainians used dispersed formations and hit-and-run ambush-type tactics to stall, stop or destroy invading Russian forces, more recent Ukrainian operations may require new levels of forward movement and a need to “hold” territory.
Does this support package suggest that tanks or heavier infantry carriers might be on the way? Perhaps. Some press reports say the Ukrainians are receiving tanks from some European allies, but the current tactical situation seems to suggest that perhaps Ukraine might benefit from the use of more heavy armor as its military posture continues to shift from a purely defensive approach to continued advancement.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.