The announcement this week that Germany will send tanks to Ukraine has dominated headlines. The momentousness of this decision is difficult to overstate. Germany was the European country most resistant to materially supporting Ukraine for years—motivated by a professed wariness of antagonizing Russia, its main energy supplier, and by a longstanding culture of antimilitarism that crystallized after World War II and has formed deep roots in the decades since. This resistance was on display in the weeks ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As evidence of a full-scale invasion was mounting, international supporters were stepping up and pledging weapons to aid Ukraine’s defense. The UK provided two thousand NLAW antitank missiles, along with armored vehicles. Poland offered man-portable air defense systems, as did Lithuania. Turkey agreed to allow Ukraine to coproduce TB2 Bayraktar drones. These were significant moves that would impact the early course of the war. Germany, meanwhile, dragged its feet, earning criticism for its decision only to send a few thousand helmets.
Still, the slow pace and incremental manner of Germany’s path to this decision to provide Leopard 2 tanks does not change the significance of that decision. It is arguably the most indicative sign of the ways in which Russia’s invasion has remade the European security landscape. But the more operative question, and certainly the more immediately relevant one, is the degree to which it will affect the military balance on the battlefield.
The Leopard and Russian Tanks, Compared
Counting tanks and other equipment is an imprecise science. One of the most comprehensive sources documenting and estimating types and numbers of militaries’ equipment is The Military Balance, published annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The 2022 edition was released just ahead of Russia’s invasion, so it offers a reasonable basis for understanding how many tanks, and what type, Russia had available to its military forces when the war began.
According to its estimates, Russia’s army had 2,927 main battle tanks in its formations. Its naval infantry fielded another 330, and its airborne forces 160. In addition, it estimated that another 10,200 were held in storage (although there is important context in which that number must be understood, discussed below).
Oryx, a website run by Dutch researchers, keeps an ongoing count of Russian equipment losses based on photographic confirmation. The researchers have so far documented 1,646 tanks either destroyed or captured by Ukrainian forces, almost half of the total number of Russian tanks IISS estimated were in service prior to the war. Because Oryx has been able to identify the specific model and variant of almost 90 percent of these losses, we’re left with at least the broad contours of an understanding of the armor Russia still has available to it. If we assume Russia has only deployed tanks to Ukraine that were believed to be in service prior to the invasion—and this is almost certainly not true, but at least gives a starting point for estimating attrition— we find the following:
- Of 2,260 T-72s, including all variants, 934 have been lost, an attrition rate of 39%.
- Of 580 T-80s, including all variants, 374 have been lost, an attrition rate of 64%.
- Of 417 T-90s, including all variants, 44 have been lost, an attrition rate of 11%.
Again, IISS estimated that Russia had 10,200 tanks in storage prior to the war—7,000 T-72s (including A and B variants), 3,000 T-80s (including B, BV, and U variants), and 200 T-90s. This means that going forward, Russian tank warfare in Ukraine is likely to be dominated increasingly by T-72s, which is by far the most prevalent among Russia’s reserve stocks. It might also see an increased commitment of T-90s, which are the most advanced of the tanks it has fielded in any substantial numbers and thus most likely to survive combat engagements (an assessment backed up by its comparatively low estimated attrition rate), although the number of T-90s available is limited.
IISS estimated that the T-72B3—a variant that received a series of upgrades in the 2010s, including improved aiming system, autoloader, and reactive armor, to make it much more capable than the original T-72—was the most prevalent T-72 variant in Russia’s active formations before the war. The T-90M was estimated to be the most prevalent T-90 variant. Both of these estimates are empirically corroborated by the numbers of losses among each variant. The specific model of Leopard 2 tanks Germany plans to provide is the Leopard 2A6. Here’s how that Leopard model compares to the T-72B3, Russia’s most available tank, and the T-90M, the most modern tank it has in meaningful numbers.
Size: The Leopard 2A6 weighs over sixty tons, more than either the T-72B3 (around fifty tons) or T-90M (just over fifty tons).
Main Gun: The Leopard 2A6 is equipped with a 120-millimeter smoothbore main gun (RD 120 L/55), a slightly longer version of the main gun also used on the US military’s M1A2 Abrams tanks. Both the T-72B3 and T-90M are equipped with versions of the 2A46 125-millimeter smoothbore main gun.
Effective Firing Range: The Leopard 2A6 is capable of engaging targets with laser homing antitank munitions out to eight thousand meters. This outranges both the T-72B3 and the T-90M. Depending on the specific version of the 2A46 main gun and the type of ammunition used, the two Russian tanks can fire effectively out to a range of three to five thousand meters.
Crew Size: A Leopard 2A6 crew consists of four people, one more than either the T-72B3 or T-90M.
Armor: All three tanks are equipped with conventional armor—the Leopard 2A6 with spaced armor (export versions of the Leopard 2 have been equipped with additional composite armor for greater crew protection), the T-72B3 with both steel and composite armor, and the T-90M with slat armor. In addition, the Leopard 2A6 can be fitted with explosive reactive armor, although it is unknown if reactive armor is included with the vehicles Ukraine will receive. The T-72B3 includes Kontakt-5 reactive armor and the T-90M is equipped with Relikt reactive armor.
What the New Tanks Will Mean
If estimating stocks of Russian tanks and tracking the number lost on the battlefield are inexact sciences, at best, then predicting the way the introduction of the Leopard 2 tanks will affect the course of the war is even more challenging. Still, we can gain a better appreciation of the manner—and even the magnitude—of effects the injection of these tanks will have by exploring five important factors.
First and foremost, the number of Leopard 2 tanks Ukraine receives will obviously be a significant factor. Ahead of the war, IISS estimated that Ukrainian forces had 987 tanks in service—858 with the army, 69 with naval infantry forces, and 60 with air assault formations, plus an unknown but likely small number with Ministry of the Interior forces. In addition, it estimated another 1,132 in were in Ukrainian storage. Importantly, the bulk of these were older T-64s. The majority had received upgrades, including thermal sights, improved fire-control systems, and reactive armor. Still, Ukraine entered the war with a fleet of old tanks.
The supply, early in the war, of a few hundred T-72 tanks by European allies including Poland and the Czech Republic helped increase its armored firepower, but the introduction of more modern and more capable tanks—like the Leopard 2—means a change not just in quantity but in quality. Germany has committed to sending, in conjunction with other European allies, two battalions’ worth of Leopards to Ukraine. Depending on how the number of tanks per battalion is counted, that will total at least eighty tanks, and possibly as many as 112. But what will be important is whether the supply of tanks will follow a similar pattern that has taken shape with other Western materiel support. For instance, with Russia’s invasion imminent, Ukraine was desperately seeking antitank weapons to add to the small number of Javelin antitank missiles the United States had provided since 2018. Supporters began to pledge more and more antitank weapons—US-made Javelins, British NLAWs, and others—with the total rising to more than thirty thousand. Around the same time as Germany announced its decision to provide Leopards, the United States promised thirty-one M1A2 Abrams tanks and the UK committed fourteen Challenger 2 tanks. In short, the addition of more than a hundred, modern, highly capable tanks is significant. But if these tank supplies follow a similar pattern to that of antitank weapons, multiple-launch rocket systems, and other equipment—with the initial commitment followed by a dramatic increase in the numbers—the effect would be much larger.
Of course, equally important, is how the number of tanks Ukraine has at its disposal compares to the number of both tanks and antitank weapons that Russia can field. This is where the massive number of tanks IISS estimated to be in Russia military storage comes into play. It is not clear how many of those 10,200 vehicles are fit for service. Widespread corruption and theft have likely left some number of them—potentially a large number—cannibalized or even missing entirely.
Ukraine’s impressive performance so far in the war is a function of its defiance of many analysts’ projections that the weight of numbers would quickly tell. Ukraine’s spirited commitment to its own defense notwithstanding, the sheer advantages in manpower and materiel that Russia held were widely expected to tip the balance in its favor. That did not happen. In fact, even without the influx of new tanks, while Russia was losing half of its entire stock of readily available tanks, Ukraine likely actually increased the number it had because it captured more Russian tanks than it lost on the battlefield. In sufficient quantity, it is difficult to see how an injection of new, highly capable tanks like the Leopards will not further shift this balance of attrition, which is already heavily in Ukraine’s favor.
Timeline for Delivery
It isn’t yet clear exactly when the full complement of Leopards committed to Ukraine will be delivered. Fourteen of them, drawn from current German army stocks, represent what Germany has described as a “first step.” The UK has said it aims to provide its Challenger 2 tanks by the end of March, but the timeline for the bulk of the Leopards and of the US-supplied Abrams tanks could see their delivery anywhere from spring into the summer. When they appear on the battlefield matters.
When Russia invaded in February, it met winter weather conditions that dramatically hampered its progress. The onset of another winter is partly why the war has become more static in recent months than it has been at any time since its beginning, with a relatively definable front line separating Ukrainian forces from their Russian counterparts strung out across occupied territory ranging from the east, along the Black Sea Coast, to Crimea. That pattern is unlikely to hold as the weather warms. Both sides have reason to increase their operational tempo and launch offensives to disrupt the status quo, and that is likely in the spring. Whether Ukraine can count on the new tanks it has been pledged when those offensives begin will be a major factor in their outcomes.
Training, Maintenance, and Logistics
All of the tanks recently committed to Ukraine, including the Leopard 2, are advanced and complex systems. Like any machine, that means more parts and more sophisticated components. High-end fire-control systems are effectively computers and require very different support than less sophisticated systems. Laser rangefinders, however ruggedized, are finely calibrated tools that must be maintained in that state. Repairing and replacing explosive reactive armor is an entirely different proposition than bolting on more steel or adding sandbags. And training crews to operate any high-end weapon system, including tanks, is a much more time-intensive process than it is for simpler systems.
A hundred or more tanks in Ukraine’s possession will do little to shift the balance in its favor if they are stuck behind the lines, waiting for parts or without technicians available to maintain them. Maintenance and support challenges are the greatest factor in determining timelines for delivery. Germany plans to train Ukrainian crews for its Leopards in Germany, but equally important is training the personnel to keep the tanks running. That takes time. The US Army sends its Abrams tank systems maintainers to twenty-four weeks of school. Of course, under emergency circumstances, timelines like that could be compressed—but only so far. These maintenance requirements are why some analysts have questioned how much of an impact the new tanks will actually have.
Related to this is the challenge of logistics. Getting the tanks to Ukraine is one thing. Keeping a flow of parts and ammunition, and getting them where they need to be and when they need to be there in order to have an effect on the battlefield, is another. Russia has struggled mightily with its own logistics problems, showing how detrimental these challenges can be to an overall war effort. Ukraine has the logistical advantages of fighting on its own territory and has shown the flexibility necessary to maintain the flow of materiel along its interior lines of communication, but integrating the supply of parts and ammunition unique to these foreign-made vehicles will be a challenge. Each Leopard (or Abrams, or Challenger) tank will have individual parts that are different from anything else Ukraine is sending through its logistics pathways. How well and how quickly it can get a single one of those parts into the country and to the unit whose tank has broken down will play an influential role in determining how much that tank contributes to the fight.
Finally, having these new tanks at Ukraine’s disposal and using them to maximum effect are two different propositions. Will Ukrainian forces use them principally in the attack or on defense? Will they deliberately seek out Russian armored forces in open battle or be used against other, softer targets? Will they combine their new tanks with fires, infantry, and engineers to outmaneuver and penetrate Russian defensive lines? Will they see the tanks themselves as antitank weapons, or continue to rely on Javelins, NLAWs, and other antitank missile systems and divert these tanks to other purposes?
Numbers of tanks matter, but the tanks’ specific capabilities matter even more, and method of employment more yet. In the Gulf War’s Battle of 73 Easting in February 1991, US Army forces encountered armored units of Iraq’s Republican Guard Corps in the open desert. In total, the Iraqi forces had more tanks on hand than their US counterparts, but the US forces had a clear advantage in the sophistication of their equipment. Put simply, the American tanks could identify, target, and eliminate enemy tanks before the Iraqis operating older Soviet tanks even knew they were there. But it was the methods of employment—the fire and maneuver tasks enshrined in US Army doctrine and drilled into the tankers—that contributed most greatly to the battle’s outcome: around half of the 300–400 Iraqi tanks destroyed without a single US tank lost.
When the anticipated spring offensives begin, will the Russian military continue to revert to its institutional bias for mass and invite large-scale tank battles? If so, will Ukraine accept this challenge or seek to preserve its tank stocks for use elsewhere? Indications from the war over its first eleven months are that Russian forces’ have struggled to employ their comparatively greater military resources to maximum effect, while Ukrainian units have been innovative in their employment of force and exacted disproportionate costs on the Russian aggressors. If this pattern continues, it will enhance the effects that the new tanks will have on the battlefield.
When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, it did so with a marked advantage in tanks—both raw numbers and the technological sophistication and capability of the tanks it had available. Since then, Ukraine’s use of its tanks has been vastly superior to that of Russia. While Russia’s stocks of armor have been steadily attrited, Ukraine’s have grown. This is largely a function of superior methods of force employment by Ukraine, but Russia’s logistics problems—its struggle at times to provide fuel to its tanks, for example, and its limited capability to retrieve damaged tanks—have also contributed. The war’s course so far provides ample evidence that Ukraine’s disadvantage in numbers and the technological sophistication of its armored platforms can be offset by superior employment.
If these patterns continue even as Ukraine receives the highly capable Leopard 2 and other tanks, their introduction has the potential to measurably impact the balance on the battlefield. That potential, however, comes with an asterisk. It will only be achieved if they arrive in time to be involved in the anticipated spring offensives and if Ukraine’s supporters provide not just the tanks, but the training to maximize their effectiveness and the logistics and maintenance support needed to keep them in the fight.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. A former US Army intelligence officer, he has conducted multiple research trips to Ukraine to examine the ways it was preparing for the threat of a Russian invasion.
Colonel (CA) John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-five years on active duty as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. In June 2022, he visited Ukraine as part of an independent initial assessment of the Battle of Kyiv. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War and coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.
Image credit: Visual Information Specialist Gertrud Zach, US Army