The U.S. is sending older M1A1 models instead of the more modern A2 version, which would have taken a year to get to Ukraine.
The six people — a Defense Department official, a U.S. official, an industry official, a congressional aide and two others familiar with the discussions — were all granted anonymity to discuss sensitive plans that have yet to be announced.
The Biden administration has said it wants to deliver more weapons to Ukraine as quickly as possible, both to assist with the counteroffensive and bolster the nation’s defenses for the long-term. Besides the tanks, the U.S. wants to start training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets before warplanes are delivered, possibly by the end of the year.
The arrival of the tanks in the coming weeks will add a new, lethal dimension to Ukraine’s inventory as its forces struggle to break through entrenched Russian defenses along a front line that stretches for hundreds of miles. Although Ukrainian troops have made some advances on one axis of attack in recent days, they are taking heavy artillery and aircraft fire as they move slowly through dense minefields and enemy foxholes.
The initial batch will involve six to eight tanks, said the industry official and the congressional aide. In total the U.S. is planning to send 31 tanks, a Ukrainian battalion’s worth.
“We’re definitely working to get them to Ukraine as fast as we can,” said Pentagon spokesperson Col. Martin O’Donnell, declining to discuss specifics on the timeline.
Before Ukrainian forces can begin operating the tanks, they have to wrap up a roughly 10-week course on 31 trainer tanks at the Grafenwoehr Army base in Germany. The Ukrainians are slated to finish that training in August, according to a separate DOD official.
The first DOD official and another person familiar with Kyiv’s thinking said the tanks could even arrive in Ukraine as early as August, but that timeline may be overly optimistic. The tanks are not new; instead, the older vehicles are being stripped of their most sensitive technology, including in some cases secret depleted uranium armor, before they can be sent to Ukraine.
While the industry official said the first batch of modifications has been completed, it’s unclear if all the necessary refurbishments can be finished by the end of August.
But the situation is more complicated than merely sending tanks and training crews. A third DOD official, who didn’t address tank timelines but instead spoke more broadly about equipping and sustaining Ukraine for the long haul, said the U.S. is “working with our European allies to establish heavy maintenance repair facilities, especially for battle damage” to the Abrams tanks and other heavy armor that has been donated to Ukraine. “At the same time, we’re assuring that they’re getting all of the appropriate training, not only for repair but spares.”
The Pentagon’s top acquisition official, William LaPlante, recently said in an interview that the repair and sustainment work is the “main effort” for a group of NATO allies, including the U.S., in trying to keep Ukraine in the fight for the long-term.
Kyiv has been pushing hard for the Abrams to arrive as quickly as possible. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed “hope” in a June interview with a Ukrainian broadcaster that the tanks could arrive in time to take part in the current counteroffensive.
However, “one should not think only in terms of this counteroffensive,” he cautioned.
“You should not look at this counteroffensive as the last and decisive one,” Kuleba said. “There will be so many counteroffensives, as many as is needed to expel Russia from our territory.”
The Abrams’ tough armor and powerful weapons could help Ukrainian forces break through in the heavily contested south and east, where troops are probing for weaknesses. This week Kyiv made a new push to retake territory, sending in reinforcements and attacking south of the Ukrainian-held town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region.
If Ukraine can make progress there, it could provide an opening for Kyiv’s forces to push toward the city of Melitopol, near the Sea of Azov. The point of the drive to the east and the south is to split Russian forces, severing the land bridge between Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.
But Russian forces have spent months digging well-fortified positions across hundreds of miles of frontline positions, making dislodging them a difficult task. The Ukrainian military lacks modern fighter planes to provide air support, leaving Ukrainian ground troops vulnerable to Russian helicopter attacks and directed mortar and artillery fire.
Senior Pentagon officials have said Ukraine has a tough fight ahead.
“This offensive will be slow, it’ll be difficult, and it’ll come at a high cost,” said Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley in a recent press conference.
But Ukrainian forces “still have a number of options available to them, and we can expect that they’ll continue to press,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this week in Papua New Guinea.