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Yeah, you read that right. In an abrupt policy about-face, the Biden administration is now saying it will approve shipping the big American main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, to Ukraine. The decision appears to have come about from secret negotiations between the U.S. and Germany over the last few days, as the announcement will be made tomorrow in conjunction with Germany’s formal approval for Poland to send some of its stock of Leopard II tanks to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
In other words, after nearly 11 months of everybody having cold feet about provoking Putin by supplying Ukraine with main battle tanks, everyone’s feet warmed up. The dispute last Friday among NATO defense ministers at the Ukraine Support Contact Group in Ramstein, Germany, seems to have lit the fuse for the American decision. As the New York Times reported today, “German officials privately have insisted that they would only send the tanks, among the most advanced in the world, if the United States agreed to send its own M1 Abrams tanks.”
Previously, according to the Times, the “two issues” were not linked. Well, apparently they were, which is typical for the kind of diplomatic and defense foxtrot that surrounds these kinds of decisions. Nobody wants to be seen as the bad guy holding things up, while at the same time nobody wants to be the first to act, so finally they get together on the diplomatic dance floor and do the two-step and get it over with.
There are questions surrounding the American agreement to send the Abrams to Ukraine. The Times reported today that “It could take years before the U.S. tanks reach Ukraine,” probably reflecting challenges involving logistics in shipping the huge 55-ton beast and training Ukrainian forces to drive and shoot the thing.
The Abrams is technologically the most advanced main battle tank in the world. It shoots multiple kinds of ammunition, including warheads that are tipped with depleted uranium that is much harder and more effective at penetrating armor than hardened steel warheads. A new round for the tank has several different modes of exploding – detonation upon impact, air-burst, and delayed detonation on impact, which means the round explodes mili-seconds after hitting another tank or armored vehicle, increasing its penetration ability.
But it’s the computer-assisted aiming capabilities that really distinguish the Abrams tank from other main battle tanks. Essentially, an onboard computer calculates aiming the main gun based on several kinds of data – what kind of round is being fired, the range to the target, and the lead angle if the target is moving. Other factors are automatically calculated as well, including air temperature, barometric pressure, and the effect of gravity on the barrel of the gun due to the barrel heating from previous rounds fired, or even sunlight.
All of these factors are computed into what the army calls a “ballistic solution” and displayed on both the tank commander’s and gunner’s aiming reticle, similar to looking through a pair of binoculars. Either the tank commander or gunner can fire the main gun. All they have to do is keep the cross-hairs in the reticle on the target, and the computer does the rest, applying lead angle and gun-tube elevation automatically.
If it sounds like something you might see on the screen of a video game, it is. Familiarity with violent video games would seem to make teaching tank crews an easier task, but I can tell you from riding in and shooting the old M-60 tank that the mere fact of being inside the great lumbering beast, with all of the noise and shaking and pitching front-to-back and side-to-side involved in riding in a bucking 50-ton tank, it is nothing like a video game.
By the time I left my assignment to the tank training company, I had a nine-inch-wide swollen purple and blue bruise around my chest from several weeks of pitching around and slamming into the thinly-padded sides of the commander’s cupola with a buck private trainee in the driver’s seat.
It’s scary even when you’re on a training range, much less in combat with an enemy trying to hit you and kill you just as hard as you’re trying to do the same to the enemy. Even with the muffling of a helmet and padded ear-covers, when the main gun goes off, it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced in your life: The breach is thrown back violently, the entire tank shakes like it has been kicked in the ass by the foot of God, smoke and chemical residue escape into the tank as the breach is thrown open, and the loader scrambles to insert another round so the breach can slam closed and the big gun can be fired again.
All of this happens in what we might colloquially call a split-second. Even on a firing range, with other tanks around you doing the same thing – firing and shaking the ground with massive explosions emitting flame and smoke – it’s akin to being in combat.
It’s sheer madness, frightening and thrilling all at once. Because it’s a tank and its intent is to be used in combat against a brutal enemy with similar weapons, driving and shooting it must be done with great calm and precision by well-trained crews if you’re going to do anything other than launch great big bullets very long distances into thin air.
So, no matter when the Ukrainians get their M1 Abrams tanks, they’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of them before they can drive them into battle. And speaking of driving, the Abrams tank burns 60 gallons of very expensive JP-8 fuel an hour. JP-8 is a kind of diesel fuel that can be used in standard combustion engines as well as the kinds of turbines that power jet aircraft and the Abrams tank. That means a hell of a lot of tanker trucks must follow a squadron of Abrams tanks into battle, and it means they must be refueled in a tactical position safe enough that neither the tank itself nor its fuel truck are likely to be hit by enemy fire, whether from other tanks or artillery.
It's yet another problem for which an army that fields Abrams tanks must have a tactical solution and be very, very good at making it work. It’s either that, or your 55-ton sophisticated computerized weapons system is going to get shot all to hell, and you may as well not have gone to all the trouble of getting it shipped over from the U.S. and attempted to deploy it at all.
That’s why Ukraine may not be able to field its Abrams tanks for a year. They’re going to have to get so good at driving and shooting that going to war with them will be, yes, like a very shaky, noisy, smokey, scary video game.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.