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Monday, December 09, 2019


M1 Abrams main battle tank

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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 and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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Leopard 2 tanks

This is the latest report in my months-long coverage of the war in Ukraine. For more reporting like this, and to read my screeds about the reprehensible Republican Party, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.

The Associated Press headlined the big meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Ramstein, Germany, last Friday this way: “Ukraine will have to wait longer to find out if it will get advanced German-made battle tanks.” The problem was Germany, which manufactures and exports the tanks. They had not yet agreed to allow European countries to send the Leopard II tanks to Ukraine.

Yesterday the AP led with this: “The German government will not object if Poland decides to send Leopard II battle tanks to Ukraine, Germany’s top diplomat said Sunday.” That’s newspeak for Germany caving to international pressure that was poured on in buckets last week after Germany initially stuck to its policy of not allowing shipment of its tanks to Ukraine to fight Russians on the front lines. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, on a French television show, said Sunday that Poland had not formally asked for permission to ship the Leopard tanks, but confirmed, “if we were asked, we would not stand in the way.”

Poland announced today that the government would ask permission to send the tanks but added that they had already planned to supply the advanced battlefield weapons even if not given permission.

In a BBC TV interview today, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put out an appeal to all European countries with Leopard tanks in their arsenals “to immediately, officially request the German government to allow delivery of these tanks to Ukraine."

The way Poland has been talking, it wouldn’t surprise me if Poland was not already secretly training Ukrainian tankers who are qualified to drive and shoot Russian T-72 tanks in their arsenal, which they have captured a good number of from Russians on the battlefield.

The Leopard II is a modern tank with multi-layered armor and a 120 mm smooth-bore main gun. The tank is powered by a 1500 HP 12-cylinder diesel engine, can reach speeds of 40 MPH, and has a 300-mile range, which is fairly extraordinary for a main battle tank. The Leopard has a gyroscopically balanced main gun, which means it can fire on the move. The tank has night-vision aiming sights, laser range-finders, and two co-axial machine guns. The design of the Leopard’s main gun allows it to fire several different kinds of tank ammunition produced by multiple allied countries.

Germany has said that it designed the Leopard II tank so it can be driven and fired by citizen-soldiers, their version of our National Guard. This means that the training to use the Leopard is not as lengthy or complicated as what is necessary for the U.S.-made Abrams tanks.

One fixed truth about the development of tanks is that as they have gotten more complicated and additional requirements have been put on them, they have become more likely to break down, the distance they can travel before needing to be refueled is reduced, the training necessary to be able to deploy them in battle becomes longer, and there are stiffer requirements for soldiers to become tankers.

Older tanks like the American M-60 used in the Vietnam era were nearly self-explanatory. You could get into the gunner seat and with less than an hour of instruction, learn to shoot the thing. Accuracy at first wouldn’t be the best but driving and firing tanks is like anything else: you get better with practice. When I was a cadet at West Point, I was assigned as a so-called “3rd Lieutenant” to spend the better part of one summer as an executive officer of an armor advanced individual training company at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Out of 160 guys in the company, 140 of them had been drafted during Project 100,000, MacNamara’s cannon-fodder experiment which lowered the IQ level necessary for service, removed the requirement for a high school diploma, and gave county and state prisoners with less than two years to serve on their sentences the option to get out early if they “volunteered” for the draft.

Those were the guys I was in charge of teaching to drive and shoot tanks. I can tell you two things about that training company: One, no one was killed in training, and two, every soldier in that company graduated and was qualified at least minimally to drive and shoot the M-60 tank.

But the M-60 was a primitive weapons system compared to today’s tanks. The range-finder was optical, meaning as a tank commander, you looked through a scope and dialed knobs to match two lines to establish the range, and then you transmitted the range to the gunner over the radio, who dialed in the range on his sight, found the target in his sights and fired. Sometimes, those soldiers even hit what they were shooting at. Driving was done with two sticks that ran the left and right tracks, and gas and brake pedals. There was a transmission shifter that put the transmission in “go” and “idle,” and that was pretty much it. If you can drive a zero-turn lawn mower, you could drive an M-60.

The Leopard is much more complicated when it comes to firing its main gun, but driving it is very similar to the old M-60. Given what I can find out about the Leopard II, if Ukraine has soldiers who can handle the Russian T-72 tank, less than a week will be necessary to bring them up to speed on the Leopard II.

Which is great news for Ukraine. If other European nations, as expected, follow Poland’s lead and ship some of their Leopard II tanks, depending on how long it takes to get them there, Ukraine could have new Leopard tank units ready to go by March.

Germany has been reluctant to send its tanks or approve their shipment by other European nations because of “German culture,” according to multiple stories over the last few days. That’s shorthand for Germany being reluctant to get involved militarily in any conflict on the European continent unless their country is threatened, a hangover from German aggression in World War II. But that war ended almost 80 years ago. Everybody gets it that Germany has managed to cobble together what passes for collective shame over Nazism and the deaths they caused on and off the battlefield during that war. It looks like Germany, or more specifically, its politicians, are taking a deep breath and entering the real world. They’ve got these modern and deadly weapons systems. It’s time they used them for something other than decorative purposes in motor pools waiting for someone to attack them.

The Russians, chiefly in the person of State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, have been making their usual threatening noises, warning the rest of the world to leave them alone so they can continue murdering Ukrainian civilians at will. “Supplies of offensive weapons to the Kyiv regime would lead to a global catastrophe,” Volodin said. Dimitri Medvedev, a former Russian president, chimed in by threatening to form a military alliance with "the nations that are fed up with the Americans and a pack of their castrated dogs."

Good luck with that, Dimitri. My advice would be to train your unlucky conscripts to duck.

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 and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.