AS the war in the Donbas rocks to and fro, with Russian preliminary advances being checked and often repulsed by the Ukrainians, many Western countries are havering over what equipment to send to Ukraine.
Inevitably the reporting of this adds to the confusion, as too many defence correspondents think anything with tracks is a tank.
President Zelensky has asked for tanks. While some (possibly many) Western theoreticians consider them obsolescent, Zelensky and his generals know that they need mobile, protected firepower capable of knocking out Russian armour.
Facing a similar threat to the one Nato faced in the Cold War, plus (one day) the need to recapture their country from Putin’s invaders, he and his generals know the answer is a tank.
The ones they particularly want are former Soviet ones such as the T72, for the simple reason that they know how to use them and have the ammunition stocks. Poland, (which has almost 1,000 T72 and variants) has sent some to Ukraine.
At about the same time, Russia launched missile attacks on the railway crossings into Ukraine. Go figure. Expect road crossings also to be on the target list.
Other Western powers are scrabbling to help. Germany is offering its obsolete Gepard anti-aircraft gun (tracked, but not a tank) and Marder infantry fighting vehicles (also tracked, but not a tank).
The Germans also have some 50 obsolete Leopard 1 tanks that manufacturer Rheinmetall says it could send, although currently there’s a question about ammunition supply.
The UK is sending protected mobility vehicles left over from Afghanistan (not tanks) and the Stormer HVM (High Velocity Missile) system, which carries the potent Starstreak anti-aircraft missile on a highly-mobile tracked chassis (also not a tank).
To be fair, while most Western tanks are vastly superior to the Russian T72s, T80s and T90s, they are very different. Not only do they have different guns, meaning logistic challenges, they have crews of four, not three, and no autoloader.
The latter is probably an advantage, as the magazines for the autoloader are what detonate and blow the tank’s turret off. The point is that training crews to use them will take time – at least two intensive months – and time is another thing the Ukrainians lack.
Finally Ukraine needs artillery, either more ammunition for the mostly ex-Soviet systems that it has and, if time were available, Nato 155mm systems. The advantage of these is that they can fire the Excalibur GPS guided round.
Unguided artillery is ‘an area weapon’ in the jargon, meaning that only 50 per cent of rounds fired will be within 200 metres of the target, which is largely why so many non-military targets have been hit by the Russians.
The Excalibur round reduces this to an astonishing four metres, transforming artillery into a precision weapon. As the Ukrainians are fighting on their own soil, massively reducing collateral damage is hugely attractive.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has revealed that the UK is not sending its AS90 artillery piece (tracked, but not a tank).
According to Forbes, the Dutch are sending their equivalent, the excellent German-manufactured Panzerhaubitze 2000, and the Italians and Belgians are considering similar gifts. It’s also thought that the Americans will send many M109 Paladins, all of which fire the full range of Nato 155mm rounds.
Yes, there will be a training need, but this would be truly transformational for Ukraine. Clearly Russia fears this, hence the rail strikes and warnings by Russian defence minister Sergei Lavrov of the conflict escalating to World War Three.
That escalation is not inconceivable; the war in Ukraine is set to become a proxy war between the West and Russia. For Russia to win it need ‘only’ destroy the Ukrainian army. For the Ukrainians to win, they need to destroy everything the Russians send to Ukraine, every time.
There’s an analogy with Israel and the United Arab Republic of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Israelis being equipped by the US and the UAR by the Soviet Union. Of course, this time the Russians are fighting in person, not by proxy.
As the Russians shape the battlefield for the onslaught they are about to unleash, Western leaders need to adjust from being arms salesmen to considering how they will prevent this war becoming existential for Russia. They may already be too late.