M1A1 Abrams Variant Will Be Given To Ukraine To Expedite Tank Deliveries
In addition to M1A1 tanks from the United States, Ukraine is now set to get depleted uranium tank ammunition from the United Kingdom.
The U.S. military is working to speed up the delivery of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, with the first examples now slated to arrive in the country sometime in the fall. The accelerated timeline is thanks in large part due to a decision to supply refurbished M1A1 variants, rather than newer M1A2 types.
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesperson, provided new details about the plans to transfer Abrams tanks to the Ukrainian armed forces at a routine press conference today. American authorities formally announced in January that they would be transferring 31 M1s to the Ukrainian armed forces, but said that the process would take many months, possibly spilling over in 2024.
"Ever since we made this announcement, we've been committed to exploring options to deliver the armored capability [M1 tanks] as quickly as possible," Ryder said. "After further study and analysis on how best to do this, DOD, in close coordination with Ukraine, has made the decision to provide the M1A1 variant of the Abrams tank, which will enable us to significantly expedite delivery timelines and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year."
A U.S. defense official had already confirmed to The War Zone that efforts are underway to accelerate the delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine and that more information would be forthcoming. That followed reports from other outlets about changes to the delivery plan and schedule.
"We’re working on that. There’s some changes that you can make to the process, to sort of speed that up," John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House, said during an interview on MSNBC today. "The Pentagon is working as fast as they can, and they’ll have more to say on adjustments they’re making."
Ryder did not provide a specific timeline for when the first Abrams will be delivered to Ukraine's military or when those tanks might actually enter operational service. It will take a significant amount of time to train Ukrainian personnel to operate and maintain them and for those individuals to demonstrate a level of proficiency in those tasks. It's unknown if any groundwork has already been laid in that regard.
We've already seen that the physical delivery of more modern Western heavy armor for Ukraine does not then immediately translate to those vehicles being put into action. A shipment of M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles for Ukraine arrived in Europe in February, and Ukrainian personnel have been training on them, but there are no clear indications that any of them have joined the fighting yet.
Reports earlier today indicated that the decision to send refurbished M1A1s rather than M1A2s was made in part to help reduce training and logistical requirements, in addition to allowing for truncating the overall delivery schedule. Just how much easier to operate and maintain the M1A1 variant is compared to the M1A2 is not immediately clear, especially given the various subvariants that exist of each type.
While the baseline M1A2 variant does feature improved fire control systems, sensors, communications gear, and more, compared to the baseline M1A1, it remains unknown exactly what specific configuration Ukraine's tanks will actually be in when they arrive. Subvariants of the M1A1 were deployed after its initial introduction that included new digital fire control and other systems, as well as various other upgrades. A so-called Situation Awareness (SA) subvariant was then developed that incorporated many of these improvements into a more ready exportable configuration.
In response to multiple questions at today's press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder declined to say whether or not the M1A1s that Ukraine is now in line to receive would be SA variants. He did stress that they would offer a "very similar capability to the M1A2," but did not elaborate.
Beyond all this, M1A1 and M1A2 variants all share the same complex fuel-hungry gas turbine engine that has been a particular focal point in debates about the potential hurdles to transferring Abrams tanks to Ukraine and then getting them into the fight. You can read more about all this here.
Separately, the British government disclosed yesterday that it is sending 120mm tank ammunition containing depleted uranium (DU) to Ukraine along with a tranche of Challenger 2 tanks. This is very likely a reference to armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds that actually fire dart-like penetrators, which can be made of DU or other dense metals, rather than an explosive warhead of some kind. After being fired, the so-called discarding sabot that stabilizes the projectile inside the barrel falls away, and the high-speed dart continues on, damaging whatever it hits by simply smashing into it. If it hits an enemy tank or other heavily armored vehicle, the force of the impact can turn the penetrator into a semi-molten projectile that burns its way through, with any fragments (also known as spall) that break off inside causing extreme damage to the interior and its occupants.
The video below offers a general overview of how APFSDS tank ammunition works.
The British DU tank ammunition raises additional questions about the Abrams plans. As The War Zone has previously explored in depth the armor packages on U.S. military variants of the M1, which also contain DU, are very sensitive for a host of reasons. Armor packages with DU are typically not even offered as an option on export variants. Refurbished tanks for foreign customers go through a lengthy process first to remove that material.
However, if British officials have approved the transfer of ammunition with DU inside to Ukraine, this raises the possibility that American authorities might allow Abrams with armor containing DU to be sent to that country if other operational security concerns can be suitably addressed. That, in turn, would eliminate the need for the months-long modification process to install a non-DU armor package.
Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder told reporters today that he was not aware of any U.S. plans to send ammunition containing depleted uranium to Ukraine, a question that has also come up in the context of the transfer of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. He did say that the Abrams for Ukraine would have "advanced armor," but provided no further specifics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking today in Moscow alongside visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, said that the expanding scale and scope of Western military aid to Ukraine, including the British decision on DU tank ammunition, would prompt an unspecified reaction. He specifically framed the fact that "the collective West is beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component" as a significant new escalation. Of course, Putin, among other Russian officials, regularly makes nebulous threats in response to news of new Western assistance to the Ukrainian military.
Even without DU armor packages or the capabilities found in newer M1A2 variants, Abrams tanks could still be a major boon for Ukrainian forces. Even older variants are significantly more capable, including in their ability to operate effectively at night, and better protected than the Soviet-era tanks and derivatives thereof that currently dominate the armored forces of both sides of the conflict in Ukraine. You can learn more about what M1s, even in relatively small numbers, could offer Ukraine in detail in this past War Zone feature.
As already noted, even with these efforts to shrink the delivery schedule, when any Abrams for Ukraine will actually join the fighting still very much remains to be seen.
“We’re looking at options for how to get the Ukrainians tanks and there are a variety of different ways that we could do that,” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth told reporters in February, according to CNN. “We’re looking at what’s the fastest way we can get the tanks to the Ukrainians. It’s not going to be a matter of weeks.”
The U.S. government's decision to pledge M1s for Ukraine was also heavily predicated on a broader diplomatic effort to convince other countries, notably Germany, to allow for the transfer of other more modern Western tanks to the Ukrainian military. Work is separately underway already to get German-made Leopard 2s, as well as the British Challenger 2s, and other types, into the hands of armored units in Ukraine.
“We have to deliver swiftly and fully on our promised commitments,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had said at a press conference following the most recent meeting of the American-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group last week. “That includes delivering our armored capabilities to the battlefield and ensuring that Ukrainian soldiers get the training, spare parts, and maintenance support that they need to use these new systems as soon as possible.”
Ukraine has, of course, been asking for additional heavy armor, among other advanced weapons, for months. The various developments on this front since January have all come amid reports of planned spring offensives in the eastern and southern portions of the country. There are no indications that Abrams will emerge in the Ukrainian hands on the battlefield any time soon.
Still, the U.S. government is clearly trying to do whatever it can to speed up the process of getting M1 tanks to Ukraine.
Howard Altman contributed to this report.
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