Poland has offered to train Ukrainians on its soil using its own Leopards, bypassing Berlin’s reluctance to allow allies to send the heavy tanks to Ukraine. But delivering 300 battle-ready Leopard 2s will not be simple.
By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.
New training programs in Poland could get some Ukrainian soldiers ready to operate Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks in combat in as few as six weeks, experts told Breaking Defence, although officers and maintenance specialists would take longer. The tanks themselves could be another story.
But if all goes well, and if Berlin then allows its allies to send the German-made MBTs to Ukraine — a decision that Berlin has been waffling on — that means Ukraine theoretically could launch an armoured counter-offensive in early March, just before the spring thaw known as the rasputitsa turns the open steppes into tank-bogging mud.
That optimistic timeline is much quicker than the US Army’s 22-week timeline to turn a new recruit into a tanker worthy to graduate the “schoolhouse” Fort Benning, Ga., and join an operational unit, where the recruit would keep training the rest of their career. The “One Station Unit Training” (OSUT) at Benning used to be 15 weeks until the Army decided that was not enough.
But Ukraine needn’t send its new recruits. They have thousands of veteran tankers, hardened by 11 months of the fiercest fighting in Europe since World War II. They have thousands more mechanics and logisticians, honed by the desperate struggle to keep a hodgepodge of Western and Soviet combat vehicles in fighting form. They have commanders and staff officers used to planning and coordinating armoured warfare.
These veterans would not need to learn the basics: how a tank needs constant maintenance, how it needs careful driving on bad ground to avoid throwing a track — the armoured behemoths can be surprisingly delicate — or how the huge machines can hide behind buildings, woods, or even subtle undulations of the seemingly flat steppes, then lash out in an ambush. But they would need to learn the Leopard II, which — like the American M1 Abrams, the British Challenger, and other modern Western tanks — is much bigger, heavier, better-armoured, and more high-tech than the Soviet-derived designs they’re used to. That affects everything from crew size (four instead of three) to what bridges can support their weight, from how the gun is loaded (manually instead of automatically) to how supply lines and advances must be planned.
“This is not like simply learning a few new incremental upgrades between similar Russian designs, as when a Ukrainian tanker moves from a T-64 over to a T-80 or captured T-90,” said Matthew Dooley, a retired Army armour officer now with Robotic Research. “This means learning to operate, drive, shoot, and maintain a tank that comes from a design philosophy in the West that’s wholly different from the old Soviet engineering approach.”
So how long would it take, when the pressure is on, and Russia is racing to mobilize more manpower for its own renewed offensive?
Having adopted a host of Western and captured Russian systems on the fly, “Ukrainians have demonstrated remarkable tech savvy and the ability to learn very quickly,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe. “Given that and… a more compressed training program” – so, no weekends or evenings off – “I’m estimating that experienced Ukrainian tankers will need about one-third to a half of the time that is normally required for a new soldier going through OSUT.” That comes out at about seven to eleven weeks.
“Overall, it will take two or three months to train Ukraine personnel,” said Nicholas Drummond, a former British Army tank officer and now a consultant. “I wouldn’t want to do it in any less time.”
“Leopard 2 was designed to be used by conscript soldiers” — the German Bundeswehr retained the draft long after the US — “so it is relatively easy to train crews to use them,” Drummond added. “The more challenging requirement is training support teams to maintain the tanks.”
“You’ve got to train not only the tank crews, but you also then have to train all of the maintainers,” agreed retired Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe. “Then you’ve got to go in and you’ve got to train their staffs.”
“You can truncate that down [to], say, eight weeks to train an experienced armour crew member…but you can’t train them all at once,” said Donahoe, who once commanded the Fort Benning training centre. “You need to establish the school” — presumably at an existing Polish base — “where you could bring Ukrainian tankers from their current units where they’re fighting, train them up, and get them back into Ukraine.”
“Say a month and a half to two months per individual, [but] three or four or five months to build a larger body to train soldiers,” Donahoe concluded.
Other experts were more optimistic about fast the veteran Ukrainian tankers could make the leap to Leopards. Depending on how quickly the vets caught on, Defence Acquisition University Prof. Marc Meeker, a former Army officer, said “4 to 11 weeks would cover training for those who caught on quickly and those who needed remedial training.”
“One could train new crews up to a basic level of proficiency in about five or six weeks,” said Dooley. Maintainers would take a similar period, he said, “[but] for the Ukrainian junior officers and non-commissioned officers, it may take another two to three weeks of additional time” to learn Western tactics.
“The complexity of Ukrainian military operations is relatively low” compared to high-speed, long-range blitzkriegs the US waged in 1991 and 2003, said retired three-star general Thomas Spoehr, now with the Heritage Foundation. “I think four to six weeks would be fine.”
One current Army officer, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with that four-to-six-week estimate.
Some highly specialized repair technicians, however, might take “a year,” warned Jon Jeckell, a retired Army officer with extensive experience with tank maintenance. “That’s basic proficiency, and not with all of the tacit knowledge of a senior technician that develops an intuitive sense for problems, knows how to troubleshoot, and can improvise.” So, for some time, if certain high-tech components break — like the laser rangefinders essential to accurate long-range fire — Ukraine will have to send them back to Poland, Germany, or another country with infrastructure to support the Leopard II.
Fortunately for Ukraine, several European nations have that infrastructure, because the Leopard II is the most widely exported Western main battle tank of modern times. Many countries bought them second-hand from the Bundeswehr during its downsizing in the 1990s.
All told, said Meeker, who worked extensively with the Bundeswehr during his time in the Army, “the Leopard Benutzer (LEOBEN) user community… consists of 31 countries headed up by Germany’s BAAINBw,” the office for Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support. After the 1990s sell-off, he said, “Germany has only around 300 Leopards, but there are literally thousands of Leopards around the world, in Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, North/South America, and Asia.”
On the downside, the Bundeswehr’s own Leopards may be in bad shape, because the German budget has short-changed the military in general and basic maintenance in particular for over a decade. Other European armies are a mixed bag.
“Austria, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and Spain… were all reluctant to provide their Leopard tanks,” said Drummond. “In many cases this was because their fleets were old and needed to be upgraded.” To get the 300 tanks Ukraine has asked for into fighting shape, he worried, might take “three to six months.”