Germany, in the form of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is making a bit of a fool of itself over its intransigence on letting its Leopard 2 tanks be sent to Ukraine. These tanks are widely available across European armies and some countries which have them, Poland for example, are keen that Zelensky should have some of theirs, but the Germans have proved stubborn in their refusal to modify their end user certification.
Britain has already promised a squadron of its Challenger 2s, of which more in a minute, but Scholz has stated that Germany will only send its tanks to Ukraine if the USA sends some of its M1A2 Abrams tanks too. This is the politics of the playground, and the German government needs to grow up.
The reason that Ukraine wants the Leopard 2 over others is because it is relatively commonplace in Europe and the supply chain is relatively short. Spares and ammunition should never be a problem. The American Abrams tank is fine too, but is a gas guzzler with a much longer supply chain, and Challenger 2 uses different ammunition to the rest of NATO.
To be brutally honest, fourteen Challenger 2s are going to make minimal difference on the vast battlefields of Ukraine. How then, to get around the German embargo and provide a larger British contribution to the 300 or so tanks that Zelensky says Ukraine needs to go over on the general offensive and clear the whole of Ukraine of the Russian occupiers?
One interesting idea that is circulation is that, rather than give Ukraine a measly fourteen Challenger 2s, the UK should give the entire fleet to them. Figures vary, but given that Britain acquired around 338 of them for its army and some 227 are currently “operational”, although I would take that stat with a pinch of salt. That leaves somewhere between fifty and a hundred spare and available. Ukraine could put them to good use.
And how would the UK fill the gap left in its armoured capabilities until Challenger 3 comes along? Why, buy Leopard 2s from Germany! Unlike our Challenger 2s, which came into service in 1998, the German tanks have had a comprehensive programme of updates and improvements over the past twenty years and are now markedly superior to our own.
And why stop there? Instead of upgrading 148 of our tanks to the Challenger 3 standard, would it not be better in terms of economies of scale and cross-NATO compatibility to equip the entirety of the UK’s tank fleet with Leopard 2? Let’s not pretend that the Challenger 3 programme is risk free, and recent disasters with the now abandoned Warrior IFV upgrade programme and the mummy and daddy of all fiascos, the Ajax programme, don’t fill anyone with much confidence in British AFV procurement, do they?
On the other hand, if we were to dispose of our entire Challenger 2 fleet and abandon the Challenger 3 programme, we could acquire the modern Leopard 2A7+ before we would see Challenger 3 enter service. It comes with an integrated active protection system and Britain would join the “Leopard Club” and benefit from future upgrades, plus be able to influence the design and manufacture of the future Leopard 3. It clearly makes sense.
Leaving that aside, even with the donation of the entire UK Challenger 2 tank fleet to Ukraine, it leaves Zelensky still short of about 200 tanks. The only way I can see around the German resistance to supply them is for Poland and other like-minded countries to basically ignore the export restrictions, send them anyway, and see what Germany does. I suspect that such action would get Scholz off the hook and be welcomed, albeit privately. Nothing risked, nothing gained.
Philosophically, I don’t think we can pretend any more that the Russo-Ukraine conflict is anything other than a proxy war between NATO and Russia. If the west does not do everything in its power to assist Ukraine to win and expel Russian troops from its territory then who knows where Putin’s aggression may take us next. Poland? The Baltics? If so it’s hard to see how NATO cannot become directly involved, and that means US and British troops, amongst the other nations, fighting once again in Europe.
It doesn’t need to come to this. Ukraine is doing the fighting for us. Chancellor Scholz, and his German government, need to grow a pair and get on with it. Tue das Richtige!
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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