Repair, replace, reimburse: Sustaining a European tank coalition for Ukraine
Military help for Ukraine is moving towards serious questions of logistics – but more countries still need to step forward. Here is how the next-stage coalition could look.
On 25 January, the German government authorised the transfer of European stocks of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. The decision by Chancellor Olaf Scholz came five days after the most recent Ramstein format meeting, where expectations had been high for such an announcement. Germany will now provide Ukraine with 14 of its own Leopard 2 tanks and allow other European countries to supply theirs as well; deliveries are set to begin soon. Previously, the governments of Poland and Finland had stated their readiness to do so as part of a coalition of European countries. But the deafening silence from some capitals about actually sending Leopards is an early reminder that much work remains to be done to sustain, and eventually expand, Ukraine’s future fleet of European tanks.
From the early 1990s onwards, the number of operational main battle tanks in European armies dropped considerably. Belief was widespread in Europe that large-scale conflict was a thing of the past; austerity measures led to a reduction in cold-war era reserve stockpiles of tanks, spare parts, and ammunition. This legacy means that only a European coalition can mobilise, refurbish, and supply a significant number of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. In September 2022, we made the case for just such a European-Ukrainian Leopard 2 coalition given Kyiv’s pressing need for Western-produced heavy armour and the limited national stocks of these systems in individual European countries. It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge we had hoped Germany’s European partners would show greater support for this initiative once Berlin had made its decision.
Germany and Poland are cooperating to lead the emerging Leopard coalition. They aim to quickly assemble and equip two Ukrainian tank battalions with 31 Leopard 2 each. This has turned into an arduous undertaking. Some of the governments that put the most pressure on Berlin to “free the Leopards” lack these tanks in their own inventories. And some of those that have them are now less keen to commit specific numbers. Finland, Norway, and Spain say that they are generally on board, for example, but they have yet to provide concrete figures. (Alongside Germany’s 14 tanks, Poland pledged the same number, while Canada is providing four and Portugal has promised to send three.) Berlin should surely have started reaching out to European partners earlier, but there is reason to suspect that some earlier proclamations of willingness were made only to pile pressure on the Germans. If Europeans fail in their collective effort to mobilise even 62 Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine (let alone sustain and eventually expand their number), it would be nothing less than a declaration of strategic bankruptcy. This is especially so given the way that many European leaders have spent years stressing the need for greater strategic sovereignty in defence matters and for a strong European pillar within NATO.
Ultimately, it was the Biden administration’s decision to commit 31 M1A2 Abrams tanks that convinced Scholz to greenlight the Leopard deliveries. For the US president, political considerations about keeping the Western alliance united seem to have trumped his military advisers’ logistical concerns. But, for Washington, main battle tanks are a capability Europeans are well suited to provide. The United States has contributed all of Ukraine’s HIMARS launchers for deep strike, has supplied the mainstay of 155mm artillery rounds and many other types of ammunition and guided missiles, and has given the largest share of military aid to Ukraine overall. The highly accurate intelligence and targeting data it has shared with Ukraine has also been crucial. The US will therefore judge Europeans as security partners based on whether they perform in this role – or not.
There is no doubt that a European Leopard 2 coalition is a major effort for the European user states, entailing cuts in their own operational readiness and therefore difficult trade-offs. However, as we set out back in September, this tank’s wide availability and the ongoing production of new vehicles make it the only European main battle tank that can be supplied to Ukraine and sustained at scale. Neither the French Leclerc nor the British Challenger 2 are still in production. But such an approach means that the initial transfer cannot be a one-off. Instead, the decision to supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine must be accompanied by a complex and difficult, yet necessary and achievable, sustainment strategy for the short, medium, and long term. If Europeans had used the past 11 months for contingency planning and taken preparatory steps to increase defence-industrial output, repair stock vehicles, and rebuild ammunition stockpiles, they would be in a better position to sequence tasks. Instead, these and other steps must now proceed in parallel. But if they put the right policies in place, the European Union and its member states can boost their own defences and supply Ukraine with modern tanks.
The driving forces within the coalition can take a number of steps to speed up progress.
Expand the coalition and what it does
In the coming days and weeks, the coalition should focus on bringing new partners into the fold to expand the availability of Leopard 2 tanks, NATO-standard 120mm tank rounds and spare parts, training for Ukrainian tank crews and mechanics, and logistical support. Ukraine will also need new recovery vehicles and other military engineering and transport vehicles to support the operation of its Western-produced tanks, which are significantly heavier than most Soviet-produced materiel. Countries that have tanks other than Leopards in their own inventories might still be able to supply such capabilities to Ukraine. Germany’s Ringtausch swaps with the Czech Republic and Slovakia are to be completed with former Panzer 87, a Swiss licence-built Leopard 2A4 variant that the German defence industry acquired from Switzerland in 2010. This could become a template for other countries hesitant to donate tanks from their active stocks, such as Finland, where most tanks are assigned to specific operational roles. Another 96 Panzer 87 are still in Swiss storage and could be mobilised for such like-for-like swap arrangements.
Alongside this, the governments of Germany, Poland, and Slovakia should work to expand the capacity of allied maintenance hubs in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine. The hubs should employ Ukrainian mechanics who will later be able to transfer to Ukraine after the war, together with the relevant tools and machines, to rebuild the country’s defence industry. The mechanics would also relieve the pressure on European mechanics and maintenance hubs and would help establish an indigenous repair capability in Ukraine for faster servicing at the frontline. With an eye on Ukraine’s future domestic tank production and maintenance capability, industry cooperation between German defence companies KMW and Rheinmetall and Ukraine’s Ukroboronprom could equip Ukrainian machinists and welders, working alongside their German counterparts, with the skills to produce new Leopard tanks and upgrade older variants. After all, Ukraine might well end up being one of the largest users of Leopard 2.
Poland’s own defence sector has been involved in maintaining and modernising the Leopard 2 for the Polish armed forces. It can also produce spare parts, including new gun-barrels. However, defence-industrial cooperation between Poland and Germany has not been free of friction, and Polish enterprises are currently overwhelmed with repairing and maintaining other combat systems for Ukraine, including the various Soviet-era platforms donated previously. Money and political will can both go some way towards mitigating this.
Germany and Spain, too, can repair and refurbish old spare vehicles. Most of their stockpiled Leopard 2 tanks could be readied for combat over the course of 2023. In Norway discussions are under way about whether financial contributions to such an effort would be the most effective support measure, and the Netherlands and Denmark, possibly together with Belgium, have opted for financing Leopard 1 deliveries for now. As many European armed forces struggle with shortages of fighting vehicles themselves, a Leopard 2 repair effort would at least provide initial capabilities until more countries are ready to commit additional vehicles.
Boost Europe’s defence industry through government spending
The German defence industry will play a central role in sustaining Ukraine’s Leopard 2 fleet over the long run. Since European armed forces cut much of their heavy armour following the end of the cold war, European defence industry focused less on producing new vehicles than it did on maintaining and modernising existing stock and refurbishment for international sales. Governments, particularly Germany’s, will need to engage industry to increase production capacity. This is as true for tanks as it is for artillery munitions, cruise missiles, and air defence systems – everything under the sun. It will mean training engineers and mechanics, establishing supply chains for intermediate products and raw materials, and building new factories and storage facilities. Industry has some ability to finance investments out of its own pockets, as some companies have done since 24 February 2022. But for the large-scale expansion necessary to continue supporting Ukraine and rebuild European armed forces, sustained defence-spending increases and reliable long-term contracts are necessary. Only governments can ensure this.
Buy additional Leopards
Over the long term, additional vehicles can only be built for Ukraine if countries procure new Leopard 2A7 tanks to phase out – and donate – older vehicles. The current delivery time for a new Leopard tank is three years, and even then they are able to arrive only at a rate of two per month. Larger orders could shorten these timelines and increase overall production capacity. At the moment, the production of Leopards is kept alive by a Hungarian order for 44 new tanks. Norway plans to order 54 new Leopard 2A7, while the Czech Republic is considering a purchase. The German Bundeswehr recently opted for brand new hulls to expand its fleet of Leopard 2A7 instead of modernising older vehicles because the latter would have been too costly and complicated as their hulls are ageing. However, the 68 Leopard 2A4 and 16 Leopard 2A6 that Berlin was originally considering for this modernisation programme could be refurbished instead – Ukraine does not need them to last for decades when the immediate requirement is for combat-ready tanks. The same is true for other countries that operate older versions of the tank and are considering updating them. The European Commission last year proposed a €500m fund to assist common defence procurements. A large, joint order for new Leopard 2A7 could leverage these funds. Political coordination on all these matters is required; given that the Leopard is a German tank built by German industry, Berlin should take on this role.
The decision to purchase new Leopard tanks would commit its users to the platform for another 30 years – a step few governments take lightly, but one they should certainly consider. There are two caveats, however. The first is political: after all the tussle and delays with Berlin’s decision to make German-produced tanks available to Ukraine, would a purchase be too risky a bet in the ongoing highly volatile security environment? The counterpoint to this is that other suppliers come with their own baggage: Washington also hesitated to deliver armoured combat vehicles, there is no experience in trying to ship South Korean-produced weapons to Ukraine, and Israel refuses even a single Israeli-made weapon to be sent to Ukraine from European stockpiles. As frustrating as the Leopard 2 debate was, Germany has after all become the largest European supplier of military aid to Ukraine.
The second caveat is technical, relating to the character of future warfare, how artificial intelligence and robotics will shape military operations on land, and, consequently, what requirements should guide the development of the Leopard’s successor platform. The unique combination of firepower, protection, and mobility that modern tanks provide will doubtless have its place on the battlefields of the future. But it is impossible to make serious predictions about how emerging technologies and concepts will affect these characteristics. For these very reasons it is uncertain whether the Franco-German “Main Ground Combat System” project, which is supposed to produce a networked land-warfare capability centred on a next-generation main battle tank, will generate much capability at scale. Similar efforts in other countries have only produced experimental vehicles and small-scale test batches. That being said, Europeans will need main battle tanks for their own defence for many years to come. Ukraine’s post-war demand alone will be enormous, and other countries might want to shed their Soviet-produced tanks as well. And, even after that, Leopards are unlikely to become obsolete entirely, but be relegated into secondary roles such as fire support, or reserve and mobilisation forces. It is therefore a solid bet to acquire the current generation of vehicles instead of waiting for ‘future generation’ weapons projects that have thus far yielded few results either side of the Atlantic.
In the words of Scholz, Ukraine can count on Western support for “as long as it takes” to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Successive decisions to expand the scope and scale of Western military aid to Ukraine – heavy tanks being the latest addition – mean that sustaining support is becoming less a high-level political question and more a managerial challenge involving defence industry and military logistics. This is a daunting challenge. But Ukraine’s determination and European cooperation will overcome it. This week’s German-Polish-Ukrainian-led summit should lay the foundation for the European-Ukrainian Leopard 2 coalition to end Russia’s war on Ukraine’s terms.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.