What impact will Leopard tanks have on the war in Ukraine?

Germany has agreed to send its much sought-after Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine after weeks of mounting pressure from Western allies and Ukrainian officials.

Kyiv sees the heavy weaponry as crucial to defeat the Russian invasion, but Moscow warns it's a needless provocation.

Germany's decision immediately paved the way for pledges from other countries that also use the same tanks.

Norway confirmed it too would send tanks as part of Western aid, while Spain and the Netherlands said they too could send Leopards.

Poland and Finland had already pledged to send some as soon as Berlin approved.

Britain has offered 14 of its comparable Challengers and France is considering sending its Leclercs.

While the US President Joe Biden today announced it will deliver 31 Abrams M1 tanks to Ukraine.

How can heavier tanks make a difference?

They can help with the offensive against Russia that analysts expect Ukraine to launch later in the winter or in spring. Heavy tanks have three elements that make them special and useful on the offensive: mobility, firepower and protection.

The Leopard 2 tanks in particular are excellent, modern tanks that have been upgraded. But the question now is about how many tanks can be provided, according to Mark Cancian, retired US Marine Colonel, and a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

How many modern main battle tanks would be needed to make a difference?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for 300 tanks to break through Russian defensive lines.

"The Ukrainians started the war with about 800 tanks, so sending 15 or 30 Leopards is not going to have a militarily significant effect. Europe is going to have to send hundreds of tanks to really have an effect on the battlefield," said Mr Cancian.

Why Leopards over Challengers or Abrams?

There aren’t very many Challenger 2 tanks, only around 250. Britain is sending 14 to Ukraine but with so few tanks produced, they can’t spare very many of them.

The American Abrams M1 tanks are very difficult to maintain. They also have a gas turbine engine, essentially like a jet engine which makes it very powerful. But the Ukrainian military have never used these types of engines before so it will be very challenging.

The Leopards are the preferred tank for a number of reasons. There are lots of them out there and it has a standard diesel engine the Ukrainians are used to. They are better than the tanks Ukraine currently has, they’re less vulnerable than the Russian era tanks. The Leopards also have much better fire control. They can see and hit targets at longer ranges, and with a better stabilised gun it can hit targets while moving. They also have diesel engines like almost every other armoured vehicle.

When would the tanks be used by Ukraine?

Mr Cancian pointed out that getting hundreds of tanks is going to take some effort: "Although the Germans have produced some 3,600 Leopards. They're scattered among twenty different countries. These tanks are going to have to be maintained and then the crews are going to have to be trained. Particularly the maintainers are going to have to go through training courses."

Establishing a logistics pipeline could take several months, so it’s likely to be late spring before tanks start arriving on the battlefield. Any anticipated offensives or counter-offensives could be under way by then.

"Unfortunately, the war seems like it's going to last for quite a while, so it's highly likely that these tanks will be useful on the battlefield and in the war," said Mr Cancian.

Has the delay in supplying these tanks hampered Ukraine's defence?

Ukraine says it has. But Mr Cancian’s observation is that the problem for Ukraine is the ability to absorb all of this new equipment. Since the beginning of the war Ukraine has been receiving equipment in phases, lots of artillery last spring, air defences last autumn with people needing specialist training each time and logistics pipelines set up.

"What the West worries about, and in the United States particularly, is overwhelming the Ukrainians so that some of the equipment ends up being wasted, not being maintained, being sidelined, and that would be very damaging to the bipartisan consensus that the United States has had, and Europe has had about supporting Ukraine. If there were accusations that the support is being wasted that would undermine that bipartisan support and the long term support for Ukraine," said Mr Cancian.

Are the tanks a game-changer for Ukraine?

There is no such thing as a silver bullet or a game-changer, according to Mr Cancian. He believes they can build a military capability that will push the Russians out, but there’s no one item that’s going to turn the tide in the war in Ukraine.

He anticipates victory will come from the cumulative effect of all of the equipment that's being sent, all of the training that's being done for the Ukrainians, and by Ukrainian resolve to resist the Russians, all of which the tanks would be a part of.

"The Leopards will be helpful in Ukraine's offensive but we have to keep in mind that the numbers are limited at this point, and it's going to take some time for them to arrive on the battlefield. So, this is not going to be felt immediately. An important element though, is the political aspect. It shows support by Europe, NATO and the United States for Ukraine, because we're providing something that they really wanted."