The Weight of NATO Tanks May Pose a Problem in Ukraine

The heavier weight of main battle tanks supplied to Ukraine by NATO members could pose issues for how Ukraine can use them, experts have told Newsweek.

In recent weeks, Kyiv's Western backers have announced that they are willing to supply Ukraine's army with sophisticated main battle tanks.

On January 25, President Biden announced that the U.S. would deliver 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Calling the M1 Abrams the "most capable tanks in the world," Biden said the U.S. would provide enough to equip a Ukrainian tank battalion.

Kyiv's forces need to "counter Russia's evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term," Biden said.

Abrams Tank
An M-1A1 Abrams tank is seen at the Fort Irwin Army National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. The Abrams weigh significantly more than the Soviet-era tanks Ukraine has been using since the outbreak of the war. Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images

The promise to supply the Abrams came in the wake of Berlin's pledging of 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks to Ukraine. Berlin also gave other nations permission to re-export German-manufactured Leopard tanks to Kyiv.

On Friday, Germany also approved an export license for the older Leopard 1 tanks.

The U.K. had previously promised deliveries of their Challenger 2 main battle tanks. President Zelensky welcomed the move, saying on January 14 that the additional support "will not only strengthen us on the battlefield, but also send the right signal to other partners."

The new tanks are all more modern than the main battle tanks Kyiv has been using since the war began, including the Soviet-era T-72. Ukraine had previously received T-72s from several countries and in November, the White House committed to financing the refurbishing of 45 T-72B tanks with advanced capabilities via the Czech Republic.

But the T-72, which is the most widely used main battle tank in the world, weighs in at about 45 tons, as does the later model T-80. An M1A1 can weigh between 67 and nearly 74 tons, according to the U.S. Army.

"This affects what bridges a vehicle can safely use, which in turn affects where it be deployed and how easily it can maneuver on the battlefield," military and defense expert Michael Peck told Newsweek.

Soviet-era bridges were designed to bear the weight of the tanks of the time and the region, former military officer Frank Ledwidge told Newsweek.

"Many Ukrainian bridges may not be suitable" for the far heavier Western main battle tanks now destined for Ukraine's front lines, he said.

Bridging equipment used by the Ukrainian military will also be designed with Soviet-era tanks in mind, not Abrams, Challengers or Leopards, he added.

Corresponding bridging equipment will be provided by Western allies, Ledwidge suggested, but Russian military intelligence may nonetheless benefit from Ukrainian logistical decisions that eliminate unsuitable bridges.

These considerations will "confine" the Ukrainian military, Ledwidge argued, but Ukraine's military commanders "will be very aware of this, and will find ways of deploying the tanks to take advantage of their capabilities."

Back in February 2020, the military outlet Breaking Defense wrote that while Western European infrastructure "was often reinforced during the Cold War to handle the weight of 60-plus-ton NATO tanks, Eastern Europe couldn't afford to build as robustly and, in any case, only had to accommodate much lighter Soviet tanks, like the 45-ton T-72."