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Austin meets new German defense minister over Ukraine tank support

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Germany’s newly appointed defense minister, Boris Pistorius, on Thursday to push Berlin to approve the transfer of German-made tanks for Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion.

Germany won’t send or authorize the transfer of its modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine until the U.S. agrees to give its own, according to multiple reports. But U.S. officials say there are no plans to send American tanks, arguing the Abrams M1 has substantial maintenance and fuel needs that would make it too difficult for Ukraine to operate.

Pentagon officials see modern Leopard 2s in the arsenals of Ukraine’s European allies – and other armored vehicles recently pledged by the West – as crucial tools for Ukraine to break the near-stalemated fighting and launch a counter offensive this spring.

“We’ve already been working with Ukrainians on T-72s [tanks] and on other Soviet-era tanks,” a senior Pentagon official said. “What’s facing them is the next step, and that’s why we’re looking at modern, mechanized armored capabilities. That’s why the focus on tanks, and Germany is the key to that capability.”

Because Poland and Finland have both offered to send German-built Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, subject to approval by Berlin, they’re “the most immediate, accessible, usable capability,” the senior defense official said.

Various versions of the Leopard 2 are in the arsenals of more than a dozen European countries. That means there is a common pool of spare parts as well as maintainers that could train Ukrainian forces on the weapons.

Austin is set to host a regular coordination meeting of top defense officials from Ukraine’s Western allies at the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday. Officials expect a group of ten or more countries will meet on the sidelines to focus on the Leopard 2 transfers.

“We are very optimistic that we will make progress on this requirement by the end of the week,” the senior defense official said.

In a joint statement, the U.K., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Slovakia, said that to ensure a Ukrainian battlefield victory in 2023, they would commit to collectively pursuing a combination of main battle tanks and other “unprecedented” weapons for Ukraine.

“The new level of required combat power is only achieved by combinations of main battle tank squadrons, beneath air and missile defense, operating alongside divisional artillery groups, and further deep precision fires enabling targeting of Russian logistics and command nodes in occupied territory,” their statement reads.

The German government, for its part, is expected to have figured out by the Ramstein meeting on Friday how to resolve a major conundrum that Scholz has created for Berlin: How to justify a potential change of heart and approve Leopards – either Germany’s own or via other countries’ export requests – when the chancellor has made his decision dependent on Washington doing the same?

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, Colin Kahl, praised the Scholz government for its contributions so far, which include Marder infantry fighting vehicles and a Patriot battery.

However, he said there “shouldn’t be a concern” about Germany being the only country to provide tanks after the UK agreed to send its Challenger 2s and France agreed to send its AMX-10, a “light tank.”

“I think if there was a concern about being alone in providing this capability, that shouldn’t be a concern, but at the end of the day, the German government’s going to make a sovereign decision,” Kahl said.

Asked about the Abrams, Kahl reiterated that the Pentagon is opposed to sending it. He called the Abrams, “a very complicated piece of equipment,” and said its fuel and maintenance needs would make it a burden for Ukrainian forces.

This week, several former U.S. defense officials voiced frustration at the impasse, particularly after Russian forces launched a missile attack on a civilian apartment complex in Dnipro that left dozens dead. They argued Ukraine should get both the Leopard 2 and Abrams.

Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration, said the west should expect Russian forces to be cannier and more dug-in than the troops Ukraine bested last year. Ukraine needs durable and heavily armed tanks to team with the newly committed western infantry fighting vehicles

“Infantry fighting vehicles are not tanks in and of themselves, they are meant to move infantry along with tanks in an offensive,” Townsend said. “It just pisses me off that we can’t get the Germans off the mark. If it takes us releasing some Abrams, okay, because I think they want to hide behind us.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said he hoped the U.K.’s provision of Challengers would add pressure to provide the Leopard 2 or the Abrams tank, which he said would devastate Russian forces.

“The Abrams has the best armor in the world, and its ability to absorb a hit and keep fighting is part of what makes it so special,” Hodges said. “Its fire control system and gun can identify a target and hit it two miles away. It can see and hit anything the Russians have before the Russians even know they’re detected.”

Rather than using any donated vehicles as replacements for their losses, Hodges envisioned Ukrainian forces creating new formations using the foreign armor, and integrating it with their infantry and air defenses like U.S. forces do in order to pack the biggest punch.

The promised infantry fighting vehicles, along with Czech-supplied self-propelled howitzers for instance, could be the basis for an armored brigade and division “capable of smashing the Russian linear defenses of trenches filled with poorly-trained recently-mobilized soldiers,” Hodges said.

“It’s so frustrating when you think of how the [western] decision-making has been so incremental,” Hodges said. “Give them the god-danged capability and they will figure out how to use it instead of us just constantly throwing out reasons why we’re not making a decision. Let them figure out the ‘how.’”

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.

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