Back in mid-January Great Britain announced it would be supplying Ukraine with a limited number of Challenger 2 main battle tanks. London’s move kicked off an anthill of activity as other NATO nations scrambled to offer tanks in their own inventories to Ukraine’s beleaguered military. Pressure was applied to Germany, urging Berlin to reverse its previous decision not to offer Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine. The Germans relented and their decision was followed by an announcement by the US that it would be sending thirty plus M-1 Abrams to Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, a number of smaller NATO member states joined in, pledging to make available limited numbers of their small MBT stocks, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Poland. The tank telethon was touted as a sign of NATO and European unity in the face of Russia’s continued war in Ukraine.
Fast forward to the present day and things are quite different compared to one month ago. Earlier this week the Netherlands and Denmark governments announced reversals to their promises to send Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine. The Dutch apparently came to the realization that the only tanks it could provide are the eighteen Leopard 2s leased to its military from Germany. Both the Dutch and Germans concluded that these tanks could not be part of any shipment east. The Danes, with an active inventory of only 44 Leopard 2s announced it would not earmark any of these tanks for Ukraine. Both nations have affirmed that they will provide financial support to modernizing 100 Leopard 1 MBTs being stored in Germany. Compounding matters somewhat, yesterday Germany announced that with the Dutch and Danish withdrawals that it only has half the number of Leopard 2s on hand that Berlin originally pledged to Ukraine. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius confirmed that only ‘half a battalion’ of Leopard 2s will go east with the German tanks expected to be delivered in late March. Efforts to find the more modern A6 version of the Leopard 2 from other European nations is coming up short.
Meanwhile, Poland continues to push ahead full speed in its efforts to train Ukrainian crews on Poland’s German-made Leopard 2A4 MBTs. As per the agreement reached in January, Germany is focused on training and forming a battalion containing the A6 version while Poland concentrates on the slightly less capable A4 version of the Leo 2. Finland has also promised to send a limited number of its own tanks to Ukraine. However, this assurance seems to be contingent upon Finland being admitted to NATO as a full member. Turkey and Hungary are currently blocking this move.
The drama playing out truly seems more along the lines of a soap opera instead of a multinational effort to provide Ukraine with a large number of modern main battle tanks before an expected major Russian offensive kicks off in the spring.
In Brussels, NATO defense chiefs came together to try and reach a solution to the ammunition shortages now affecting the Ukrainian military. More importantly, these Western officials are finally acknowledging the root cause of the overall ammunition shortages. Not because they want to, but for the simple fact circumstances are forcing the issue. In short, Ukrainian forces are going through ammunition the same way intoxicated sailors burn through the money in their wallets on payday. The Ukrainians are burning through artillery rounds at an especially reckless clip and NATO nations cannot replace the expenditures as rapidly as the situation demands. Western defense industries cannot increase production to the levels necessary to sustain a blue force (Ukraine) fighting a conflict against a red force (Russia) with greater reserves of ammunition and equipment. Not for an infinite period of time at least. Put another way, the well is running dry.
With the war now approaching its first anniversary, Western defense officials are working to address Kiev’s ‘most pressing needs.’ New training to reduce Ukraine’s overreliance on artillery support will be one aspect of the training. Artillery fire discipline is one area where Ukraine has been lacking. Ukrainian forces are burning through a lot of artillery rounds and rockets. Western defense industries cannot hope to keep up with the demand. To make matters worse, NATO armies cannot continue to raid their own armories for equipment and ammunition to send east without causing harm to their own security needs. Before the meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted the Ukraine war “is consuming an enormous amount of munitions and depleting allied stockpiles.” This has been apparent for some time, but for NATO’s secretary general to admit as much publicly indicates how dangerous the alliance regards the present situation as both Russia and Ukraine continue preparing for upcoming spring offensives.
Balloons/UNKs Over North America– More information is becoming available today on the identity of the objects shot down over Alaska and Canada. US officials described the object over Canada as a ‘small metallic balloon with tethered payload while the one over Alaska was classified as a balloon. As for the area of Montana’s airspace being closed off for a period last night the FAA blames a radar anomaly for the move. With that being said, as of 1:10 PM Eastern Time there are now scattered reports appearing about airspace restrictions being put in place over Lake Michigan. At 1:14 PM Eastern Time it was reported that the FAA has declared ‘National Defense Airspace’ over Lake Michigan. It’s unclear if there is a connection between the two events, but given events of the past week it is at least a possibility.
As of 1:38 there’s conflicting reports surfacing, so by the time this is published, the info contained above could be outdated.
South China Sea– The SCS has been pushed into the background somewhat in recent weeks. Despite the fact that the US commenced military exercises in the area over the weekend with the USS Nimitz carrier group and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked upon the LHD USS Makin Island. The exercises come as tensions between China and Indonesia have been trending downward lately. Indonesia looks to begin development of oil and natural gas around the Natuna Islands for future exports. Although the islands are positioned within the Indonesian EEZ, surrounding waters overlap with China’s ‘nine-dash-line.’ Consequently, any development by Indonesia is certain to raise eyebrows in Beijing. In fact, last month a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was spotted patrolling the contested waters. Indonesia reacted by deploying a warship, maritime patrol aircraft and drone to the area and keep a close watch on the Chinese ship. China is growing more assertive on the heels of an agreement by Indonesia and Vietnam over their EEZ boundaries in the SCS region. A number of ASEAN countries are starting to push back against China’s hegemonic ‘nine-dash-line’ claims. This should serve as a reminder that despite Taiwan and other areas of Sino-US competition taking up world attention, the South China Sea remains the grand prize for Chinese ambitions and economic needs stretching out beyond the Western Pacific.
The twenty-four hours following yesterday’s US shootdown of an unmanned Chinese intelligence balloon off the South Carolina coast has produced the expected litany of accusations and counteraccusations between the United States and China. The Chinese government strongly condemned the US for ‘using force to attack civilian unmanned airships.’ Beijing chose to leave out the fact that the US was entirely within its rights for taking the action it did. The balloon violated the airspace of the United States and was being used to conduct reconnaissance of strategic locations. Recovery efforts continue today as US Navy divers are working to obtain debris from the balloon. Once the post-mortem gets underway more information on the balloon and attached devices and sensors will become available.
China’s intent with regards to future signals intelligence gathering over US airspace remains unclear. China is a sovereign nation and obtaining information about rival states is something sovereign nations do. However, once in a while an incident becomes public and one side inevitably walks away with egg on its face. In this case, China is the guilty party. In the coming days it will alternate between protesting and feigning ignorance until the balloon saga is wiped from public memory on both sides of the Pacific. Xi Jinpeng might score some points with his domestic audience by playing up perceived US aggression, but on the foreign front there’s little to be gained.
As for the already deteriorating Sino-US relations, the balloon drama will not alleviate tensions. It will bring up specific questions about China’s intelligence-gathering operations inside of the United States and hopefully help convince the US government that more measures must be taken to safeguard strategic installations from prying airborne and spaceborne eyes. This is not China’s first foray into US airspace with a balloon. Over the past few days past incidents have come to light. To try and push the focus away from this, Beijing might look to turn up the heat on Taiwan in the coming days with increased air and naval maneuvers around the island-nation. Such a move will send a stern message to Washington that any future incidents such as the balloon crisis that embarrass China will bring about consequences for Taiwan in response.
China’s foreign ministry came released a statement earlier today in an attempt to explain the balloon seen flying over the northern states of the US in recent days. According to the foreign ministry, Yes, the balloon is of Chinese origin. However, it is a ‘civilian airship’ used for meteorologic research not intelligence gathering. The balloon strayed from its intended course and mysteriously ended up overflying sensitive US military sites including Malmstrom AFB and the dozens of ICBM silos around the installation. China ‘regrets’ the intrusion of the balloon into US airspace, regards the incident as an ‘unexpected situation’ and Chinese government will remain in touch with the US on the matter.
US defense officials, on the other hand, believe the balloon is a high-altitude surveillance device and the facts support the US position. A balloon does not circle the sky and remain in one area at a consistent altitude for an extended period of time. There has to be a steering mechanism for it, otherwise the device would’ve kept going with the upper air flow. Airspace restrictions have been established over Montana and fighters were staged on the ground in case the order is given to shoot down the balloon. So far, the US government has not done so, citing the possibility of debris causing harm to people on the ground.
This balloon incident has also forced an indefinite postponement to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled trip to Beijing next week. The State Department made the announcement a short time ago, specifically pointing to the Chinese intelligence-gathering balloon’s operations in US airspace as the reason for the postponement. It does not appear that this matter is anywhere near being resolved and certainly holds the potential to make Sino-US tensions worse in the coming days and weeks.