The Great European Main Battle Tank Soap Opera

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.

Ukraine Update 14 Feb, 2023: Kiev’s Artillery Addiction

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.

In the Aftermath Of the Balloon Crisis

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.

In The Absence Of Doctrine

As expected, the China war prognostication talk ramped up over the weekend following a memo released on Friday by Air Mobility Command’s commanding general urging his officers to prepare for a war against China in the near future. Now on Monday morning, some US politicians are coming out in support of the AMC memo while the first signs of Chinese discontent are appearing on pro-China internet news sites. Recently, a handful of former and current US general officers have publicly warned that China appears to be moving nearer to using its military power against Taiwan and perhaps in other areas of the Western Pacific as well. It remains to be seen if these warnings will assimilate into a wakeup call for the United States or if they will go unheeded.

Realistically speaking, the prospect of a military conflict between the United States and China continues to rise with every passing week. Although the US has been preparing for a potential war with China in the Western Pacific, the arrangements have so far lacked a unifying element comparable to what was found in US military doctrines during the later years of the Cold War. Specifically, I’m referring to the US Navy’s Maritime Strategy and the combined US Army/USAF Airland Battle 2000. From the start these doctrines identified the Soviet Union as the adversary in the North Atlantic and in Western Europe respectively. Ten years ago, US attempts to fashion a doctrine for wartime operations in the Western Pacific created AirSea Battle, a combined US Navy/USAF plan to counter China’s increasing anti-access/area deniability. AirSea Battle evolved into JAM GC, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. JAM GC was intended to build upon the foundation of AirSea and finalize a doctrine for conducting operations against determined, capable, and elusive opponents who avoid U.S. strengths, emulate U.S. capabilities, attack vulnerabilities, and expand operations beyond physical battlegrounds.

Despite all the work done on AirSea Battle and its successor concept, the US has little to show for it at present in terms of an effective warfighting doctrine for a conflict against an increasingly aggressive and militarily capable China in the Western Pacific. In the absence of such a formal doctrine, the services have developed their own concepts, ostensibly for incorporation into JAM GC. However, it is unclear if the concepts will connect successfully and produce a war plan that will bring success in a future Sino-US war. Time is not on the side of the United States in this regard. With Ukraine still dominating attention, the prospect of the United States not being prepared to counter a Chinese attack against Taiwan remains real. General Minihan predicts such an attack will come around 2025. But it could also come sooner and if so, the US will not be as ready as it needs to be.

Brief Weekend Update 28 Jan, 2023: USAF General Warns Of War With China In 2025

On Friday, General Mike Minihan, US Air Force sent a memorandum to the officers in his command and predicted the United States and China will be at war in two years. Minihan is the commander of Air Mobility Command, a large command with over 100,000 airmen and officers in it. In the memo, Minihan wrote “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me will fight in 2025.” He also urged his officers to start preparing now. Minihan points to 2024-25 as China’s window of opportunity since both the US and Taiwan will be holding presidential elections and presumably be distracted. To be fair, the purpose behind the memo was not to lay out a personal World War III scenario. Minihan pointed to the prospect of war breaking out twenty four to thirty six months from present as the motivation for command-wide preparations, planning and training. From the military side, Minihan’s memo comes across as sensible in that it urges AMC to prepare for conflict against a specific real world enemy in an area of the world where said enemy is presently flexing its military muscle and acting provocatively while contending with growing issues on its domestic front. Obviously, naming China as the likely opponent was sure to attract attention from the media.

 China will also undoubtedly have something to say about Minihan’s prediction in the coming days.