U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was reported on January 19 to be visiting Berlin to meet with his newly appointed German counterpart Boris Pistorius, with the delivery of German Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine expected to be central to the agenda of discussions. “Unlocking” supplies of German tanks was described as the purpose of the meetings, preceding a summit of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group which would bring together defence ministers from across several NATO members to discuss supplies of further armaments to the Eastern European state. “What’s really important at this point is providing Ukraine with armour capabilities, and in particular, manoeuvre armour capabilities,” a senior defence official stated in relation to the meeting, with the Department of Defence referring to the provision of Leopards as the most “immediately accessible and usable tank capability” in Europe. It is expected that Leopard 2s will be supplied by at least five countries should Germany lift restrictions on its export clients selling on the vehicles.
The United States has itself refrained from supplying its own main battle tank the M1 Abrams, which is a rival to the Leopard 2 as the only other Western tank class currently in production. “The logistical and maintenance challenges of the tanks, and not over concern that their transfer could escalate the conflict” was cited by Pentagon officials as the reason why the tanks were not delivered. The Abrams’ lighter counterpart, the M2 Bradley armoured fighting vehicle, was nevertheless approved for sale, and was described by officials as an asset that would “enable the Ukrainians to break through given Russian defences, the emphasis has been shifted to enabling them to combine fire and manoeuvre in a way that will prove to be more effective.” Both the M1 Abrams and the Leopard 2 have performed underwhelmingly and taken heavy losses in recent conflicts in the Middle East, fuelling speculation that Germany may be hesitant to allow its own tank’s reputation to be tarnished on the battlefield which could provide a major opening for Abrams tanks to gain greater market share. The M2 Bradley by contrast is no longer in production and has not been heavily marketed for export, meaning significant battlefield losses would be less harmful to U.S. interests than Leopard 2 or Abrams losses would to their respective producers. Production ended in 1995, with Saudi Arabia having been the only client for new production vehicles.
In contrast to German and American reluctance to provide their own main battle tanks Britain, which has not produced tanks for over two decades, confirmed on January 14 that it would donate its top of the line Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, with the lack of manufacturing or exports by the country meaning that the fallout from any combat losses suffered would be far more limited. The same applies to France, which has similarly ceased tank production for several decades and is currently considering supplying its Leclerc tanks. The stakes are considerably higher for Germany, however, which is expected to continue to export the Leopard 2 and possibly its modernised derivative the Panther well into the 2030s, and which is far more reliant on tanks as a portion of its defence export revenues than the United States or any other Western country is.