NATO is more unified than ever. But what about those tanks?

A Polish Leopard tank is seen as troops from Poland, the United States, France and Sweden take part in a military exercise in Nowogrod, Poland, on May 19, 2022. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
A Polish Leopard tank is seen as troops from Poland, the United States, France and Sweden take part in a military exercise in Nowogrod, Poland, on May 19, 2022. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

The impressive unity of the Western alliance against Russian aggression has been marred in recent days by an ugly and unnecessary spat over whether Germany will send tanks to Ukraine. But while that dispute needs to be resolved pronto, it should not detract from the Biden administration’s success in keeping a large group of allies marching largely in lockstep.

The United States has assembled such a massive coalition only twice before in recent history: first in 1990-1991 to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and then in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Lloyd Austin led the latter fight when he was the four-star head of U.S. Central Command. Now, as defense secretary, he is one of the behind-the-scenes architects of the pro-Ukraine coalition. He invited me to accompany him on a whirlwind trip to Germany last week to see how the diplomatic sausage gets made.

The defense secretary and his staff left Washington early on Wednesday morning aboard an Air Force E-4B, a.k.a. the “doomsday plane”, a variant of the Boeing 747 built in 1973 to allow the president to run the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war. Though antiquated in some respects (it has analog dials), the massive aircraft, which is shielded against nuclear fallout, is nevertheless a reminder of America’s awesome power. No other nation has such a sophisticated command-and-control platform. The United States has four of them.

Austin landed in Berlin on Wednesday night, and the next morning met with the new German defense minister, Boris Pistorius, and another top German official. That afternoon, Austin flew to the sprawling Ramstein U.S. air base in southwestern Germany. On Friday, around a horseshoe-shaped table at the Ramstein Officers’ Club, the United States convened the monthly meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, an ad hoc assembly created by Austin last year to coordinate more than 50 donor nations.

The night before the gathering, Austin sat down with me at the spartan base hotel to describe what he is trying to accomplish. Although a staunch supporter of Ukraine, he was critical of the way the Ukrainian military is engaging in artillery duels with Russian forces. The Ukrainians are firing artillery rounds at twice the rate that the West is producing them.

“I think that’s a reflection of some of the senior leaders who were trained in the old Soviet systems. The younger leaders are more adaptive”, Austin told me. “They need more work in terms of utilizing fires to shape the battlespace and then maneuvering”.

Austin sees an “opportunity” — indeed, an imperative — for the Ukrainians to conduct a major offensive in late winter or early spring and wants to “pull together a significant mechanized capability” to allow them to punch through Russia’s fortified lines.

U.S. troops have started to instruct Ukrainian soldiers at training areas in Germany on combined arms warfare, utilizing armor, artillery, airpower, infantry and other capabilities for offensive operations. The United States and its allies are also finally providing Western armored vehicles after holding off far too long for fear of the Kremlin’s reaction.

In the past few weeks, the Pentagon has announced the donation of 109 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers. Other allies are also contributing armored vehicles — the Germans are sending Marders and the Swedes CV90s. “I want to pull something together that would be decisive in the next stage of this fight to allow the Ukrainians to not only penetrate Russian defenses but to be able to very, very rapidly exploit the opportunities”, Austin told me.

But for the Ukrainian offensive to be successful, it might require hundreds of modern main battle tanks that have more powerful guns and more armor than armored personnel carriers. The British are sending 14 Challenger 2 tanks and the French some AMX-10 light tanks, but Germany and the United States have been locked in a foolish, frustrating standoff over the dispatch of German-made Leopard 2 tanks that are operated by 14 European nations. Poland and Finland, among others, are eager to donate their Leopards but need authorization from Berlin.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is so afraid of crossing some mythical Russian “red line” that he has been reluctant to authorize Leopard 2s unless the United States first dispatches its own M1 Abrams tanks. But Austin is equally adamant that he will not send Abrams tanks, because, he insists, they would be too hard for the Ukrainians to operate and maintain. For example, the gas-guzzling Abrams has a turbine engine that requires JP-8 jet fuel, while the Leopards run on standard diesel fuel.

After several days of listening to U.S. officials explain why the Ukrainians can operate the Leopard 2 but not the Abrams, I came away unconvinced. And I am far from alone. Retired Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, tweeted: “The Ukrainians will figure all of that out. Pls no more condescension from DoD”. Retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan wrote: “We need to stop looking for excuses like ‘this is a complex system.’ I don’t recall those arguments when M1 tanks went to Iraq, or Egypt”. I don’t understand why the Biden administration won’t just call the Germans’ bluff and send at least a token force of Abrams tanks.

Austin told me that a “realistic goal for this year” would be for the Ukrainians to cut the “land bridge” between Crimea and Russia that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces occupied last year. If that doesn’t happen, he warns, we could see a “frozen conflict”, with the Russians “squatting on the territory they currently occupy”.

The implication is obvious: The United States and its allies need to pull out all the stops to arm Ukraine now, before it’s too late. The failure — so far — to send a large number of main battle tanks remains a serious shortcoming. The West also isn’t sending the longer-range rockets and modern aircraft such as the F-16 that Ukraine needs to break the stalemate. But, overall, the pro-Ukraine coalition has been far more robust than anyone could have imagined a year ago. Even the Germans are making substantial donations — far more than anyone could have thought possible a year ago — and U.S. officials remain optimistic that, in the end, Scholz will authorize the Leopards. Indeed, on Sunday, Germany’s foreign minister said that her government would not oppose Poland sending its Leopards.

The self-effacing Austin — a man of few words — deserves a lot of the credit for the West’s newfound unity. When he first became defense secretary, I was skeptical that a general who had spent 41 years in the Army was the right person to oversee the transformation of the military to address the aerial and naval threat from China. But he has been precisely the right defense secretary to handle the largest land war in Europe since 1945. The man has met the moment.

While Austin wants to see German tanks go to Ukraine, he insists on avoiding any rifts in the alliance. Therefore, he refuses to criticize the Germans even when they plainly frustrate him. He told me: “I think we’ve seen NATO more unified, more resolute than we’ve ever seen them”. That is an impressive, underappreciated achievement.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.

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