Ukraine awaits arrival of U.S. tanks that could be game-changer in fight against Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise statement Thursday that his country has not received enough Western armored vehicles to launch a counteroffensive. The U.S. and other allies have said in recent days that Ukraine has what it needs, including 98 percent of promised armored vehicles. Nick Schifrin examines what the West says it has provided and what it still plans to deliver.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise statement today, that his country had not yet received enough Western armored vehicles to launch a counteroffensive.

    U.S. and other allies have said repeatedly in recent days that Ukraine has what it needs, including 98 percent of promised armored vehicles.

    Nick Schifrin examines what the West says it's provided and what it still plans to deliver in the near future, including the most advanced tank in the world, the Abrams, to help Ukraine recapture occupied territory.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The tank is described as a steel beast. More than any other military vehicle, it provides firepower, protection, and speed.

    Ukraine didn't have Western tanks a year ago. It does now.

  • Man:

    Thank you very much from Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    British Challenger tanks and more than 1,550 French, German, Polish, and other Western armored vehicles, enough for more than nine armored combat brigades with some 30,000 soldiers.

    The U.S. has provided more than 1,300 armored vehicles, including Bradleys, Strykers, and mine-resistant troop vehicles, and it will provide 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks set for delivery by the end of the year.

    Lt. Col. Michael Purcell (RET.), U.S. Marines: I think it's clear that it's sort of the engineering marvel of the tank world, if you will.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Purcell has extensive combat experience with Abrams tanks. He's also a Russia expert who's helped U.S. efforts to transform Ukraine's military from its Soviet origins to Western-trained and -equipped that will culminate in Ukraine's upcoming counteroffensive using what the U.S. calls combined arms.

  • Lt. Col. Michael Purcell:

    It's the integration of all arms, right, so aviation, ideally, armor in this case. A tank is hard to replace. And then, of course, infantry along with what they call the king of the battlefield, artillery.

    When we talk about combined arms, we think hard about putting the enemy or the opposing force into a dilemma, in the sense that, if they move, they're going to be exposed to artillery fires or aviation fires. If they stay put, we're pushing forward closer to their location in order to gain an advantage. Easier said than done.

    1ST. Sgt. David Gonzales (RET.), U.S. Army: The Abrams, to me, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest tank on the battlefield, and, to me, has saved my butt more time than once.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Retired Master Gunner 1st Sergeant David Gonzales has 23 years of experience in the Abrams, from tank driver, to tank commander, to master gunner and subject matter expert. He fought in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003 and 2004.

    He says, compared to Russia's best tanks currently in Ukraine, the Abrams offers a gun that is stabilized, providing greater firepower on the move and better optics, especially at night.

    1ST. Sgt. David Gonzales: You could see a cigarette several miles away, and we could see how many people or how many enemy would come out of their trenches at night to smoke. And that's when we would then pinpoint and maneuver against the enemy to capture them in large amounts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Abrams ammunition is stored in a locker behind a sliding door, as seen in these videos posted by tankers. If hit, the ammunition is designed to explode upward through panels to channel the blast outside.

    Meanwhile, it can be loaded in seconds, although not always. And the Abrams has faster acceleration and reverse speed than most other tanks, but its engine is both asset and liability. It gets one-quarter-of-a-mile per gallon. And as seen in this professional animation, the turbine engine in the rear is similar to a jet engine and runs best off jet fuel.

    1ST. Sgt. David Gonzales: It's going to be a huge team effort to keep that thing functional on the battlefield and make sure that it is successful.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In fact, the Abrams can be so difficult to maintain, senior U.S. defense officials opposed sending them, including Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, in January.

    Colin Kahl, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: And the challenge with the Abrams is, it's expensive. It's difficult to train on. It is very difficult to sustain. It has a huge, complicated turbine engine that requires jet fuel.

    And, frankly, our assessment is just that the — that the Abrams is not the right capability at this time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At least until five days later.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Today, I'm announcing that the United States will be sending 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, because it will enhance the Ukraine's capacity to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.

    Staff Sgt. Paul Clock (RET.), U.S. Army: It's like owning a Ducati. It's got a lot of expensive parts. It is a gas turbine engine and a lot of proprietary systems that are inherent specifically into the Abrams.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former Staff Sergeant Paul Clock was a tank driver, gunner, loader, and commander during an eight-year Army career and created a defense analysis organization called Tankers.

  • Staff Sgt. Paul Clock:

    The turbine engine is going to be one of the most complicated parts of this thing. It's going to have special seals. It's going to need to be serviced continuously. It's one of those things that's going to require a specialized facility to maintain some of the certain parts of it.

    So it's got a phenomenal optics package, but that optics package, if something goes wrong with it, it is expensive to replace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it sounds like you're worried about whether it's going to be sustainable for the Ukrainians.

  • Staff Sgt. Paul Clock:

    Indeed, there are a lot of different sensors and proprietary systems that can fail. It's a robust tank, but it's — it needs maintenance.

  • Narrator:

    You go onto battlefield, you need horsepower.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Abrams tank was produced in the late '70s and early '80s and appeared in Army recruiting ads. It was designed to counter the Soviet Union. But its first real test came in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, when the United States kick the Iraqi military out of Kuwait.

    Now the Abrams will supplement Ukraine's mostly Soviet era tanks that are more than twice the age of some of their tankers, as we saw in February.

    Junior Sgt. Yehor, 1st Tank Brigade (through translator): They are old. And because they are old, they break all the time. You don't have confidence that your tank is going to work tomorrow. For us to advance, we need new weaponry.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And with their new weaponry, Ukraine's military will have to achieve its most difficult task yet, overrunning well-fortified Russian soldiers across a huge front.

  • Lt. Col. Michael Purcell:

    Napoleon supposedly said, the moral is the physical as three is to one. So, the idea, if you're Ukrainian fighting for your life and your family and your homeland, that you have got the American flag, you have got the Swedish flag, you have got the German flag, represented by the equipment you're operating.

    And that is a significant psychological boost, in my mind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Whether that boost translates into physical gains could help determine the war's fate.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

Listen to this Segment