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What is the Leopard 2 tank, and why does Ukraine want it?

A German Leopard 2 battle tank pictured during a NATO training exercise in Lithuania last October.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
A German Leopard 2 battle tank pictured during a NATO training exercise in Lithuania last October.

Updated January 25, 2023 at 12:13 PM ET

Even as the U.S. and its NATO allies announced package after package of military aid to Ukraine, full of military vehicles, air defense systems, rockets and missiles, the West for months seemed to hesitate on the one thing Ukrainians have come to emphasize most: tanks.

On Wednesday, that hesitation evaporated when Germany and the U.S. both announced they would send modern battle tanks to Ukraine.

Germany will send an initial shipment of 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks, and allow other countries to send their own, said Chancellor Olaf Scholz. And the U.S. announced plans to send 31 M1 Abrams tanks.

Throughout the winter, Ukrainian officials have pressed the West for hundreds of modern battle tanks like those made by the U.S. and Germany,

"I can thank you hundreds of times, and it will be absolutely just and fair, given all that we have already done," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at this week's meeting of defense officials in Ramstein, Germany.

"But hundreds of 'thank you' are not hundreds of tanks," he said.

Much of the recent debate had centered on the Leopard 2, a German-made battle tank operated by about 20 countries worldwide, including more than a dozen NATO members. For weeks, Germany had faced growing pressure to provide some to Ukraine — or to allow other countries, like Poland, to send theirs.

The announcements follow a flurry of diplomacy, including at a meeting of defense officials last week at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

While the initial shipments fall far short of the 300 tanks Ukraine officials had hoped for, they mark a new phase of Western military support for the Ukrainian effort.

What is the Leopard 2?

The German-made Leopard 2 is one of the most well-reputed battle tanks in the world, perhaps second only to the U.S.-made M1 Abrams tank, military arms experts said.

The Leopard 2 was originally designed in the 1970s for the West German army in response to Soviet threats during the Cold War. They are built to move quickly over a variety of terrain and confront enemy armor — like the tanks Russia has been using on the ground in Ukraine since the first days of its invasion last year.

Each tank boasts a 44- or 55-caliber 120-mm main gun and a 1,500-horsepower engine that allows it to move as fast as 44 mph, according to Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the German defense company that manufactures the tank. Some 60 tons of armor protect their crews from return fire.

Among the countries that operate the Leopard 2 is Poland, which has pledged to send 14 of the tanks to Ukraine but needed Germany's approval to do so.

Why are tanks important to Ukraine's war effort?

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last February, tanks have been prominent on the battlefield.

For its part, Ukraine has mostly relied on Soviet-era T-72 tanks. The West has already supplied other armored vehicles and pledged to send still more, including Bradley fighting vehicles and Stryker combat vehicles from the U.S., and a newly announced shipment of Challenger 2 tanks from the U.K.

But none represents the combination of accuracy, firepower and mobility of the modern battle tanks made by Germany and the U.S. Ukrainian officials have said that such tanks could be the key to a speedy Ukrainian victory — perhaps even this year.

That's a rosier picture than the one painted by Western military experts.

"There is no silver bullet out there. There is no one thing that's just going to completely change the whole conflict," said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

Still, Western tanks could play a role this spring, when both Russia and Ukraine are widely expected to launch renewed efforts in the conflict, he said.

Last month, the U.S. announced that it would train large units of Ukrainian soldiers in combined arms tactics, in which large-scale military operations use different kinds of weaponry together, including aircraft, artillery and armor (like tanks).

"The ability for us to train the Ukrainians to conduct these very complex maneuvers is really key for them building combat capability as they push forward with their offensive," said Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, in an interview with NPR earlier this month.

How might Ukraine deploy Western tanks?

The U.S. hopes the shipments of battle tanks could evolve Ukrainian capabilities in the conflict, particularly in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been contested since 2014, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Russia's major victory of the war so far has been its control of Ukrainian territory between the Donbas and Crimea. Russia has controlled Crimea since illegally annexing it in 2014, but before the invasion last year, Crimea's only connection to Russia was a long road and rail bridge. In seizing Mariupol and the land around it, Russian forces essentially established a land bridge from Russia and the Donbas region of Ukraine to Crimea.

That territory could be the setting of a new Ukrainian counteroffensive, said Hodges, the retired lieutenant general. "The Ukrainians know that the decisive terrain is Crimea," he said.

With tanks from the West, Ukraine could create an armored brigade that could serve as "the spearhead of a force that could break through those Russian defenses down towards Mariupol," Hodges said. "The purpose is to continue the isolation of Crimea from everything else."

More generally, he said, tanks can allow for more effective use of infantry. In open terrain, tanks can lead, allowing infantry to follow safely. In urban or wooded areas, infantry can move in first, preventing the enemy from hiding and striking with concealed anti-tank weaponry.

Now what?

The tanks — 14 German-made Leopard 2s and 31 U.S.-made M1 Abrams, along with 14 Challenger 2 tanksfrom the U.K. — will take time to arrive in Ukraine. The arrival of the M1 Abrams, U.S. officials said, would take "months as opposed to weeks."

Ukrainian soldiers will also need to be trained on their operation and maintenance.

German officials said they would likely make a second shipment of Leopard 2 tanks in the future, but did not say when.

The U.S. had previously been reluctant to send M1 Abrams tanks, which defense officials had argued are not as practical for the Ukrainian battleground as the Leopard 2s, which are lighter than newer variants of the Abrams and are more easily maintained.

"The maintenance and the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams — it just doesn't make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians at this moment," Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said at a briefing last week.

Another drawback with the Abrams is less fuel efficient than the Leopard 2, which is designed to use diesel fuel — and diesel is more readily available in Ukraine's wartime supply chains.

But officials have apparently set those concerns aside.

The shipment of 31 M1 Abrams tanks is the equivalent of one Ukrainian tank battalion, officials said. With them the U.S. will send M88 recovery vehicles, which are armored vehicles designed to repair and extract damaged tanks.

Additional reporting by NPR's Greg Myre. contributed to this story

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.