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

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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The Western alliance’s impressive unity against Russian aggression has been marred in recent days by an ugly and pointless row over whether Germany will send tanks to Ukraine. But while this dispute needs to be resolved quickly, it shouldn’t hurt the Biden administration’s success in keeping a large group of allies marching largely in lockstep.

The United States has only assembled such a massive coalition twice before in recent history: first in 1990-1991 to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, then in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. and in Iraq. Lloyd Austin fought this last fight when he was the four-star commander of US Central Command. Today, as Secretary of Defense, he is one of the behind-the-scenes architects of the pro-Ukrainian coalition. He invited me to accompany him on a whirlwind trip to Germany last week to see how diplomatic sausage is made.

The Secretary of Defense and his team left Washington early Wednesday morning in an Air Force E-4B, aka “the doomsday plane”, a variant of the Boeing 747 built in 1973 to allow the president to lead the US government in the event of a nuclear disaster. war. Although antiquated in some ways (it has analog dials), the massive aircraft, which is protected from nuclear fallout, is nonetheless a reminder of America’s awesome power. No other nation has such a sophisticated command and control platform. The United States has four.

Austin landed in Berlin on Wednesday evening and the next morning met with Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, and another senior German official. That afternoon, Austin flew to the sprawling US airbase at Ramstein 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 from 50 donor countries.

The day before the rally, Austin sat down with me at the Spartan base hotel to describe what he’s trying to accomplish. Although a strong supporter of Ukraine, he criticized the manner in which the Ukrainian military engages in artillery duels with Russian forces. The Ukrainians fire artillery shells twice as fast as the West produces them.

“I think it’s a reflection of some of the top leaders who were trained in the old Soviet systems. Young leaders are more adaptable,” Austin told me. “They need more work in terms of using fires to shape the battlespace, then maneuvers.”

Austin sees an “opportunity” – in fact, an imperative – for the Ukrainians to mount a major offensive in late winter or early spring and wants to “assemble a significant mechanized capability” to allow them to break through the fortified lines of Russia.

US troops began instructing Ukrainian soldiers in training areas in Germany on combined arms warfare, using armour, artillery, air power, infantry and other capabilities for offensive operations. The United States and its allies are also finally supplying Western armored vehicles after waiting too long for fear of the Kremlin’s reaction.

In recent weeks, the Pentagon announced the donation of 109 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers. Other allies also provide armored vehicles – the Germans send Marders and the Swedes CV90s. “I want to put together something that would be decisive in the next stage of this fight to allow the Ukrainians to not only penetrate Russian defenses but also be able to exploit opportunities very, very quickly,” Austin told me. .

But for the Ukrainian offensive to succeed, it may require hundreds of modern main battle tanks with more powerful guns and more armor than armored personnel carriers. The British send 14 Challenger 2 tanks and the French some AMX-10 light tanks, but Germany and the United States are locked in a stupid and frustrating standoff over sending German-made Leopard 2 tanks which are exploited by 14 European countries. . Poland and Finland, among others, are eager to donate their Leopards but need permission from Berlin.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is so afraid of crossing a mythical Russian “red line” that he hesitated to allow Leopard 2s unless the United States sends its own M1 Abrams tanks first. But Austin is equally adamant that he will not send Abrams tanks because, he insists, they would be too difficult 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 American 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 Lieutenant General Frederick “Ben” Hodges, former commander of the United States Army in Europe, tweeted“The Ukrainians will understand all this. Please, no more patronizing from the DoD. Retired Australian Major General Mick Ryan wrote“We need to stop making excuses like ‘it’s a complex system.’ I don’t remember those arguments when the M1 tanks went to Iraq or Egypt I don’t understand why the Biden administration doesn’t just call the Germans’ bluff and send at least a token force of Abrams chariots.

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 the territory they currently occupy”.

The implication is obvious: the United States and its allies must do everything possible to arm Ukraine now, before it is too late. The failure – so far – to field large numbers of main battle tanks remains a serious shortcoming. Nor is the West sending the longer-range rockets and modern aircraft such as the F-16 that Ukraine needs to break the impasse. But, overall, the pro-Ukrainian coalition has been much stronger than anyone could have imagined a year ago. Even the Germans are making substantial donations — far more than anyone could have imagined a year ago — and US officials remain optimistic that, in the end, Scholz will allow the Leopards. Indeed, on Sunday, the German Foreign Minister said that his government would not oppose the sending by Poland of its Leopards.

Austin’s erasure – a man of few words – deserves much of the credit for the West’s newfound unity. When he first became Secretary of Defense, I was skeptical that a general who had spent 41 years in the military was the right person to oversee the transformation of the military to deal with China’s air and naval threat. But he was precisely the right Secretary of Defense to handle the biggest ground war in Europe since 1945. The man met the moment.

While Austin wants German tanks to go to Ukraine, he insists on avoiding any break in the alliance. Therefore, he refuses to criticize the Germans even when they obviously frustrate him. He said to me, “I think we’ve seen NATO more united, more resolute than we’ve ever seen them. It is an impressive and underestimated achievement.

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