M1 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles could change how Ukraine fights

Ukraine could be getting US tanks in addition to other armored assets, like Strykers. Here's what these different vehicles can do on a battlefield.
US M1 Abrams tank
An M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams seen in Texas in February 2022. US Army / James Dunn

On January 19, the Department of Defense announced that it would send 90 Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) with 20 mine rollers to Ukraine, as part of a broader $2.5 billion package of aid. The Strykers will join Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and a host of other equipment that will increase Ukraine’s ability to move with armor. 

Adding to the Strykers, Bradleys, and other equipment is now the distinct possibility that the US could send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, as both CNN and The Wall Street Journal are reporting. The US “could make an announcement as soon as this week” about those tanks, according to CNN. Meanwhile, Germany is reportedly preparing to announce the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks as well.

All this mobile armor—Strykers, Bradleys, tanks, and more—serve different roles on a battlefield. To understand this hodgepodge better, it is easiest to look at each component part.

A Stryker in Poland in February 2021. US Army / Elizabeth O. Bryson

What to know about Strykers, or armor for moving

The Stryker is an eight-wheeled armored transport, designed to fit in between the Army’s light vehicles (like Humvees) and heavier transports (like Bradleys). It is operated by a crew of two, with room for a nine-person squad of infantry to ride in the back. The basic model of a Stryker is lightly armed, with just a machine gun for shooting and smoke grenades to conceal the vehicle’s movement. There are eight Stryker variants, including ones armed with everything from anti-tank missiles to extra sensors or even a mortar artillery piece, fired through the flipped-open roof hatches.

The mine rollers mentioned in the release allow a Stryker to detonate explosives, like anti-tank landmines, that are triggered by the weight of heavy vehicles. These rollers, which can be mounted on the front of the vehicle, set the mines off before they are underneath the Stryker. Strykers, as wheeled vehicles, are especially dependent on roads, which are easy to cover with mines. Using a Stryker to clear mines lets the road become an open path not just for the Strykers, but for the whole armored column behind them.

[Related: The Army’s new light tank can venture where its beefier cousins can’t]

At a press conference on January 20, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the US’s objective “is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to be successful in the near term. And so you’ve heard us talk about two battalions of Bradley infantry fighting vehicles — very capable platform, [as well as] three battalions, or a brigade’s-worth of Strykers. So you add that up, that’s two brigades of combat power that the U.S. is providing, along with enablers and other things.”

In the US, a Brigade Combat Team is a formation of about 5,000 soldiers and about 300 vehicles, usually some mix of transports and tanks, or vehicles with heavy weapons. So far, the United States has promised Ukraine 109 Bradleys and 90 Strykers, which is two-thirds of the way to an armor brigade combat team, without the tanks. The US has also provided other vehicles, like 300 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, an even more lightly armed and protected battlefield taxi than the Stryker. 

What to know about tanks, or armor for fighting

In order for an army to take advantage of armored transports, it needs to break through a defended line. That is the role tanks were built for, as heavy armor designed for fighting.

Tanks are in concept and execution over a century old. The first tanks were built to break the stalemate along Europe’s Western Front in World War I, where trenches, machine guns, explosives, and artillery made any assault horrific and bloody. Tanks, as literal moving armor, protected soldiers advancing behind them; with cannons and machine guns, tanks could devastate defenders. While tanks debuted in World War I, their use in World War II would shift the course of warfare. German tank doctrine, developed during the interwar era, prized armored formations that could punch through enemy lines, leaving defenses useless and routed around.

Today, tanks remain a vital part of the military effort, as both Ukraine and Russia employ their Soviet-inherited tanks against one another. Tanks remain vulnerable to dedicated anti-tank weapons, like Javelin missiles, as well as to attack from the air, like by planes or helicopters. And tanks are also vulnerable to other tanks. In other words, stopping a tank assault requires dedicated anti-tank weapons, which could include other tanks. Meanwhile, weapons that are useful at stopping other armored vehicles, like rocket-propelled grenades useful against Bradleys and Strykers, are more abundant, but will struggle against heavy armor.

The heavy and powerful M1 Abrams is optimized to run on jet fuel, which American logistics can regularly supply, but could be trickier for a military without as robust a resupply system as the United States. Meanwhile, the Leopard 2, made by and exported from Germany, is a diesel-powered tank used by the militaries of many NATO countries. Should Ukraine receive the tanks, they will enable the Ukrainian military to launch combined arms assault, with the mobility of tanks and armored transports shifting the battle. 

In brief, the Stryker is a transport that can protect passengers from machine gun fire. The Bradley is heavier armored transport with some weapons useful against other vehicles, and a tank like the M1 Abrams is built to destroy other heavy vehicles, while being protected from the same.

The stakes: Armored columns pick their battlefields

Ever since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the United States and other countries have increased aid to that invaded country. This aid built in some cases on programs already in place, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, along with Russian occupation of the Donbas from 2014 to the present. But while the Donbas war was long-fought, it was geographically contained, over a fraction of the country, and involving somewhat static defensive lines for both sides. The present war was launched with a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine, with Russia at one point threatening Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv, and occupying the city of Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnipro river.

Today, much of Russia’s effort is aimed at capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas. The nature of the war is such that the two sides can lock into grinding, gruesome fights over static positions, and then shift dramatically based on a collapse elsewhere in a front line. When Ukraine launched a counter-offensive in fall 2022, its armed forces did so with new weapons like US-supplied HIMARs rocket artillery, which destroyed Russian supplies at a great distance.

With an army in armored transports, like those provided by the US, Ukraine would be in a position to take advantage of any new gap in Russian defenses, moving behind established defenses and possibly causing a major shift in the war, like what happened in the fall of 2022. 

Update on Feb. 13, 2022. This story has been updated to clarify that M1 Abrams tanks are optimized to run on jet fuel. They don’t necessarily run on that fuel exclusively.