David Axe

Jan 17, 2023



A deluge of new armored vehicles should allow the Ukrainian army to form three new, NATO-style heavy brigades. Arguably some of the most capable brigades in all of Europe.  One might be a full tank brigade—the first new tank brigade Kyiv apparently has managed to stand up in the 11 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine.

The first of the Western-style brigades—the 47th Assault Brigade—already exists and is training around Kharkiv and in Germany while reequipping with 28 super-upgraded, ex-Slovenian M-55S tanks and up to 50 ex-American M-2 fighting vehicles.

A second new brigade could fall in on the hundreds of armored vehicles—including 14 Challenger 2 tanks—that the United Kingdom pledged to Ukraine over the weekend.

The third brigade is somewhat more hypothetical. It might include the 14 or so Leopard 2 tanks that Poland last week announced it would donate. It also could take charge of scores of ex-German Marder fighting vehicles and AMX-10RC reconnaissance vehiclesfrom France.

Where the first two new brigades, each with a single under-strength tank battalion, should qualify as mechanized brigades, the Ukrainian government wants the third brigade to be a tank formation. “Our goal is to assemble a brigade from Leopard tanks,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporter Vadym Karpiak.

Which means Kyiv needs some of its European allies to follow Poland’s lead and offer up another 80 or 90 Leopard 2s plus spares—enough to equip three battalions.

Whether, and how quickly, Ukraine’s allies might pledge those additional Leopard 2s still largely depends on Germany. The Leopard 2 is a German-made tank and Berlin controls the export license.

There’s no shortage of surplus Leopard 2s in the arsenals of European armies, and several countries have signaled a willingness to give the tanks to Ukraine. But so far, the German government has refused officially to sign off on transfers—and only the Polish government has been willing to act without explicit German approval.

German officials reportedly are meeting this week in order to reconsider the tank problem. Until then, the Ukrainian army’s prospective Leopard brigade exists mostly in theory.

Its possible, eventual formation would mark a turning point for the Ukrainian army, which so far has struggled to organize new tank brigades.

It’s not totally clear exactly how many tank brigades Kyiv’s army has. Maybe as few as four. The Ukrainian army has a habit of keeping undermanned—practically non-existent—units on paper and occasionally touting them in the media.  So observers should look for hard evidence of a brigade in combat before concluding that the unit is real. By that standard the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 17th Tank Brigades definitely exist.

The 5th and 14th Tank Brigades by contrast might be mostly fictional, at present. Don’t be shocked if the Ukrainian general staff assigns one of those monickers to a new Leopard 2 formation, if and when it finally stands up.

Tank brigades are the steely core of any mechanized army. Artillery shapes the battlefield. Infantry hold terrain. But tanks—with their speed, mobility, firepower and protection—close with and destroy the enemy and allow an army to seize ground. They’re one of the main components of any large-scale offensive.

A Ukrainian tank brigade might have three or four battalions with, between them, a hundred or so tanks and several thousand troops.

Considering how many tanks both Russia and Ukraine have lost in the wider war—respectively 1,500 and 400—a tank brigade would need access to hundreds of extra tanks in order to maintain, over the long term, an organizational chart with just a hundred tanks that are in daily use.

That helps to explain why the Ukrainian army—which before the war possessed around a thousand T-64, T-72 and T-80 tanks—hasn’t been able to expand its tank force-structure. This despite receiving hundreds of surplus T-72s from its NATO allies and capturing hundreds more tanks from the Russians.

The 1st Tank Brigade, which with its upgraded T-64s arguably is Ukraine’s best armored formation, defended Chernihiv, east of Kyiv, early in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.

The 3rd and 4th Tank Brigades, reserve units with T-72s, fought in Donbas. The T-64-equipped 17th Tank Brigade back in the fall helped to spearhead Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive.

The 5th Tank Brigade, ostensibly a reserve unit with T-72s, was part of the garrison defending Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, from a possible Russian amphibious attack.

That attack never came. It would’ve made sense, then, for the 5th Tank Brigade to quit Odesa and join the fight elsewhere in Ukraine. But there’s been so little hard evidence of the 5th Tank Brigade marching or fighting that it’s possible the brigade is either seriously under-equipped and under-manned, or exists mostly on paper.

Even as the rest of the Ukrainian army quickly expanded in the aftermath of the Russian invasion in late February, it seems a shortage of tanks and trained crews prevented Kyiv from adding new tank brigades. The 1st, 3rd, 4th and 17th Tank Brigades fight alone, a special class among dozens of lighter brigades.

That finally could change. All eyes are on Berlin for the signal that could send scores of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine—and add the first new tank brigade to the Ukrainian order of battle.