David Axe


May 3, 2023


The Ukrainian air-assault force’s new 82nd Brigade is almost comically powerful. It’s apparent that the 2,000-person brigade, which formed in February, will lead from the front once Ukraine’s spring mud finally dries up and Kyiv launches its long-planned counteroffensive.

In Kyiv’s order of battle, air-assault troops don’t actually travel by helicopter or airplane very often. Especially in the current war, where the Ukrainians are fighting on their own soil and where, in any event, Russian air-defenses rule out large-scale air assaults.

In Ukrainian custom, “air assault” basically means “elite.” Which is why it makes sense that Kyiv saves many of its best weapons for its air-assault brigades.

Classified documents that a braggadocious U.S. Air National Guard airman leaked online indicated the 82nd Air Assault Brigade—the 10th brigade or regiment in the air-assault force—would get all its major equipment from Ukraine’s foreign allies.

This includes all 14 Challenger 2 tanks Ukraine received from the United Kingdom, as well as all 90 Stryker wheeled fighting vehicles the United States donated and all 40 Marder tracked infantry fighting vehicles Germany provided. Two dozen American-made M-119 towed howitzers provide fire-support.

The leaked documents confused more than a few observers, at first. We had photographic evidence that tank crews from the veteran 25th and 80th Air Assault Brigades had traveled to the United Kingdom to train on the Challenger 2. Now it seems the 25th and 80th Brigades chopped those crews to the new 82nd Brigade.

The 71-ton, four-crew Challenger 2 with its thick composite armor—equivalent to nearly 2,000 millimeters of steel on the turret front—might be the best-protected tank in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine. The United Kingdom donated powerful depleted-uranium rounds for the tanks’ 120-millimeter rifled guns.

Those 14 Challenger 2s may be the best weapons the Ukrainians have for a direct assault on Russian fortifications. And they’ll have powerful back-up in the form of the 40 Marders.

The 31-ton Marder—which carries three crew and six infantry and packs a 20-millimeter autocannon and Milan anti-tank missile launcher—has sloped frontal armor offering protection equivalent to between 53 and 70 millimeters of steel, if not more. Protection along the sides is equal to at least 33 millimeters of steel.

That’s a tiny fraction of the armor that protects a Challenger 2. But for an IFV, it’s a lot. Ukraine’s mainstay BMP-1 IFV has half as much protection. A Marder should be able to deflect 30-millimeter autocannon rounds.

In a combined-arms assault, the Challenger 2s would roll out first, blasting enemy tanks and strongpoints with their 120-millimeter guns while shrugging off return fire. The Marders meanwhile would sweep along the flanks of the tank formation, dropping off infantry squads to suppress Russian anti-tank missileers and deflect any attempts by the Russians to get around and behind the Challenger 2s. The tanks’ armor is thinnest in the back.

And once the Challenger 2s have helped to pry open Russian defenses, the Strykers could race through the gap and into the Russians’ lightly-defended rear area.

The 16-ton, eight-wheel Stryker—which carries two crew and up to nine infantry and packs a heavy machine gun or grenade-launcher—is thinly armored compared to the Marder. It can resist heavy machine gun fire, but a 30-millimeter cannon round might punch right through it.

A Stryker wouldn’t last long in a direct assault on Russian fortifications. But the Stryker’s wheels lend it high speed and good fuel-efficiency. A Stryker is easier to maintain than a tracked IFV is. It might be just the thing for a swift, deep exploitation of an armored breakthrough.

Imagine 90 Strykers, hauling more than 800 pissed-off infantry, rampaging behind the Russian front line. Striking then racing away as the Russian rear guard struggles to catch up.

In that sense, the 82nd Air Assault Brigade is an all-in-one assault and exploitation force. There are just two important things we don’t yet know about the brigade’s force-structure. What engineering vehicles does the 82nd possess? And how robust is its logistical train?

The engineering vehicles are critical for that initial assault on Russian defenses. They clear minefields, shove aside concrete obstacles, fill trenches and excavate earthen berms: a sequence of actions soldiers call a “breach.”

During an assault on the Russians’ defensive line, the Challenger 2s would roll far enough forward to cover the engineering vehicles while their crews attempt a breach. If the breach is successful, the tanks would advance through the gap and hold it open so the IFVs can speed through.

How deep the IFVs can penetrate depends not only on their speed and agility, but also their logistical support. If the Strykers run out of fuel or ammo, the exploitation would grind to a halt—and might even collapse.

Anticipating the enormous supply requirements of a successful breach and exploitation, the United States in recent months has pledged to Ukraine 69 fuel tankers and 105 fuel trailers, plus various medium supply trucks. We don’t know how many of those support vehicles belong to the 82nd Air Assault Brigade.

But if the Ukrainians truly do intend for the ridiculously powerful new brigade to lead the coming counteroffensive, it’s a safe bet there will be a substantial supply train waiting just behind the 82nd’s tanks and fighting vehicles.