Ukraine’s Leopard 1 Tanks Could Arrive Just In Time to Help the Ukrainian National Guard Mop Up Russian Stragglers

May 5, 2023

U.S. Marines advance with M-48 tank support in Hue in 1968.
U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

The weather in Ukraine is warming up. The rain is slackening. The spring mud that for weeks has bogged down large-scale maneuver is drying up.

Every hour of warm, clear weather brings forward that day when Ukraine’s new offensive corps—nine brigades with hundreds of heavy tanks and fighting vehicles—can go on the attack.

All that is to say, Ukraine’s long-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive could be imminent. It’s possible it’ll kick off before the 100 Leopard 1A5 tanks that a German-Danish consortium is preparing arrive in Ukraine.

On Friday, Troels Lund Poulsen, Denmark’s acting defense minister, confirmed the first of the 1980s-vintage Leopard 1s would be ready for deployment by June 1. Potentially weeks after Ukrainian troops attack.

But that doesn’t mean the Leopard 1s will be useless. In fact, there’s an obvious use for the 42-ton, four-crew tanks with their still-effective L7 105-millimeter guns and decent day-night optics.

They could support the mopping-up force.

Anticipating an armored breakthrough by the offensive corps, Kyiv has stood up nine national guard brigades that could follow behind the offensive brigades—and clear out any Russian forces that get bypassed in the initial assault.

The national guard brigades tend to be lighter than their equivalent brigades in the Ukrainian army, air-assault force and marine corps are.

We’ve already seen at least one of the guard brigades in action, in the ruins of Bakhmut in eastern’s Ukraine’s Donbas region. While it seems the Spartan Brigade has a few T-64 tanks, its main vehicle is the wheeled BTR-4.

The 17-ton, three-person BTR-4 packs a stabilized 30-millimeter autocannon that’s devastating against unprotected infantry, especially at close range.

But the BTR-4’s armor is just thick enough to resist heavy machine gun fire. The Spartan Brigade apparently lost several BTR-4s just getting into Bakhmut along roads that were, and still are, well within range of Russian artillery and rockets.

Those 100 Leopard 1s Ukraine should get starting this summer could be just the thing to bulk up the national guard brigades. As far as tanks go, they’re lightly protected with a maximum of 70 millimeters of steel along the frontal arc. That’s a tenth the protection a newer Leopard 2 enjoys.

But compared to a BTR-4, a Leopard 2 is better-protected and much better-armed. And there are obvious ways the infantry-heavy national guard brigades could deploy the tanks—especially in close fights with Russian remnants holding out in urban strongpoints.

An M-48 tank supporting U.S. Marines in Hue in 1968.
U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

Where on open terrain, tanks work best in combined-arms formations with tracked fighting vehicles—the tanks advance while the fighting vehicles protect their flanks—in the chaotic confines of contested cities, tanks work well in mixed units with dismounted infantry.

Consider the U.S. Marine Corps’ experience in the battle for Hue in South Vietnam in January 1968. After a powerful North Vietnamese force captured the city, it took three USMC battalions and 11 South Vietnamese battalions a month to dislodge the North Vietnamese.

Around a dozen M-48A3 tanks supported the Marines. The 45-ton, four-crew M-48—versions of which remain in service with a few armies, including Taiwan’s—has thicker armor than the Leopard 1 does, but a smaller 90-millimeter gun.

In Hue, that 90-millimeter gun was all the firepower the Marines needed. “The positive aspects of the firepower included its ability to destroy enemy strongpoints, provide suppressive fires or create holes in buildings,” Jeremy Zollin, a U.S. Army major, wrote in a 2017 thesis.

“While maneuvering down streets, the Marines would be engaged by enemy machine-gun positions and strongpoints,” Zollin added. “The M-48A3s would pull forward to suppress these positions.”

The tanks themselves could function as mobile strongpoints. “When trying to prevent the enemy from repositioning, the Marines placed an M-48 in an intersection,” Zollin explained. “The tank could cover two avenues of approach by placing the main gun on one street and the cupola-mounted 12.7-millimeter machine gun on another.”

The M-48s shrugged off North Vietnamese machine gun fire but were vulnerable to the enemy’s rocket-propelled grenades—especially from the back, sides and top. Rocket hits tended to wound or kill the tanks’ crews without actually destroying the tanks, however. Over the course of the battle, many of the tanks went through several crews.

“In spite of the high casualty rate among the crew, the tanks were still able to absorb a significant amount of fire and continue to fight,” Zollin wrote. After a few days of hard combat, the infantry learned to screen the tanks from rocket fire so the tanks in turn could protect the infantry from machine-gun fire. Classic infantry-tank combined arms.

The Ukrainian national guard could borrow the Marines’ tactics from 55 years ago—and send dismounted guardsmen and Leopard 1s in mixed teams into Russian-held towns and cities.

Urban clearing operations could leverage the Leopard 1s’ firepower and barely adequate protection while mitigating their vulnerability to enemy tanks, artillery and missiles—especially on open terrain.

Moreover, there should be plenty of Leopard 1s to go around—enough, perhaps, to assign a 10-strong company to each guard brigade. “They are very large in number,” Poulsen said of the Leopard 1s, “and the Ukrainians need a very large number of tanks.”

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David Axe

One comment

  1. David usually writes good articles, but I have to disagree with him on this one.
    The Leo I is a fast and maneuverable tank with a good cannon and all the rest, and this tends to make it more suitable in open terrain, which Ukraine has plenty of. Its rather light armor doesn’t make it a top choice for urban combat, and it would waste its other fine features there. Also, since he mentions the Leo I would arrive just in time to help mop ups, David seems to know the date when the AFU’s attack will commence, which I’m sure he doesn’t.
    In the end, we’ll see just how the AFU will use these tanks. I have great confidence that they have gone through every possible scenario for each type of Western tank and so know exactly in which environment they are best suited.

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