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Make the Abrams the Free World’s Tank

Ukraine needs tanks—but so do America's other allies and partners. Only the United States can meet the demand.
January 25, 2023
Make the Abrams the Free World’s Tank
Silhouette of an M1 Abrams battle tank (Photo by Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images)

[Editor’s note, 8:15 a.m. January 25, 2023: The German government has reportedly agreed to transfer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to approve the reexport of Leopard tanks from other European countries to Ukraine.]

The news that the Biden administration will announce the transfer of about 30 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine has reignited the debate that surrounded the latest meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the informal association of countries providing military aid to Ukraine. There is all-but-universal agreement (outside Germany) that Ukraine needs tanks. Several European countries have offered to donate German-made Leopard 2s, but they need German permission first. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz predicated that permission on the United States delivering M1s to Ukraine first. While the M1s are better tanks, they won’t arrive for months, whereas Leopards could be put into the battle much more quickly.

Twitter has been awash this week with excoriations of Scholz, begging him to “#FreetheLeopards.” But there’s likely more stopping him than a lack of will. Decades of underfunding have left much of Europe’s armor in questionable condition, neither ready for battle nor properly modernized. Even the Bundeswehr has yet to take a full inventory of its Leopards (though the choice not to do so may have been politically motivated). In a recent NATO exercise, all 18 of the German Puma infantry fighting vehicles participating broke down. The announcement by Rheinmetall, the company that makes the Leopard, that it would take a year to prepare a meagre 15 tanks for Ukraine may not have been merely a measure of German political reluctance but its defense industrial capacity.

It’s doubtful that other European Leopards are in showroom condition. At the end of the Cold War, the Netherlands boasted a fleet of 441 Leopard 2A4s (the version built from 1985 to 1993 and common to many NATO armies). The Dutch retired the last of these in 2011, but leased back 8 from Germany after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Poland has offered to transfer Leopards to Ukraine since it’s in the process of phasing them out anyway. Poland purchased used German tanks from 2002 to 2014, but then backlog of Leopards that could be refitted ran dry. Instead, the Poles are about to take delivery of the first 116 of the 300 Abrams tanks recycled from the U.S. Marine Corps, which has divested itself of its tanks. Notably, the Poles have also ordered 180 South Korean K2 “Black Panther” tanks—both because it’s a great tank at a great price and because it is a hedge against the heretofore slow pace of Abrams deliveries.

This should be a teachable moment: The time is right, right now, to cement the Abrams as the single go-to tank for America’s allies and partners. While the Israelis, French, Japanese British and Germans—and the Koreans aggressively marketing the K2—have tank-making capabilities, they cannot match the potential U.S. capacity; in its heyday, the Lima plant produced 800 Abrams per year. Only the United States can fill the demand of all the free countries that need tanks. To begin with, there are lots of M1s in the world—more than 10,000 including all variations. Secondly, even though the U.S. tank industrial base is a shadow of its former self, it’s in far better shape than its European counterparts. Thanks to congressional budget plus-ups, the tank plant in Lima, Ohio has been substantially modernized with new machine tools and its skilled workforce sustained. With a supply chain linking 41 states, tank production and servicing is a boon to domestic manufacturing even as it improves global security. Although the current U.S. Army version of the Abrams is the best tank in the world, there is still room for improvement in the design (the original Abrams entered service in 1980). In particular, new materials for the hull and turret and electric systems to replace hydraulics could save as much as 20 tons of weight while retaining full armor protection and simplifying logistics and sustainment.

The United States can do four things to get the western tank fleet back into shape. First, send the Abrams to Ukraine right now. While there are challenges with sending tanks that are part of the U.S. Army fleet, mostly to do with sensitive technologies, there are plenty of exportable versions of the Abrams in Iraq, Egypt, and other middle eastern countries. If the State Department asked nicely and provided some financial lubrication, those tanks could be in Ukraine fairly quickly. Similarly, there are export versions of the Abrams bound for Taiwan and Poland that in the near term (less than a year) could be diverted as the war continues.

The Biden administration should not let the Army abrogate its responsibility to fund the base workload of the tank program and supply chain. The Army needs to fund about one brigade’s worth of tanks per year—about 58 tanks—to keep the workforce and supply chain steady. The Army has been playing budget games by funding somewhat less than that, hoping that the Congress fills in the divot. While that trick worked in the 2023 budget cycle, the current budget debates in Congress make this strategy extremely dangerous for next year’s budget. The president’s budget, due out in a few weeks, needs to fund an entire brigade set or risk a further diminishment of the workforce and supply chain.

One of the challenges in ramping up tank production is a shortage of trained welders—a problem that also constrains shipbuilding. Many of these welding jobs are part of the unionized workforce, which makes it harder for manufacturers to grow their workforces quickly. Specifically, unionization inhibits the manufacturers from immediately doubling the salaries of the welders without affecting the wages of others in the factories. Within the defense sector we need to treat welders the same way the private sector treats star programmers: by paying them extremely well. We cannot afford to have trained welders take jobs at Walmart or as forklift supervisors because they can earn more money. If anything, we should be incentivizing more forklift supervisors to become welders. Welding is a key national security manufacturing task.

Lastly, the Army needs to keep improving the Abrams for the next twenty years. Some are discussing the need to create a new tank, but the costs of developments of the current tank are much lower. If we want the global tank force to coalesce around the Abrams to keep the supply chain healthy and create a huge export market, then the Army needs to make a clear commitment of 20 years or more to keep and improve the Abrams. Included in this process is bringing cutting-edge technologies into the Abrams, including those that may exist within our partners’ industrial bases. Currently the State Department’s arms export regulations and processes make a seamless movement of technology between the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and other allies nearly impossible. Even large and experienced defense contractors, like General Dynamics, the maker of the Abrams, have difficulty complying with arms regulations; the hurdles for startups are tremendous. We agreed to share our most closely held secrets with the “Five Eyes” allies eighty years ago; surely we can reach a similar agreement on export controls.

We are now faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of solving many of our supply chain problems, improving the combat capabilities of our allies, and making interoperable warfare much easier, which is a clear need for NATO in a post-Ukraine context. The White House, if reports are accurate, has taken a welcome first step by deciding to give M1s to Ukraine. The n next step is to keep America’s arsenal of armor healthy enough to make the Abrams the main battle tank of the free world for the next 20 years.

John G. Ferrari and Giselle Donnelly

John G. Ferrari is a retired U.S. Army major general and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Giselle Donnelly (@donnellygiselle) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.