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Beware the Wunderwaffe

  • Published
  • By MAJ Viktor Stoll, USA

The recent announcement by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that the U.K. will send 14 Challenger II 3rdGeneration Main Battle Tanks (MBT) to Ukraine was met with jubilation in Kiev – which has long sought the latest Western tanks, aircraft, and air defense to liberate its Russian-occupied territories.[1]  Britain’s commitment follows on the heals of France’s promise to send an unspecified number of AMX-10 wheeled-guns[2] (i.e. light tank) and aligns with Poland’s commitment to send Leopard II MBTs[3]. These move further apply pressure on Berlin, whose re-export controls currently limit the supply of NATO’s other Leopard II operators.[4]  There is no doubt, that these Western MBTs are the cutting edge of armored maneuver warfare and are worth their weight in Russian T-72s.  However, are they the right answer for what Ukraine needs right now?

Fourteen tanks – a single troop or company-sized element – will not come close to providing Kiev with its stated necessity of 300 MBTs in time for a major summer counteroffensive.[5]  To put this in perspective, an average Western armored company employed in the offense would operate along an axis of advance of approximately 3-5 km of frontage – with the current frontlines in Ukraine standing at approximately 1,300 km.[6]  Even if Germany agrees to release the Leopard II, the move will likely provide Kiev with only a few dozen copies of the Wunderwaffe it has so long pined for.  Assuming Ukraine could field a total 6 companies of Western MBTs (approx. 90 tanks) by summer 2023, that is only a single Western armored brigade.[7]  Thus, the Ukrainians will be unable to penetrate Russian lines to the depth that would necessitate a large envelopment and surrender of a Russian Combined Arms Army or theater in the Donbas or the South – a holy grail of a “Kesselschlacht” (i.e. “cauldron battle”) that may bring about a decisive end to the conflict. 

One thing is for certain, piecemeal transfers of various Western MBTs will not only fail to provide Kiev with the armored mobility needed to launch a summer offensive but will greatly impede the readiness of Kiev’s armored forces. Ukraine needs MBTs, and it needs MBTs now. More importantly, however, it needs the right MBTs, in the right amounts, at the right time, and with the right spare parts to conduct and sustain a major counter-offensive by this summer.  

There are a variety of reasons why the West won’t, or can’t, provide more of its top-of-the-line MBTs to Ukraine in a reasonable amount of time.  Risk of escalation, lack of operable systems, weight, trained Ukrainian crews, and intelligence risk if captured have all been put forth. Yet, the nagging hesitancy to supply Ukraine with a “Wunderwaffe” is anchored primarily in sustainment concerns, more than fear of escalation or possible Russian technical exploitation of captured copies.  It is a concern steeped in the Allied historical memory of sustaining major armored formations during the Second World War.

Between 1934 and 1944, the Germans designed, tested, and fielded no less than 25,600 copies of seven major MBT designs, including the PzKpfw I (~1,500)PzKpfw II (~1,800)PzKpfw III (~5,700)PzKpfw IV (~8,800)PzKpfw V ‘Panther’ (~6,000), PzKpfw VI ‘Tiger I’ (~1,300), and PzKpfw VIB ‘Tiger II’ (~500).  And this disparate variance does not include the assortment of self-propelled “Sturmgeschütz” (i.e. “assault gun”) and “Jagdpanzer” (i.e. “tank destroyer”) models that were operated in an MBT role in the defensive. Nor does it take into account the thousands of various foreign “Beutepanzer” (i.e. “captured tanks”) – primarily Czech (i.e. “PzKpfw 35(t) & 38(t)”), French (i.e. PzKpfw 18R 730(f) & B-2 740(f), British (i.e. PzKpfw Kreuzer Mk VI 746(e)), and Soviet (i.e. PzKpfw T-26C 740(r)) – pressed into frontline service by the Wehrmacht.[8]  

This dizzying array of production variances greatly hampered German tank maintenance and readiness throughout the war – particularly as the Germans prioritized new production over spare parts.  As a group of German generals later recounted to a U.S. Army historical study: “To a insure high percentage of serviceable tanks, the design must be simple, the construction sturdy, and the parts easily accessible for service or repair. The number of different models must be kept to a minimum.”[9] Indeed, Allied-tank production focused on churning out a single medium tank type – while providing “upgrade” capability in the turret to suit more specific niche roles.  In contrast to the Germans, the Americans produced over 45,000 M4 “Sherman” variants, the British produced over 10,000 Mk VI “Crusader” and Mk VII “Cromwell” variants, and the Soviets produced a staggering 60,000 T-34 variants.  Not only was this a nearly 5-to-1 numerical advantage over the Germans, but it also greatly simplified the production of spare parts and training for maintenance personnel – thus, substantially increasing the readiness of Allied tank formations.  This, in turn, allowed the Allies to sustain major counter-offensives, to penetrate deeply into German rear areas, and envelope large amounts of less-mobile German defensive forces.

This lesson in sustainment was taken to heart by the U.S. as it shaped NATO strategy following the war and reflected the high degree of Allied interoperability in munitions, parts, and maintenance approaches pursued by the Alliance. That is why the piecemeal transfer of heavy Challenger II’s and Leopard II’s to Kiev now is the wrong answer.  

What Kiev needs now is multiple armored divisions-worth of Challenger I’s and Leopard I’s.  The former was just proposed by Robert Clark in The Telegraph.[10]  Indeed, Jordan just recently retired nearly 400 Challenger I’s that could provide Ukraine with its requested 300 tanks plus spare parts now.  Given Jordan’s security guarantees and close relationship with the U.S., it would seem that Ukraine’s corps-level armored wish list is already sitting in Amman ready for delivery.  

But let’s go a step further and throw the Leopard I in for good measure.  NATO allies Turkey and Greece, in addition to Chile and Brazil, have upwards of 1,000 Leopard I upgraded variants in service.  More importantly, for the spare parts and sustainment aspect, NATO allies Germany, Norway, Belgium, and Italy have several thousand variants in various stages of cold storage.  And the Leopard I chassis is used on the “Gepard” SPAAG and various engineering vehicles that the Germans have already transferred to Ukraine.  

While the Leopard I utilizes the less potent 105mm Royal Ordnance L7 rifled main gun compared to the Challenger I/II’s or Leopard II’s 120mm variants, the gun can still knock out any Russian MBT or Infantry Fighting Vehicle Ukrainian forces will be up against.  Indeed, various producers continue to make or store compatible 105mm High Explosive and High Explosive Anti-Tank shells for the gun, including Turkey, Brazil, Israel, and even China.  Moreover, the Leopard I is a third lighter than the Leopard II and has a multi-fuel engine capable of double the operational range cross-country.  Sounds like an excellent standardized medium tank for the Ukrainians to execute deep penetration and envelopment of Russian forces come the summer of 2023.  

Ultimately, Ukraine needs medium MBTs like the Leopard I now.  While the heavier and harder-hitting Challenger I could provide a spearhead force for the initial penetration of Russian lines, the follow-on large-scale envelopment of Russian forces – of the Kesselschlacht – that the Ukrainians need to deliver a decisive blow to the Russian war effort requires an overabundance of a standard, easily maintained medium tans that can race across the steppe deep into Russian rear areas. As the German Eastern Front commanders related to USEUCOM in 1954: “the Germans would have done better to retain one standard tank model as the Russians did with their T-34 and forget about improvements, than to constantly introduce new and improved versions for which no spare parts were available.”[11]

MAJ Viktor Stoll 
Major Viktor Stoll (US Army) has served in a variety of strategist, planner, and intelligence roles in the USINDOPACOM, USAFRICOM, and USEUCOM theaters.  He earned his MA in Modern History from King's College London and is currently pursuing his PhD in History at the University of Cambridge where he studies the nexus of Great Power Competition, colonial administration, and social scientific expertise during the Interwar Period.


[1.] Jonathan Beale and Jasmine Andersson, “UK to send Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, Rishi Sunak confirms”, BBC, 16 January 2023, accessed from:

[2.] Clea Caulcutt, “Macron promises to send first Western tanks to Ukraine”, Politico EU, 04 January 2023, accessed from:

[3.] Anna Koper and Alan Charlish, “Poland ready to send Ukraine tanks even if Germany opposes it”, Reuters, 20 January 2023, accessed from:

[4.] Sabine Siebold and Andrew Gray, “Explainer: West mulls sending German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine”, Reuters, 16 January 2023, accessed from:

[5.] Lara Jakes and Steven Erlanger, “Western Tanks Appear Headed to Ukraine, Breaking Another Taboo”, The New York Times, 12 January 2023, accessed from:

[6.] U.S. Marine Corps, MCWP 3-12: Marine Corps Tank Employment, 21 March 2014, pp. 2-1.

[7.] U.S. Army, FM 3-96: Brigade Combat Team, 15 January 2021, pp. 1-15 to 1-18.

[8.] Nikola Budanovic, Beutepanzer, “How Nazi Germany Relied on Captured Military Vehicles To Continue The Fight”, War History Online, 02 July 2016, accessed from:

[9.] Department of the Army Historical Studies Branch, German Tank Maintenance in World War II, DA Pamphlet 20-202 (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, June 1954), pp. 43.

[10.] Robert Clark, “Britain is sending the Ukrainians the wrong tanks”, The Telegraph, 16 January 2023, accessed from:

[11.] Department of the Army Historical Studies Branch, German Tank Maintenance in World War II, DA Pamphlet 20-202 (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, June 1954), pp. 43.

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