RAMSTEIN Air Base, Germany — Ukrainian troops will begin training on US M1 Abrams tanks in Germany in the coming weeks, US defense officials say.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced the timeline Friday during a meeting with allies at Ramstein Air Base. Defense officials said about 31 tanks were expected to arrive in Germany to begin a training program for Ukrainian troops expected to last 10 weeks. Battle-ready tanks could reach battlefields in Ukraine by the fall, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security issues.
But the United States remained steadfast in its refusal to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets. At a post-meeting press conference, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukraine’s air defense system had been operating effectively for more than a year, holding Russian warplanes “cautiously” for fear of being shot down.
Maintaining Ukraine’s air defenses, he said, “is the most critical thing right now”. General Milley said the United States would continue to work with its allies to that end, emphasizing that “we must do everything we can to ensure that Ukraine has adequate air defense — ground-based air defense capability.”
Ukrainian leaders, who are calling for fighter jets, tanks and other advanced weaponry, have repeatedly expressed frustration at the pace of deliveries from their supporters to the West. President Volodymyr Zelensky this week urged NATO’s Secretary General to help “overcome the reluctance” by providing long-range weapons and more modern aircraft and artillery.
“Delays in making appropriate decisions is a waste of time for the peace and lives of our soldiers, who have not yet received the much-needed number of defense assets,” he said at a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday. in Kyiv. .
Ukraine endured a Russian offensive during the winter, but at the cost of thousands of artillery shells per day and heavy casualties in fighting in the east. After a year of fighting off the Russian air force, Ukraine’s entire air defense network is also weakening and needs a massive influx of munitions, according to US officials and recently leaked Pentagon documents.
Mr Austin said in remarks on Friday during US-led talks with top defense officials from about 50 countries, a collective known as the Ukraine Contact Group, that continued deliveries of weapons systems and ammunition and tanks to Kiev “underline how badly the Kremlin miscalculated.”
“Putin thought he could easily overthrow Kiev’s democratically elected government,” Mr Austin told defense ministers gathered in a cavernous room in the officers’ club in Ramstein, referring to Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin. “He thought the rest of the world would let him get away with it.”
During his trip to Europe – Mr Austin arrived in Germany on Thursday after meetings with top officials in Sweden – he also tried to reassure allies in the wake of a Pentagon leak of hundreds of top-secret national security documents. A 21-year-old National Guard pilot from Massachusetts was arrested and charged with the leak, which saw many documents related to the war in Ukraine posted online.
“I know many of you have been following reports of unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified US material,” Mr Austin said. “I take this issue very seriously.”
He praised the Ukraine contact group for its “commitment to reject attempts to divide us”.
At the press conference, he said the group members have supplied Ukraine with a total of more than 230 tanks, more than 1,550 armored vehicles and enough equipment and ammunition to support nine new armored brigades.
General Milley said Ukrainian troops have also undergone training on how to use the US Patriot air defense system and that the Patriot systems arrived in Ukraine this week. The theme of the discussions between defense ministers, he said, was “air defence, air defence, air defence”.
Ukraine has also received several MIG-29 fighter jets from two neighboring countries, Slovakia and Poland. But those jets, designed by the Soviet Union, are not the advanced American-made F-16 fighter jets that Mr. Zelensky says his troops need.
The Russian air force has largely avoided attacks deep into Ukraine since the early weeks of the war, when Ukraine managed to move its air defenses and overwhelm Russian warplanes. Since then, Russia has largely confined its aircraft to the front lines, although it has also suffered significant losses within the territory it claims.
Last summer, explosions at an air base in Crimea destroyed at least eight Russian fighter jets. In October, a Russian military plane crashed into the courtyard of an apartment building in a town in southern Russia, killing 14 people. On Friday, the defense ministry said a Russian warplane accidentally dropped a bomb on the Russian city of Belgorod, injuring three people and sparking panic in the city, near the border with Ukraine.
Several countries made new promises to strengthen Ukraine’s weapons, ammunition and air defense systems, and the Polish, German and Ukrainian defense ministers announced a plan to establish a Leopard 2 tank service center in Poland. Ukraine started receiving those main battle tanks from Germany last month, as well as Challenger tanks from Britain.
US defense officials had initially said that the M1 Abrams tanks would not arrive in Ukraine until next year. But since January, when the Biden administration announced it would send the tanks, senior defense officials have said they wanted to accelerate the plans.
The Ukrainian troops training on the Abrams tanks will have to undergo qualification tests, maintenance training and exercises to operate the advanced main battle tank. They will also have to learn how to coordinate tank maneuvers with other military units, in what the US military calls “combined arms” tactics.
These efforts are expected to support a Ukrainian counter-offensive aimed at dislodging Russian forces from the territory they seized at the beginning of the invasion, which began nearly 14 months ago.
In the following year, the countries in the coalition backing Ukraine sent $55 billion worth of arms, missiles, ammunition, tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine, Mr Austin said. The United States transferred $35 billion of that amount.
Pentagon officials had initially expressed doubts about sending the Abrams, citing concerns about how Ukraine would maintain the advanced tanks, which require extensive training and maintenance. And officials had said it could be years before they actually reach the Ukrainian battlefields.
But Mr. Austin eventually came to the conclusion that sending American tanks was necessary to urge Germany to follow with its coveted Leopard 2 tanks. State Department and White House officials argued that giving Germany the political cover to send its tanks outweighed the Defense Department’s unwillingness, the officials said.
And it turned out that US officials were able to move Abrams tanks to Ukraine faster than expected. Defense officials said they were quick to expedite delivery and now say they believe the tanks could be used in combat within a few months.
“I am confident that this equipment, and the associated training, will enable the Ukrainian armed forces to succeed on the battlefield,” said Mr. Austin.
General Milley said the M1 tanks coming to Germany are “training tanks” so they are not combat ready. But, he added of the eventual weapons going to Ukraine, “I think the M1 tank, when delivered, will make a difference.”
Anushka Patil reporting contributed.