A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 7, 2023

How Ukrainian Troops Are Being Trained To Use NATO Tanks

Ukrainians troops have proven to be astonishingly fast learners on NATO western systems - and that appears to be true also with the technologically advanced tanks they are now being given.  

Some of those being trained are not experienced tank gunners and drivers, but former heavy equipment operators and mechanics, skills that NATO says are both transferable and essential. Aside from learning the technology, the crews have to learn to work as a team and, as importantly, to work with other tanks crews in order to enhance the impact of their power on the battlefield. JL

Stephen Fidler and Luke Vargas report in the Wall Street Journal:

The tanks were being operated by crews of Ukrainian forces. Many of them haven't driven tanks before this training (but) some of them were tractor drivers or mechanics in the past, and these are transferrable skills. They were learning to maneuver the vehicles, learning to maintain the vehicles - how to fix them up on the battlefield - and how to load ammunition. Soviet-era tanks are smaller and lighter than western tanks, the electronics are different to the Soviet tanks, but the major difference is four people are needed to work a Challenger 2 tank, whereas the Soviet vehicles need three. The advanced systems are likely to make a significant difference.

That is the sound of Ukrainian soldiers training to use a British challenger to tank. In just a few weeks, the UK will deliver 14 of those tanks to Ukraine as part of the country's push to supply Kyiv with powerful battlefield technology in its ongoing war with Russia. Journal video journalist, Eve Hartley, recently visited Ukrainian soldiers who are training on those tanks in the UK, and she joins us now alongside WSJ editor at large, Stephen Fidler. Eve, I want to start with you, could you tell us about the training that you were able to attend recently? Who was there and what were they doing?

Eve Hartley: Yeah. So the training that I attended was in the south of England. It was at a military area operated by the British Army, and essentially it was just one big training session on tanks. They were learning to maneuver the vehicles. They were also learning to maintain the vehicles in terms of repairs, like how to fix them up on the battlefield, and they were also learning how to load ammunition inside of them. There was about 20 or 30 people involved in the training on the day. There were multiple high vis wearing army drivers speaking to Ukrainians and telling them how to maneuver, essentially; how to turn left, how to turn right, how to get up a hill, which is quite challenging in the Challenger 2s.

Luke Vargas: You mentioned there being Ukrainian personnel there. Tell us a bit more about these soldiers and how they are being equipped to use these tanks.

Eve Hartley: So the tanks were being operated by crews of Ukrainian forces. We don't know that much about who these people are, but what we do know is that many of them haven't actually driven tanks before this training. We know that some of them were tractor drivers or mechanics in the past, and these are transferrable skills we were told by British trainers, in terms of learning to drive tanks and are essential for maintaining them on the battlefield.

Luke Vargas: Stephen, you have been reporting on Western efforts to supply Ukraine with advanced weapon systems and tanks in recent months. How unique is it, what Eve is describing, how the UK is training these Ukrainian service members on these tanks?

Stephen Fidler: The British were the first to actually offer Western-built main battle tanks to Ukraine. Other NATO countries had delivered some of their own Soviet-era battle tanks. And this training is going on elsewhere in other places, including Germany, with German-made battle tanks called Leopards. And also the US will be doing it in the future with Abrams tanks, which will eventually be in the field in Ukraine. So it's not unique to the UK, but what is unusual with this is that they're being handed over in wartime. So the training sessions are much more truncated to be much shorter time period than normal.

Luke Vargas: Eve, as Stephen mentioned, the Ukrainians are training in a really short timeframe here in order to get these tanks on the front lines soon. Tell us more about what exactly Ukrainian soldiers are learning to do.

Eve Hartley: Yeah, so these tanks are different mainly in terms of their armor. They have one of the most protective armors that you can get in tanks, but we spoke to Ben Barry, a military analyst who's an expert in land warfare, who had some thoughts about the key differences between Soviet-era tanks and Challenger 2s.

Ben Barry: Soviet-era tanks are smaller and lighter than western tanks, so they'll find it easier to get up a steep hill because they weigh 45 or 50 tons as opposed to about 70 tons of a Challenger and Abrams or a Leopard 2.

Eve Hartley: The electronics are different to the Soviet-era tanks, and that might be a learning curve, but the major difference is that four people are needed to work on a Challenger 2 tank, whereas the Soviet vehicles, most of them need three, and that's because of the system of loading the ammo and to fire the ammo. And so the Soviet-era tanks actually have an automatic system, but the British tanks need someone to do that physically.

Luke Vargas: As mentioned, these tanks will be in Ukraine soon, but military analyst, Ben Berry, also said that the Ukrainians aren't getting enough of them. Period.

Ben Barry: The Ukrainians have been asking for a thousand of these modern armored fighting vehicles; 300 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles. I've been keeping tally of what's actually been offered, and it's a small proportion of that. If you add it up, it's probably no more than 60 or 70 tanks, and it's about 150 modern infantry fighting vehicles. So it's not everything the Ukrainians have asked for, which means that the Ukrainians will struggle to achieve the impact that they would do if the West had given them the full number of modern armored vehicles they'd asked for.

Luke Vargas: Stephen, given these limitations, how decisive a military asset are these tanks even going to be for Ukraine?

Stephen Fidler: So what the Ukrainians are going to need if they're going to break through again the Russian front lines, is all these things; protection, firepower, mobility, and only with that. And with the advanced systems that they have on board, they were likely to make a significant difference. Now is the difference they will make sufficient to go and break through these Russian lines in a decisive way? It's too soon to say, but certainly without them Ukraine would stand very little chance of doing them. So they're absolutely essential for the next phase of the war in which we're expecting to see further Ukrainian offensives.

Luke Vargas: Eve, finally, you had a chance to speak to Ukrainian soldiers at this training site. What was their mood like?

Eve Hartley: The mood from the Ukrainian forces on the ground was grateful. I think they were very happy that they've been provided these tanks by Western partners, and yeah, they were determined to learn them as fast as they could in order, what they said ,was to be able to win with them on the battlefield.

Stephen Fidler: Yeah, I think what we've heard from others who have been involved with Ukrainian forces that are training is that they're very highly motivated and really do want to hurry through this training, get in there, back to the battlefield as quickly as possible. So they're highly motivated. They seem to be able to accommodate these complex systems very well and move them them into action. And what is really unusual here is that they are going straight out of training, straight into a battlefield. So that's the big difference with people who have trained on these things in the past. There's an incredibly short period in which they got to learn the ropes and get into the fight.


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