It Seems Ukraine Is Struggling To Form Tank Brigades

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It Seems Ukraine Is Struggling To Form Tank Brigades

The Ukrainian army’s tank brigades are spread thin. That could help to explain why the army’s highly-anticipated counteroffensive in southern Ukraine


hasn’t yet picked up much momentum.


It seems likely manpower, rather than hardware, is the main reason the Ukrainians haven’t stood up more armored units.


It’s not totally clear exactly how many tank brigades the army has. Maybe six. Maybe five. Maybe fewer. The Ukrainian army has a habit of keeping undermanned—practically non-existent—units on paper and occasionally touting them in the media.


So observers should look for hard evidence of a brigade in combat before concluding that brigade is real. By that standard the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 17th Tank Brigades definitely exist.


The 5th and 14th Tank Brigades, by contrast ... might be mostly fictional.


Tank brigades are the hard core of any mechanized army. Artillery shapes the battlefield. Infantry hold terrain. But tanks with their speed, mobility, firepower and protection close with and destroy the enemy—and allow an army to seize ground.


A Ukrainian tank brigade might have three or four battalions with, between them, a hundred or so tanks and several thousand troops.


The 1st Tank Brigade, arguably Ukraine’s best armored formation with its upgraded T-64 tanks, defended Chernihiv, east of Kyiv, early in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine that began in late February. It was a costly battle for the storied brigade.


When the Russian army retreated from the Kyiv suburbs in late March and the fighting shifted east to the Donbas region, the 1st Tank Brigade pulled back from the front for an extended period of rest and refit. Three months later the brigade reappeared in southern Ukraine near Zaporizhzhia.


The 3rd Tank Brigade, a reserve unit with T-72s, fought in Donbas. Today it’s holding the line around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s most vulnerable major city, just 25 miles from the Russian border. The reserve 4th Tank Brigade with its T-64s also fought in Donbas—and apparently still is out east.


The T-64-equipped 17th Tank Brigade might be the most important right now. It’s helping to hold a bridgehead across the Inhulets River 30 miles northeast of Russian-occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine.


Liberating Kherson with its strategic port and pre-war population of 300,000 might be Kyiv’s top priority. Holding it might be Moscow’s top priority. The Russian 49th Combined Arms Army oversees a growing force—currently as many as 30 battalions—that’s digging in around Kherson and might even attempt a countercounteroffensive.


Whether the Ukrainians march south from the Inhulets or the Russians march north toward the river, the 17th Tank Brigade could bear the brunt of the fighting.


That’s four tank brigades that we can confirm. The ones we can’t confirm are the 5th and 14th. The 5th Tank Brigade, ostensibly a reserve unit with T-72s, was part of the garrison defending Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, from a possible Russian amphibious attack.


That attack never came. And as the Ukrainians have acquired more and more anti-ship missiles, the chance of the Russians ever attacking Odesa from the sea seems to have declined nearly to zero. It would make sense, then, for the 5th Tank Brigade to quit Odesa and join the fight around the Inhulets and Kherson.


Indeed, some analysts place the brigade around Krivyi Rih, safely inside Ukrainian lines north of the southern front. But there’s so little hard evidence of the 5th Tank Brigade marching or fighting that it’s possible the brigade is either seriously under-equipped and under-manned ... or exists mostly on paper.


You could say the same of the reserve 14th Tank Brigade with its T-64s—another unit that may have disappeared from the Ukrainian order of battle.


It seems trained manpower, rather than a shortage of battle-ready tanks, is the major factor in Ukraine’s apparent struggle to field a larger armored force. The Ukrainian army had around 900 tanks—T-64s, mostly—in its arsenal on day one of the war. More than enough for four, five or even six tank brigades plus tank battalions in infantry brigades.


In five months of hard fighting the Ukrainians have lost around 230 tanks that analysts can confirm. But they’ve captured 280 Russian tanks and also have acquired around 300 fresh tanks from foreign allies.


Of course, it’s likely many tanks have sustained damage and await repair. Even so, Ukraine in theory has more tanks now than it did before the war.


But a tank without a trained crew is just a lump of metal and rubber. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Ukraine’s best soldiers have been killed or wounded since Russia attacked in late February. Their skills and experience aren’t easy to replace.


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