It’s gross folly for Britain to give up on tanks

Ukraine’s armed forces may have performed heroically in their efforts to thwart Russia’s unprovoked invasion of their country. But their hopes of inflicting a decisive defeat on their Russian adversaries are being severely hampered by their lack of firepower, notably tanks.

To date, much of Ukraine’s battlefield success is the result of sophisticated weaponry provided by the West, such as the British Army’s NLAWs, or next generation light anti-tank weapons, and American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. These have enabled the Ukrainians to launch highly effective ambushes against the invasion forces. They have destroyed or captured an estimated 2,000 Russian military vehicles, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, as well as more than 100 military aircraft.

The Ukrainian tactics have certainly succeeded in ending Vladimir Putin’s initial plan to capture Kyiv and overthrow its government, forcing the Russians to concentrate their efforts on fulfilling their long-held ambition of seizing control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

But if the Ukrainian armed forces are to take the fight to the Russians to restore their country’s sovereign integrity, then they are going to need a lot more than anti-tank weapons, as President Volodymyr Zelensky made clear during his impassioned address to the United Nations Security Council this week.

In fact, they are going to need tanks – and lots of them – as well as infantry fighting vehicles, heavy artillery and warplanes.

To relieve the Russian sieges on the cities of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Melitopol and others, Mr Zelensky has called on the West to provide Ukraine with the heavy armour to mount an effective military campaign. “You have at least 20,000 tanks,” he said. “Ukraine asked for 1 per cent, 1 per cent of all your tanks to be given or sold to us.”

The West’s response to Ukraine’s appeal to date has been less than convincing, with Nato leaders warning that providing Kyiv with tanks and warplanes might be seen as a provocative act by Moscow, and lead to an escalation in the conflict. The only country so far to respond positively to Mr Zelensky’s request is the Czech Republic, which has transferred a dozen Russian-made T-72 battle tanks.

But Mr Zelensky’s emotional pleas for more heavy armour not only highlight the inadequacies of the Ukrainian military as it gears up for the next stage of its war with Moscow.

It should also serve as a wake-up call for Britain’s own security establishment which, to judge by recent comments by James Heappey, the armed forces minister, believes that it is perfectly possible to wage modern warfare without resorting to heavy armour.

Discussing the Government’s decision to cut the size of the Army to 72,500 following the recent Integrated Review, Mr Heappey claimed that it was justified because the Ukrainian military’s performance showed that “small bands of determined people” were more effective.

Nor is Mr Heappey the only one who believes Ukraine justifies the Government’s woeful neglect of our military strength over the past decade. Others point to the fact that the Russians, despite deploying thousands of tanks and other heavy fighting equipment, have failed miserably to achieve their objectives.

But to argue that Russia’s military failures vindicate the Government’s insistence on slashing our own war-fighting capabilities is to indulge in political complacency of a very high order. The reason the Russian invasion plan has fared so badly is that the Russian army has displayed stunning ineptitude at both the strategic and tactical levels. It has played into Ukrainian hands by getting drawn into urban areas, environments which hugely favour the defender.

But any defensive battle, which has been the main thrust of the Ukrainian war effort so far, must ultimately shift to the offensive if Ukraine is to defeat the Russians, and that requires, as Mr Zelensky explained, tanks and armoured formations.

At a time when Britain is committed to reinforcing Nato’s defences in Europe, the fact that Ukraine’s success ultimately depends on the same equipment and resources that Whitehall is determined to deny our own military is nothing short of a national scandal.

The Government’s cuts mean the Army’s so-called war-fighting division has only two armoured brigades, comprising a mere four battalions of infantry, and just 112 tanks – of which, I am told, only 40 properly equipped and armoured main battle tanks are ready for deployment. Such a force would struggle to seize even a suburb of Kyiv.

So, far from justifying the Government’s recent Army cuts, as Mr Heappey would have us believe, the Ukraine conflict proves the opposite case – that its decision to deny the military the manpower and equipment it needs to fight and win wars against the likes of Mr Putin is an act of gross folly, one ministers must reverse at the earliest opportunity.

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