Abrams tanks to enter Ukraine soon, Austin says at Ramstein meeting
Stars and Stripes September 19, 2023
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The M1 Abrams tanks provided by the United States soon will enter Ukraine and join the counteroffensive the country is mounting against Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told world military leaders gathered at this U.S. air base Tuesday.
Tanks arrived in May at the Army’s Grafenwoehr Training Area in Bavaria, where Ukrainian crews began an accelerated training course soon afterward. Ukraine is receiving 31 similar Abrams tanks that were refurbished in the United States.
Partner nations must “continue to dig deep” to arm Ukraine, Austin told representatives of about 50 countries at the 15th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
“We must continue to push hard to provide Ukraine with air-defense systems and interceptors,” Austin said. “And right now, in the heat of the battle, we must also keep pushing to get Ukraine the ammunition that it needs to keep up the fight, including 155 mm ammunition.”
The group will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, Austin said.
“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin is betting he can bide his time and wait it out,” he said. “He is wrong.”
During Tuesday’s sessions, Denmark, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands agreed to increase their aid to Ukraine, beginning with 15 T-72EA main battle tanks in the coming months. Air defense systems and ammunition will follow and be “delivered with speed,” the three nations said in a joint statement.
Germany announced plans to send $427 million worth of weapons, equipment and winter clothing. The aid includes explosives, mortars, rockets, mines, reconnaissance drones, replacement parts, generators and clothing.
“The coming months will be tough, said Siemtje Moeller, the parliamentary state secretary for Germany’s Defense Ministry. “It will be cold, muddy and wet.”
Since the last contact group meeting in July, the United States has pledged more than $2 billion in additional security aid to Ukraine, including ammunition, air defense systems and mine-clearing equipment, Austin said.
The meeting Tuesday came ahead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, where he will meet with President Joe Biden and members of Congress.
Zelenskyy has asked for longer-range weapons, but the U.S. has balked, largely because of concerns that Ukrainian missile strikes deep into Russian territory could escalate the war.
However, the U.S. and its allies once were hesitant to send tanks and other advanced weaponry, only to relent as the war continued.
Ukraine is about 90 days into its counteroffensive and has regained about 54% of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, said Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The counteroffensive is taking longer than Ukrainian military planners anticipated, but that’s the nature of war, which has raged for 572 days, Milley said.
Ukraine’s gainswould not have been possible without support from the West and other countries in the defense contact group, he said.
He cited real-time battlefield intelligence, several million rounds of artillery and several thousand armored mechanized vehicles.
Protection of front-line units from Russian attack helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles as well as training of Ukrainian units in various countries have also helped Ukraine make inroads, Milley said.
Austin also confirmed Tuesday that Ukrainian pilots will train on the F-16 fighter jet in the United States.
The Ukrainian pilots are expected to arrive at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Ariz., by October, The Associated Press reported last week.
Ukrainian pilots with combat experience began training on American-built F-16s in Denmark in June. Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have also pledged to donate F-16s to train Ukrainian pilots, Austin said.
Depending on the pilots’ English language proficiency and experience, the stateside training could be complete by the end of the year, though it will be longer than that before they fly combat missions, said Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the U.S. Air National Guard. Loh spoke last week at the annual Air Force Association convention in Maryland.
Ukraine’s new defense minister, Rustem Umerov, has called on allies to provide more ammunition and heavy weapons. Umerov met in person with Austin and outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley for the first time Tuesday.
Umerov replaced Oleksii Reznikov, who resigned this month amid a corruption scandal surrounding the ministry’s purchase of military jackets at nearly three times their cost. Then on Monday, Ukraine announced it had fired six deputy defense ministers.
Austin, without mentioning the defense leadership shakeup, thanked Reznikov for “his hard work and dedication” and welcomed Umerov.
Stars and Stripes reporter Alexander W. Riedel contributed to this report.