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Pace of U.S. tank delivery to Ukraine draws fire in Senate

Sen. Tom Cotton took aim at President Biden, while Sen. Angus King bemoaned what he called ‘the longest windup for a punch in the history of the world’

A U.S. soldier guides an Abrams battle tank during training exercises in Poland. (Mateusz Slodkowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden and his senior military advisers were rebuked Thursday by senators exasperated by what they claimed is the glacial pace at which his administration is moving to supply Abrams tanks to Ukraine, whose leaders say they need such weapons for a highly anticipated counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied territory.

Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Angus King (I-Maine) directed their frustration at Gen. Christopher Cavoli, who as the head of the U.S. European Command oversees much of the Pentagon’s effort to train and equip Ukraine’s army. King told the general he is worried that Ukraine will not have enough firepower to counter Russian troops this summer and that the American tanks should be staged in Poland now so Ukrainian forces can use them as soon as they complete a training course expected to begin next month under the supervision of U.S. soldiers in Germany.

“This counteroffensive that everybody is talking about,” King said during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, “it’s the longest windup for a punch in the history of the world.”

“It’s going to be trench warfare, and it’s going to involve tanks,” King went on, warning that if the Abrams don’t arrive on the battlefield until August or September, as the Pentagon has said, “it may well be too late.”

Ukraine faces logistics hurdles ahead of tank deliveries

Cavoli told the committee that he has not yet transmitted a schedule to have the tanks delivered from the United States to Europe, as neither the “exact sourcing” for them nor a precise timeline has been determined. Asked why, Cavoli requested to follow up later with the senators and indicated that he could better explain in a closed session where classified information can be discussed.

Cotton said he believes the administration could supply the tanks more quickly if Biden wanted to and there was political will to do so.

“I think it’s reflective of the political decision to drag our feet in what we’re supplying to Ukraine,” Cotton said. “It’s just a repeated story that we’re seeing over and over again throughout the course of this war.”

The Pentagon disputed suggestions that the tank deliveries are slow. Allies have combined to provide Ukraine with “significant combat capability already,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman, citing the delivery of more than 230 tanks, more than 1,150 armored vehicles, and munitions to support the creation of nine new armored brigades of soldiers.

Overall, the United States has committed more than $38 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion 14 months ago.

Short on time, Biden sought new Ukraine tank plan to break stalemate

In January, Biden approved transferring 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as part of a broader plan in which several European allies would send German-made Leopard tanks more quickly. The arrangement was brokered amid concerns from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that Ukraine would struggle with the heavy logistical burden that goes with the Abrams, and as Germany signaled that it would not send its own Leopards or allow other countries to do the same unless the United States committed to transferring some Abrams.

In March, the Pentagon said that it would speed delivery, allowing for delivery by the fall, after earlier indications that it would take a year or two. Ryder said then that United States had expedited the schedule by refurbishing old models of the M1A1 tank, rather than providing the more advanced M1A2 variant.

“This is about getting this important combat capability into the hands of the Ukrainians sooner rather than later,” Ryder said.

Both versions of the tank have a 120mm cannon and machine guns, while the M1A2 typically also includes digital controls, improved sensors and a thermal viewer for the tank’s commander.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that, while “there’s no silver bullet in war,” the American tanks will be “very effective” when combined with other armored vehicles and weapons.

“You know, I’m biased, but I think the M1 tank’s the best tank in the world,” Milley said. “There are other tanks that are quite good. Leopards, for example, are being provided, as well. But I do think the M1 tank, when it is delivered, will make a difference.”

The tank timeline debate comes as classified U.S. military documents leaked online indicate that the Pentagon has serious doubts about how successful Ukraine’s counteroffensive can be. One such assessment, from early February, warned that Ukraine would face “force generation and sustainment shortfalls,” and that the counteroffensive will probably result in only “modest territorial gains.”

Another document in the leak said that Kyiv’s strategy revolves around reclaiming parts of the east and assaulting the south in an effort to cut off Crimea, the peninsula that Russia illegally seized by force in 2014. Russian forces have dug in deeply there, building a network of trenches in anticipation of Ukrainian attacks.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.