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The first M1 Abrams tanks arrive in Ukraine

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M1A1 Abrams tank

An undisclosed number of American M1 Abrams main battle tanks have now arrived in Ukraine, giving the embattled nation a small boost in armored capability amid its ongoing counter-offensive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took to X (previously known as Twitter) to announce their arrival on Monday morning. 

“Good news from Defense Minister Umerov. Abrams are already in Ukraine and are preparing to reinforce our brigades. I am grateful to our allies for fulfilling the agreements! We are looking for new contracts and expanding the geography of supply,” Zelensky wrote.  

The United States has promised Ukraine a total of 31 Abrams tanks, amounting to less than 10% of at least 321 total Western tanks headed for – or already in – the European nation. Exactly how many Abrams have arrived is unclear, but Politico reported in June that the first delivery of American tanks would include 10 M1A1 tanks, with the subsequent 21 coming later in the fall. According to the New York Times, anonymous sources within the Pentagon said the tanks arrived in-country on Saturday. The decision to provide Ukraine with refurbished M1A1s, rather than more modern M1A2s, was based on trying to expedite their arrival. 

Related: What are the EFP bombs that are now used in Ukraine?

U.S. Marines with 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, drive a M1A1 Abrams tank during the Combat Enhancement Training/Force Integration Training phase of Exercise Trident Juncture 18 near Storås, Norway, Oct. 25, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Menelik Collins/Released)

However, despite the M1 Abrams’ now-legendary prowess on the battlefield, this small number of tanks is unlikely to play a massive role in Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Instead, the Biden administration’s decision to provide Ukraine with these tanks could arguably be considered a diplomatic move, as it was America’s commitment to send tanks that many credit with Germany’s ultimate decision to allow countries to provide Ukraine with other heavy weapons and platforms, like Leopard 2 main battle tanks.

Leopard 2s quickly became the first Western tanks to see action on Ukraine’s behalf in June of this year, with videos of their participation in the counteroffensive surfacing shortly thereafter. In August, it was reported that Ukraine had received at least 71 Leopard IIs already, and had lost only five in combat up to that date. 

While older than America’s top-of-the-line Abrams, the M1A1s Ukraine is receiving will still present a serious threat to the variety of Russian tanks, some of which are extremely dated. In particular, the Abrams optics will enable better night-fighting capabilities, while the tank’s armor and defensive systems offer a greater degree of survivability. The Abrams, for instance, stows its 120mm main gun ammunition in a sealed compartment on the back of the turret. As a result, a direct hit that manages to penetrate its armor will blow the shells out the back, rather than killing the tank’s occupants. Many Russian tanks like the T-72 and T-80, however, store their ammunition in the turret itself. When hit, this results in a catastrophic failure many have taken to calling the “jack in the box” effect, blowing the turret high into the sky and killing the tank’s crew. 

Related: Ukraine is decapitating Russian tanks due to a ‘jack-in-the-box’ design flaw, reports say

“As President Zelensky said earlier today, the first batch of the 31 Abrams tanks have arrived in Ukraine. The mere presence of Abrams tanks serves as a potent deterrent. By having these tanks in their arsenal, the Ukrainian Army can more effectively discourage aggressive actions. Providing the Abrams tanks signifies a tangible commitment to Ukraine’s defense and stability, underscoring U.S. support for its partners facing external pressures. We will continue to focus on what we can do to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield and protect its people,” a Pentagon statement sent to the Warzone said

However, these Abrams may not see the battlefield any time soon. The initial batch will likely be kept in hiding to avoid being taken out by Russian missiles until the rest arrive and they can be used in larger numbers. The last thing Ukraine wants to happen is to lose these tanks before they even enter the fight. 

But even once all 31 Abrams have arrived, that will still only amount to a single Ukrainian tank battalion, which is unlikely to play a pivotal role in the overarching conflict. However, if used in the right circumstances, the heavy armor, firepower, and situational awareness provided by the American vehicle could make a tactical difference. 

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.