Ukraine Has Formed A New Tank Brigade


Twenty-two months into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Ukrainian army finally is forming a new tank brigade.

Technically, the 5th Tank Brigade stood up in 2016. But for six years, it existed mostly on paper. When Russia widened its war on Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukrainian army finally began filling the brigade’s battalions with people and equipment.

It didn’t happen fast. As the fighting escalated and Ukraine’s losses piled up, the general staff in Kyiv prioritized existing brigades for new recruits and equipment.

Officially, the 5th Tank Brigade spent 2022 in garrison in Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine. In reality, the brigade still barely existed.

That finally has changed. We’ve seen the first official photos of 5th Tank Brigade troopers in training. We know the photos are recent because, in them, there’s snow on the ground.

The photos reveal the 5th Tank Brigade soldiers are well-equipped with winter uniforms and camouflage and carry AK-pattern assault rifles rather than the American-designed M-16s that equip some newer brigades such as the 47th Mechanized.

What the recent photos don’t reveal … are any tanks.

Last year, there were rumors the 5th Tank Brigade would get ex-Polish T-72M1 tanks and ex-Dutch YPR-765 armored personnel carriers. It’s not clear that still is the plan in 2023.

While the Ukrainian army has hundreds of restored and donated T-72s it could assign to new units, including the 5th Tank Brigade, it also has received 31 M-1A1 tanks from the United States—and is in the process of getting nearly 200 Leopard 1A5 tanks from a German-Dutch-Danish consortium.

The M-1s and Leopard 1s together could equip six or seven battalions. A Ukrainian mechanized brigade usually has one tank battalion with around 30 tanks; a Ukrainian tank brigade might have three tank battalions.

The only brigade we know for sure is operating Leopard 1A5s is the army’s 44th Mechanized; we don’t have any idea which brigade got the M-1s. While it’s possible the 5th Tank Brigade is making good on last year’s plan to operate T-72s, it also is possible it’s going to get Leopard 1s or M-1s.

In any event, the Ukrainian southern and eastern commands—the two regional commands that do most of the fighting and surely are in line to oversee the 5th Tank Brigade’s front-line deployments—should welcome the new unit as the wider war grinds toward its third year.

The Ukrainian army had just four tank brigades before the 5th Tank finally mobilized. While most of the Ukrainian armed forces’ hundred or so ground-combat brigades have at least a few tanks—normally a company or battalion, respectively with a dozen or 30 tanks—only the tank brigades concentrate a lot of tanks under a single command.

The concentration of mobile, protected firepower makes the tank brigades some of the most effective brigades for intensive close combat. In particular, offensive combat.

When Russian field armies rolled toward Kyiv in the early weeks of the wider war, the Ukrainian 1st Tank Brigade circled its wagons—so to speak—in Chernihiv, 60 miles north of the capital. There, it fought off a much larger Russian force. The brigade’s T-64BV tanks proved particularly lethal in close fights with Russian tanks.

But Ukrainian tank doctrine has evolved as the wider war has slowed to a mostly positional conflict, with both sides struggling to achieve major breakthroughs across heavily-mined defensive lines buzzing with explosives-laden drones.

More and more, tanks fight at range—staging a mile or two from the front line and firing their main guns at high angles, like howitzers do. “The value of this technique is that it allows tanks to concentrate fire over a wide area while they can maneuver without the protection and screening needed by artillery pieces,” the Royal United Services Institute noted in a 2022 study.

As it happens, Ukraine’s large fleet of donated Leopard 1s are suited to this indirect-fire role, owing to their accurate and fast fire-controls and effective 105-millimeter main guns. More to the point, the Leopard 1s are thinly-protected, with barely half the armor that T-72s have. The Leopard 1s should fight at range because they lack the protection for close fights.

All that is to say, don’t expect the 5th Tank Brigade to launch a dramatic armored assault—masses of tanks directly assaulting Russian lines—any time soon, or ever. It’s more likely the brigade will dole out its tanks—T-72s, Leopard 1s, M-1s or other types—piecemeal for indirect attacks.

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