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Ukraine Withdraws US-Supplied Abrams Tanks from Front Lines Due to Russian Drone Threats

Ukraine withdraws Abrams tanks (Credits: Al Arabiya)

Ukraine has temporarily sidelined the 31 Abrams M1A1 battle tanks provided by the United States in January 2023, due to the changing nature of the battlefield and the widespread use of Russian surveillance and hunter-killer drones.

This decision comes as the US marks the two-year anniversary of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of about 50 countries that meets monthly to assess Ukraine’s battlefield needs and identify where to find needed ammunition, weapons, or maintenance to keep Ukraine’s troops equipped.

The Abrams tanks, which cost about $10 million apiece, were seen as vital to Ukraine’s ability to breach Russian lines.

Ukraine withdraws US-supplied Abrams tanks from front lines (Credits: Military Times)

However, the battlefield has changed substantially since their arrival, with the ubiquitous use of Russian surveillance drones and hunter-killer drones making it difficult for Ukraine to protect the tanks from detection and attack. As a result, five of the 31 tanks have already been lost to Russian attacks.

The proliferation of drones on the Ukrainian battlefield means “there isn’t open ground that you can just drive across without fear of detection,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide an update on US weapons support for Ukraine before Friday’s Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting.

For now, the tanks have been moved from the front lines, and the US will work with the Ukrainians to reset tactics, said Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. Christopher Grady and a third defense official who confirmed the move on the condition of anonymity.

“When you think about the way the fight has evolved, massed armor in an environment where unmanned aerial systems are ubiquitous can be at risk,” Grady told the Associated Press in an interview this week, adding that tanks are still important.

“Now, there is a way to do it. We’ll work with our Ukrainian partners and other partners on the ground to help them think through how they might use that, in that kind of changed environment now, where everything is seen immediately.”

Recent aid packages, including the $1 billion military assistance package signed by President Joe Biden on Wednesday, also reflect a wider reset for Ukrainian forces in the evolving fight.

It is anticipated that the US will announce on Friday its intention to allocate approximately $6 billion

US officials said the US is expected to announce Friday that it will also provide about $6 billion in long-term military aid to Ukraine, including much-sought-after munitions for Patriot air defense systems.

The $1 billion package emphasized counter-drone capabilities, including .50-caliber rounds specifically modified to counter-drone systems; additional air defenses and ammunition; and a host of alternative and cheaper vehicles, including Humvees, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles.

The US also confirmed for the first time that it is providing long-range ballistic missiles known as ATACMs, which allow Ukraine to strike deep into Russian-occupied areas without having to advance and be further exposed to either drone detection or fortified Russian defenses.

While drones are a major threat, the Ukrainians also have not adopted tactics that could have made the tanks more effective, one of the US defense officials said. After announcing it would provide Ukraine the Abrams tanks in January 2023, the US began training Ukrainians at Grafenwoehr Army base in Germany that spring on maintaining and operating them.

They also taught the Ukrainians how to use them in combined arms warfare — where the tanks operate as part of a system of advancing armored forces, coordinating movements with overhead offensive fires, infantry troops, and air assets.

As the spring progressed and Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive stalled, shifting from tank training in Germany to getting Abrams on the battlefield was seen as an imperative to breach fortified Russian lines.

Ukraine pulls US tanks from front lines (Credits: The War Zone)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on his Telegram channel in September that the Abrams had arrived in Ukraine. Since then, however, Ukraine has only employed them in a limited fashion and has not made combined arms warfare part of its operations, the defense official said.

During its recent withdrawal from Avdiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine that was the focus of intense fighting for months, several tanks were lost to Russian attacks, the official said.

A long delay by Congress in passing new funding for Ukraine meant its forces had to ration ammunition, and in some cases, they were only able to shoot back once for every five or more times they were targeted by Russian forces.

In Avdiivka, Ukrainian forces were badly outgunned and fighting back against Russian glide bombs and hunter-killer drones with whatever ammunition they had left.

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