Pentagon Speeds Up Tank Timeline for Ukraine but Resists Calls for Jets

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Ukrainian troops will begin training on American M1 Abrams tanks in Germany in the next few weeks, U.S. defense officials say, in what would be a major step in arming Kyiv as it seeks to seize back territory from Russia.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced the timeline on Friday during a meeting with allies at Ramstein Air Base. Defense officials said that about 31 tanks were expected to arrive in Germany to begin a training program for Ukrainian troops that is expected to take 10 weeks. Combat-ready tanks could reach the battlefields in Ukraine by the fall, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.

But the United States stood firm in its refusal to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets. Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Ukraine’s air-defense system had worked effectively for more than a year and kept Russian warplanes “cautious” for fear of being shot down.

Sustaining Ukraine’s air defenses, he said, “is the most critical thing right now.” General Milley said the United States would continue to work with its allies to that end, emphasizing “we need to do everything we can to ensure that Ukraine has adequate air defense — ground-based air-defense capability.”

Ukrainian leaders, calling for jets, tanks and other advanced weapons, have repeatedly expressed frustration with the pace of deliveries from their supporters in the West. President Volodymyr Zelensky urged NATO’s secretary general this week to help “overcome the reluctance” with providing long-range weapons and more modern aircraft and artillery.

“Delay with appropriate decisions is time lost for peace and the lives of our soldiers, who have not yet received the vitally necessary number of defense means,” he said during a news conference with the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in Kyiv on Thursday.

Ukraine withstood a Russian offensive over the winter, but at the cost of thousands of artillery shells a day and serious casualties in eastern battles. After a year of staving off Russia’s air force, Ukraine’s entire air-defense network is also weakening and in need of a huge influx of munitions, according to U.S. officials and recently leaked Pentagon documents.

Mr. Austin, during remarks on Friday at U.S.-led talks with top defense officials from about 50 nations, a collective known as the Ukraine Contact Group, said that the continued deliveries of weapons systems and ammunition and tanks to Kyiv “underscore just how badly the Kremlin miscalculated.”

“Putin thought that he could easily topple Kyiv’s democratically elected government,” Mr. Austin told the defense ministers assembled in a cavernous room in the officers’ club at Ramstein, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “He thought that the wider world would let him get away with it.”

During his trip to Europe — Mr. Austin arrived in Germany on Thursday after meetings with top officials in Sweden — he also sought to reassure allies in the aftermath of a Pentagon leak of hundreds of top-secret national security documents. A 21-year-old National Guard airman from Massachusetts was arrested and charged in the leak, which involved putting online many documents related to the war in Ukraine.

“I know many of you have been following the reports of unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified U.S. material,” Mr. Austin said. “I take this issue very seriously.”

He praised the Ukraine Contact Group for its “commitment to reject efforts to divide us.”

At the news conference, he said that altogether, the group members have delivered more than 230 tanks to Ukraine, more than 1,550 armored vehicles and enough equipment and munitions to support nine new armored brigades.

General Milley said that Ukrainian troops have also completed training on how to use the American Patriot air-defense system, and that Patriot systems had arrived in Ukraine this week. The theme of discussions among defense ministers, he said, “was air defense, air defense, air defense.”

Ukraine has also received several MIG-29 fighter jets from two neighbors, Slovakia and Poland. But those jets, which are Soviet-designed, are not the sophisticated American-made F-16 warplanes that Mr. Zelensky has insisted his forces need.

The Russian Air Force has largely avoided attacks deep within Ukraine since the early weeks of the war, when Ukraine managed to move its air defenses and catch Russian warplanes off guard. Since then, Russia has restricted its aircraft mostly to the front lines — though it has also suffered prominent losses within territory it claims.

Last summer, explosions at an air base in Crimea destroyed at least eight Russian fighter jets. In October, a Russian military jet crashed into the courtyard of an apartment building in a town in southern Russia, killing 14 people. On Friday, the Defense Ministry said a Russian warplane accidentally dropped a bomb on the Russian city of Belgorod, wounding three people and spreading panic in the city, near the border with Ukraine.

Several countries made new promises to shore up Ukraine’s weapons, ammunition and air-defense systems, and the Polish, German and Ukrainian defense ministers announced a plan for a Leopard 2 tank service center to be set up in Poland. Ukraine began receiving those battle tanks from Germany last month, as well as Challenger tanks from Britain.

American defense officials had initially said that the M1 Abrams tanks would not arrive in Ukraine until next year. But since January, when the Biden administration announced that it would send the tanks, senior defense officials have said they wanted to accelerate the plans.

The Ukrainian troops training on the Abrams tanks will have to go through qualification testing, maintenance training and drills on how to operate the advanced battle tank. They also will have to learn how to coordinate tank maneuvers with other military units, in what the American military calls “combined arms” tactics.

These efforts are expected to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive that will be aimed at dislodging Russian troops from territory they seized early in the invasion, which began almost 14 months ago.

In the year since, the countries in the coalition supporting Ukraine have sent $55 billion in weapons, missiles, ammunition, tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine, Mr. Austin said. The United States has sent $35 billion of that amount.

Pentagon officials had initially expressed misgivings about sending the Abrams, citing concerns about how Ukraine would maintain the advanced tanks, which require extensive training and servicing. And officials had said it could take years for them to actually reach Ukrainian battlefields.

But Mr. Austin eventually came around to the view that committing to sending American tanks was necessary to spur Germany to follow with its coveted Leopard 2 tanks. Officials at the State Department and the White House argued that giving Germany the political cover it sought to send its tanks outweighed the Defense Department’s reluctance, the officials said.

And as it turned out, American officials were able to move Abrams tanks to Ukraine faster than expected. Defense officials said they moved quickly to expedite the delivery, and now say that they believe the tanks can be used in combat in a few months.

“I am confident that this equipment, and the training that accompanies it, will put Ukraine’s forces in position to succeed on the battlefield,” Mr. Austin said.

General Milley said the M1 tanks coming to Germany are “training tanks,” so they are not combat ready. But, he added about the eventual weapons heading to Ukraine, “I do think the M1 tank when it’s delivered, will make a difference.”

Anushka Patil contributed reporting.

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