Challenger and Abrams tanks will excel in Ukraine after decades in Iraq's ‘harsh deserts'

Veterans recall how they kept their tanks running through sand storms and desert battles in Iraq but say they're confident the donated equipment will outperform in muddy Europe

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The tanks Nato countries have now agreed to send to Ukraine may have spent three decades being battle-tested in the hot, harsh and rugged environments of the Middle East but they were designed precisely for the battlefields they will soon be facing in Europe.

Veterans tell The National the vehicles excelled in Iraq and Afghanistan but will prove vital for Ukraine, being designed for high-intensity war against Soviet-era armour in Europe's muddy, semi-built up and wooded environments.

On Wednesday, Germany agreed to send more than 100 Leopard 2 battle tanks, some of the best in the world, as the US looked at sending 31 M1 Abrams tanks.

It comes after the UK said it would send its Challenger II main battle tank as western states make the latest donations of top-of-the-range equipment.

The deal comes after weeks of wrangling that highlighted splits between Ukraine’s Nato allies.

Tanks back on home turf after desert modifications

“They were adapted to the Middle East but were designed for combat in Europe, back in the '70s and '80s,” said Craig Whiteside, who commanded Bradley Fighting Vehicles for the US military in the 1990s, which were designed to operate alongside the US's fearsome M1 Abrams. Now an associate professor at the US Naval War College, he also served in Iraq.

Alongside the donation of tanks, the US is also sending 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

A soldier walks past a line of M1 Abrams tanks in 2016, in Colorado Springs. AP

A veteran Challenger II commander, who has since worked with the British government and chose to remain anonymous, said the tanks may outdo their excellent track record when sent to Ukraine.

“The Challenger II was built for a north-west Europe specification and I wouldn't anticipate any environmental issues with its operation. If anything, the environment might provide a better combat performance automotive than many [Middle East and North African] theatres,” he said.

In pictures: Nato equipment in Ukraine

Harsh desert conditions mean a lot of maintenance challenges from dust and sand, which forms an abrasive paste with vehicle lubricant, clogs up moving parts and can hinder night vision devices in thick dust storms.

These conditions briefly halted the US armoured drive to Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite many tanks being fitted with infrared vision devices which can see through sandstorms.

“Challengers weren't designed to work in the desert and they had quite a lot of problems because of the dust clogging up the air filters on the engines and that's why they got a bit of a bad name for reliability,” said Col Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, who commanded Challenger I tanks during the first Gulf war, and later Challenger 2s in peacetime.

“The desert is a really difficult place for armoured vehicles to work in. And actually, the sand, you know, is almost worse than the mud for driving and you can very easily get bogged down,” he added.

Mr Whiteside said the US M1 Abrams will also probably run more smoothly in Ukraine.

“People were always very worried about the Abrams with its turbine engine in the sands of the desert, and it turned out to work exceptionally well, it just had to change filters a lot.”

Bradleys and Abrams bring the speed

American soldiers drive a Bradley fighting vehicle during a joint exercise with Syrian Democratic Forces in north-eastern Syria, in December 2021.  AP

As well as maintenance, the Nato systems also bring capabilities the Ukrainians need to have the edge over Russian forces.

Mr Whiteside said the infantry carrying Bradley has excellent all-round visibility from five periscopes and powerful thermal imagery devices ― which many Russian armoured vehicles lack.

This proved its worth in bloody urban battles such as Fallujah in Iraq and could prove useful for Ukraine, with potential looming urban battles in cities such as Melitopol.

The Bradley was designed to keep up with the remarkably fast M1 Abrams with a top speed of 72 kph giving users a speed advantage.

In deployments in Kuwait, they covered “hundreds of kilometres a day. And it was ridiculous, just how fast we could go,” he said.

“The Bradley was originally designed to complement the Abrams and allow it to have infantry because tanks without infantry, as the Russians clearly demonstrated early in the conflict, means leaving a tank out on its own and vulnerable to a single trained soldier with a light anti-tank weapon that can take it out from behind. We saw video after video of these Russian tanks getting killed because they weren't using combined arms tactics, which is a mix of infantry to protect the tanks and then the shock power of a tank on the attack,” Mr Whiteside added.

Even without these new systems, Ukraine’s military has shown it can employ speed to stun and overwhelm Russian lines.

In less than a week in September, Ukrainian forces regained 6,000 square kilometres of terrain, indicating they are able to make lighting advances, even without top western military equipment.

Updated: January 26, 2023, 8:17 AM