The tanks are on their way to Ukraine. Among these tanks, the U.S. is providing 31 M1 Abram Tanks. If used properly, tanks are effective on the battlefield, especially with tactical air support. The Soviets style of blitzkrieg named deep operations was a prime example of using tanks and air support to great success. The Soviets used air power to wear down the enemy’s reserves and used tanks to blast through an enemy’s defenses. Given the effectiveness of tanks supported with air power, it is no surprise the Ukrainian government continues to request F-16 fighter jets from the U.S.
However, there are two main problems with sending the Ukrainians tanks and aircraft. First, it is not clear if the Ukrainian military will be able to use these tools effectively. As Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis makes clear, Abrams tanks typically require years of training in order to operate effectively on the battlefield. Additionally, as Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Amy Mackinnon state in their article, the Abrams tank requires a long line of logistics and supplies. These long logistical lines would be vulnerable to Russian missile attacks.
Washington should also consider the increased likelihood of Russia escalating the conflict. Tanks are effective for taking and controlling territory. They are perceived as offensive weapons. As Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe recently wrote for RAND, Russia possesses limited conventional options, leaving the Russian military with the increasing likelihood of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield. If Russia perceives Ukraine on the offensive into areas like Crimea, the likelihood of Russia using tactical nukes rises exponentially.
Strategy and operations require prudently playing the cards you are dealt. Sending tanks and aircraft to Ukraine is not a wise option. Another form of strategy is in order. A strategy of attrition would be a more sound answer. Attrition would not rely on large military equipment. Instead, light infantry – an asset Ukraine already possesses – would be sufficient for fighting this type of war. With an increased reliance on light infantry, NATO would be able to send cheaper weapons to the Ukrainians, such as Javelins. Ukrainian troops know their territory better than the Russians do, allowing their light infantry to disperse, cover, disrupt Russian logistical lines, and maneuver throughout Ukrainian held territory.
An attrition strategy would also be viewed as more defensive in nature. Ukraine would use it to solidify territory it currently possesses. This would minimize the likelihood of escalation in this conflict. This lessened risk of escalation and cheaper war equipment would make it much easier for the U.S. to convince the likes of France and Germany to send more weapons to Ukraine, and shift the burden of European defense to the Europeans.
Moreover, an attrition strategy would take advantage of another important asset the Ukrainians already possess: the will to fight. It is clear that many Russian soldiers do not want to fight against the Ukrainians. Given this, it is also likely that many Russian civilians are not enthusiastic about fighting a war in Ukraine. As Jasen Castillo states in his book, Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion, wars of attrition degrade the will to fight of militaries. It would seem in a war of attrition that Russia’s will to fight would degrade before Ukraine’s, potentially luring the parties to the negotiating table.
History proves that attrition warfare can be effective. Field Marshal Leopold Joseph von Daun used attrition warfare to help him thwart none other than Frederick the Great. As Richard Bassett explains in his book, For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army, Daun used caution in his campaigns against Frederick, resulting in the steady degradation of Prussian troops’ will to fight. George Washington also employed attrition warfare during the American Revolutionary War. As everyone knows, it was the U.S. which won this war against the British, showing Washington’s attrition strategy to be a success. What all these cases prove is that victory can be achieved without decisive combat.
In sum, the operational goal attrition would be to avoid direct front line attacks, and crush Russia’s will to fight by inflicting as many casualties as possible. Some might say this is a crude assessment and a cruel strategy. What, then, are the other options? Neither party wants to come to the negotiating table as of yet. The U.S. and its NATO allies also are intent on continuing to support Ukraine in this war. Again, what are the other options in this war? Giving Ukraine tanks and fighter jets at risk of Russia using nuclear weapons? Or perhaps NATO would prefer providing Ukraine tanks and fighter jets at risk of them being incapable of using them effectively on the battlefield, leaving them for slaughter?
The best option, of course, would involve Ukraine and Russia coming to the negotiating table sooner rather than later with U.S. and NATO encouragement. Alas, such an option is probably too simple and not bloodthirsty enough for this world. One can hope otherwise. As William Tecumseh Sherman states, “War is hell.” In this war, Russians, Ukrainians, and NATO members must decide what is worth going to hell over.
Benjamin Giltner is a Contributing Fellow at Defense Priorities.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.