TechEurope races to rearm in response to Russian aggression

Europe races to rearm in response to Russian aggression

K2 tank at a Polish training ground
K2 tank at a Polish training ground
Images source: © Operational Command

8:24 AM EDT, June 1, 2024

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led Europe, particularly countries situated in the former USSR region and its sphere of influence, to intensify efforts in expanding their armed forces. This expansion includes the enhancement of armored weaponry, debunking the long-proclaimed death of the tank as an effective tool of warfare. This proclamation has been announced periodically since around 1918.

In addition to refreshing their arsenal, some countries are replenishing their stocks after supplying weapons to Ukraine. Poland alone has purchased 276 tanks since the war began to replace over 300 previously provided to Ukraine. This is in addition to the 250 M1A2 SEPv3 orders and a framework agreement for K2 tanks, which includes the delivery of another 820 modernized machines that have yet to be ordered. By 2035, Poland could have 1,366 new or used K2/K2PL and Abrams tanks, not including over 200 Leopard 2PL and A5 tanks and possibly some remaining PT-91 Twardy tanks. Other countries in the region have also made similar acquisitions.

Lithuania is buying 55 tanks

The tiny Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—have their own plans in this direction. The Republic of Lithuania, the wealthiest of the trio, has taken the most significant steps toward possessing main battle tanks.

The first concrete information on this topic surfaced over a year ago when the plan to form a division headquarters within the Lithuanian Land Forces was announced. The Lithuanian division would include an armored battalion with about 50 tanks and around 10 support vehicles (technical support vehicles, combat engineer tanks, and assault bridges). According to the March 2023 announcement, the battalion would be part of the "Geležinis Vilkas" (Iron Wolf) Mechanized Brigade.

In January 2024, the State Defense Council announced the selection of the German Leopard 2A8 due to its unification with the Lithuanian Brigade of the Bundeswehr. An obligation was also imposed to initiate negotiations with the manufacturer (KMW, now KNDS Deutschland).

Interestingly, the first rumors about this selection emerged as early as July 2023, but President Gitanas Nausėda insisted on organizing a tender. Political arguments prevailed, and the purchase was realized through intergovernmental negotiations. According to recent information, Lithuania intends to buy 55 tanks (possibly including support vehicles) for the King Mindaugas Hussars Battalion.

Latvia, for now, prioritizes infantry fighting vehicles. Only unofficial announcements suggest the purchase of tanks, but not before 2030. Earlier, Riga did not have the funds for it.

A similar situation exists in Estonia. Introducing a main battle tank into service was considered in the 1990s and again in 2010. The topic was revisited during the war in Ukraine when the Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, General Martin Herem, expressed the need for a tank battalion within the forming division.

Due to a lack of funds, the realization of this task and many others has been postponed until after 2031. Despite increasing defense spending to 3% of GDP, the development of artillery or border fortifications has been considered a higher priority. Nevertheless, Tallinn intends to continue practicing the training of armored officers to facilitate cooperation with more heavily armed allies.

The Czechs are arming themselves massively

Many developments are occurring south of Poland. The Czechs and Slovaks have received a company of old Leopard 2A4 tanks from Germany in exchange for the weapons supplied to Ukraine as part of the so-called Ringtausch exchange. The Czechs intend to go a step further in two ways.

Prague has identified the Leopard 2A8 as the future tank of the 73rd Armored Battalion of the 7th Mechanized Brigade. According to a decision made about a year ago, the battalion will undergo restructuring. Instead of 31 T-72M1/M4CZ tanks, it will likely have 58 Leopard 2 tanks. Additionally, it will receive 77 vehicles, some of which will be support vehicles.

The Czech arms industry can expect to participate in the later servicing and production of vehicles, even with such a small order. Negotiations are underway, similar to the second method of expanding armored equipment. In addition to the 14 Leopard 2A4 tanks already possessed, if the talks between Berlin and Prague succeed, an equal number of vehicles will be added under the Ringtausch mechanism. A third identical batch of vehicles the Czech Republic could buy from Rheinmetall is also being considered. The Czechs could have 122 Leopard 2A4/A8 tanks and support vehicles.

Slovakia received 15 Leopard 2A4 tanks from Germany, which allowed the enlargement of the 14th Tank Battalion (2nd Mechanized Brigade) from 30 to 45 vehicles (the rest are even older T-72M1 tanks). Slovakia had planned to buy new tanks even before the war, announcing in 2021 a plan to purchase 32 tanks and 17 assault bridges for various units, probably including specialist variants.

According to the latest plans announced in mid-May, Slovakia intends to have two armored battalions with 52 "tanks" each, although this number almost certainly includes specialist vehicles. Ultimately, Slovakia would have 119 tanks (and specialist vehicles?) in two battalions plus training and reserve units. It is not yet known which tanks Slovakia will buy, but the K2, Leopard 2A8, and M1A2 SEPv3 are most likely under consideration. A decision should be made soon, as Bratislava aims to sign the contract at the latest by the end of next year. It is also not known where the second tank battalion will be deployed.

Hungary bought new tanks: 44 Leopard 2A7HU, 12 used Leopard 2A4 tanks, five WZT WiSENT 2, and three LEGUAN assault bridges back in 2018, with the first new vehicles received in December 2023. They entered the armament of the 11th Tank Battalion of the 1st Armored Brigade "György Klapka." It is possible that this is not the end of Hungary's acquisitions, as the joint venture Rheinmetall Hungary is set to produce the KF51 Panther EVO tank (a vehicle derived from the Leopard 2 but with futuristic solutions). Hungary co-financed the tank's development with 288 million euros (311 million dollars).

Bulgaria modernized the T-72M1

In November 2023, Romania received approval from the U.S. Department of State to purchase 54 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks and 12 accompanying vehicles (four each of M88A2 HERCULES technical support vehicles, M1110 JAB assault bridges, and M1150 ABV engineering vehicles), spare parts, and other essentials. This will allow the rearming of one tank battalion. The total value of the package is 2.5 billion dollars, but the Romanian parliament approved signing a contract worth significantly less, approximately 1.07 billion dollars.

It remains to be seen what Romania will withdraw; negotiations on the agreement are ongoing. Additionally, Bucharest plans to purchase 250-300 tanks (four to six battalions), probably from the Hyundai Rotem Company K2 series. Romania is interested in a technology transfer that would include at least maintenance and, preferably, participation in their production.

If the purchase goes through, the recently showcased K2 tank at the 2nd Smârdan Combat Training Center in Galați County could replace the aging TR-85-800/TR-85M1 and T-55 AM/AM2 tanks. Any dependencies between Polish and Romanian purchases are unknown.

Bulgaria has so far only focused on modernizing its T-72M1 tanks in cooperation with the domestic company Terem and Israel's Elbit Systems. 44 tanks received upgrades, including a modern fire control system and advanced communication tools. Before the war, it was planned to replace the T-72 post-2030. However, in November 2022, the Bulgarian parliament approved a plan to provide Ukraine with weapons from its stocks, contingent upon third countries supporting the modernization of the Bulgarian army.

Interestingly, the voting outcome was contrary to the recommendations of President Rumen Radev and Defense Minister Dimitar Stoyanov. However, Bulgaria has not yet received any German or American equipment as part of aid, and it is possible that formal attempts to obtain such assistance have not been made.

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