NATO forces put tanks through their paces, as Ukraine pins its hopes on Western-supplied armor
In the distance there are gunshots, a heavy blanket of snow muffling the sound, confusing the senses – how far away and which direction, impossible to know.
Inside their German-made Leopard 2 tanks, Danish soldiers wait to pounce on their prey, an “enemy” force hiding in a warren of trenches deep in the freezing Estonian forest.
Before they leap into action in this NATO military exercise, just 100 miles from the Russian border, French and Estonian infantry open up a ferocious fusillade of fake gunfire, duking it out for control of the trenches in almost hand-to-hand fighting.
Troops fall to the ground amid thunderous simulated artillery explosions, as exercise officials bellow who is dead, who is injured.
The annual NATO winter military exercise is intended to gel the multinational soldiers – this year comprising Estonian, French, British, Danish and US troops – into a singular fighting force able to take enemy territory even in the bone-chilling cold.
Amid the trees, the message for Russian President Vladimir Putin is clear: NATO’s high-tech forces are ready for action. There are lessons here for the Ukrainians, too, whose training on Leopard 2 tanks began Monday in Germany.
The commander of the Danish contingent, Major Rasmus Jensen, a war-wounded veteran of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, has a wealth of hard-won experience to ensure his soldiers are prepared. “They have to be able to fight when we want them to fight,” he says.
His mission here: to help shape up Denmark’s new Leopard teams to fight alongside infantry in “combined arms fire” – tanks, infantry, artillery and other elements cooperating seamlessly – a skill the Ukrainians must master too.
His government has yet to join other allies of Ukraine, like Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Canada, in promising Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv, but Jensen has plenty of insights to offer. First and foremost: don’t expect immediate battlefield gains with the Leopard 2s.
The Danish military can train up a Leopard 2 driver or gunner in two weeks, he says, but to get one crew working as a four-man team “will take about two months,” and to get them working as a squadron of 14 tanks and support vehicles can take years.
“We trained our crews out for about two years” before deploying Leopard 2s to Helmand province in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, Jensen notes.
The Ukrainians want results faster. They want the tanks to be an “iron first” to punch through Russian lines and retake territory. Jensen’s tanks are that “fist” in the NATO exercise.
As the French infantry overrun the Estonian trenches in Sunday’s exercise, Jensen’s tanks get called forward.
Growling into action, the 60-ton beasts rip along the forest track, spewing snow from their tracks, racing past the trenches further into enemy territory.
Weaving through the ice-clad pines, the Leopard 2’s agility is its advantage. Not just nimble, but versatile also, able to reverse at speed – a key advantage for shoot-and-scoot tank tactics.
“We’ve got a great rear-view mirror camera that allows me to go backwards in a really high pace of speed with precision,” a Leopard driver who gave his name only as Mads told CNN. Even his seat is special, he says, “almost like a swing, so it takes all the cushioning from the rough terrain when we drive over it.”
According to Jensen, that high-speed reverse gives the Leopard 2 a huge advantage over Russian tanks whose “reverse gears are much, much slower than their forward drive.” In urban warfare, as amid the icy Estonian forests, its agility is valuable.
A Danish tank squadron commander, who gave his name only as Stefan, is confident Ukrainians are getting the best available in the Leopard 2. “It has a nice, decent amount of armor, nice firepower and good tank mobility. And it’s the balance between these three things that that make a good tank,” he tells CNN from his command post. “That makes the Leopard, at least I would say, one of the best main battle tanks in the world,” the major adds.
Of the 44 tanks on the exercise, two-thirds are British Challenger 2. Machines similar to these will also soon be headed to the hands of Ukrainian troops.
Major Nick Bridges, deputy commander of the UK forces on the 1,500-man, 500-vehicle exercise, has drawn lessons from the Estonia exercise for the Ukrainians. “Their biggest challenge will be communications” between the Leopard and Challenger tanks, he says.
Of the two tanks, the Leopards are faster and lighter, he says, while the Challenger is better protected thanks to heavier armor. But both are vastly superior to Russian tanks, he says, adding: “Both can do gunfights at night and they’ve got hunter-killer capabilities as well. So, they can engage a target while looking for the next target.”
Everyone speaks about “the demise of the tank,” he says, but in the hands of Ukrainians he says they could be devastating. “They are not there to take on other tanks, but to destroy other vehicles,” he explains. They’ll “make short work of an infantry company or vehicle convoy,” he adds.
Yet there will still be hurdles. Drones have become the big danger in Ukraine, Jensen says, and “you can’t hide on the battlefield.” Although drones are playing a part in the NATO exercise, the tanks have yet to fully adapt to the new battlefield environment, he says. “Tanks can’t look straight up,” he adds.
Bridges, too, sounds a note of caution. A squadron of 14 British Challenger 2 tanks typically has several engineering support vehicles to help with breakdowns. His engineer crews can switch out “the pack,” the several-ton engine and gear box, “in about an hour at base, and a little longer in the forest.” These are capacity and skills Ukraine will need to build.
For the Ukrainians, the tanks can’t come soon enough. Estonia’s Defense Minster, Hanno Pevkur, watching the NATO exercise, worries that a Russian new push is imminent, in the “coming months or coming weeks even,” he tells CNN.
Stefan, the Danish tank squadron commander, is confident that when the Leopards do get to Ukraine’s front line, like the cavalry coming to the rescue, they’ll be decisive. “Think of them as sort of like the armored knights of the medieval times, riding into battle and breaking enemy lines,” he says.