Germany’s defence minister on Wednesday showed off the tanks Berlin is preparing to send to Kyiv, but recognised a “bitter loss” for the under-equipped Bundeswehr.
The arms delivery announced last week by Germany was necessary so the “Ukrainians win the war”, Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on a visit to army barracks in northwestern Augustdorf.
But for the roughly 550 soldiers in the battalion stationed in the town, the loss of 14 of their Leopard 2 tanks would be felt keenly, Pistorius said.
“Their hearts bleed at the idea that these tanks have to be given up, but they understand that is the way it is. Ukraine needs all the support we can give it,” he said.
Pistorius said he had “two hearts” in his chest, taking account of the needs of both the German and Ukrainian armies.
Germany, which long stalled over the decision to send tanks to Ukraine, now aims to deliver them “late March, early April” as part of a alliance of countries willing to supply “between 120 and 140” units, according to officials in Kyiv.
– ‘Only way’ –
Before they can be employed on the battlefield, Ukrainian soldiers must first learn how to use and maintain some of the most modern tanks in the world.
Their intensive training will begin in the next few days in Germany, Pistorius said.
“It will not be the full training that we have for our soldiers but that’s the only way,” the minister said.
Wearing a camouflage jacket, Pistorius himself went out in one of the Leopard 2 tanks which criss-crossed the muddy training field.
The Ukrainian soldiers’ instruction will take place in at the Bundeswehr’s training centre in Munster, northern Germany, where their colleagues are already learning to use the Marder infantry fighting vehicle.
The course will take around six weeks to complete, according to a source close to the German army.
Normally, the training period for the four-person team in the Leopard 2 is much longer. “Six weeks for the pilot, three months for the one who fires the shells and the one who loads them, and three years for the commander,” Martin Waltemathe, a spokesman for the Augustdorf brigade, told AFP.
– New orders –
“Driving is pretty simple,” according to Waltemathe. Steering the tank is “intuitive like an iPhone”, according to another military source.
The vehicle maintenance and repairs can however be more “problematic”, per Waltemathe, who holds the rank of captain. Six years are usually needed to become well-versed in its upkeep.
The defence ministry has promised to replace the Ukraine-bound Leopards as quickly as possible. In all, the Bundeswehr has 320 Leopard 2 tanks, the most modern version in use since the 1970s.
Procuring new units “takes time”, Pistorius said, but the aim was to get orders in “quickly, so that the production can start”.
Reequipping the Bundeswehr is a top priority for the defence minister, who was appointed in January.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz in September vowed to transform the country’s military into the “best equipped” in Europe. But years of underinvestment have left a huge hill to climb for the Bundeswehr.