The following proposal is madness. I’ve been told so in no uncertain terms by people knowledgeable of the matter who’s opinions I highly respect. It runs against both the common discourse as well as what the authorities and officials with detailed classified knowledge about the issues at hand has said in their communiques. It also comes with a hefty price tag, and I have no proposal what should be cut in order to make it fit in under an already unhealthy Finnish budget. But with all that said, isn’t it for these kinds of out-of-the-box craziness that non-aligned defence analysts are valued?
As I think most serious defence analysts are in agreement on, the War in Ukraine has shown the value of armoured protection in general and tanks in particular on an increasingly lethal battlefield. As such, it only makes sense that a very valuable kind of support for Ukraine would be tanks. Tanks, like other high-tech systems such as fighters or warships, age, and while older equipment can be both useful and effective, modern equipment is usually significantly more so. Modern tanks also benefit from more readily available spares and munitions. As such, handing Ukraine modern tanks instead of trying to buy up every available T-72 makes sense.
Of the modern tanks available in Western forces today (M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, Ariete, Challenger 2, Leclerc, and K2 Black Panther), most are either high-maintenance and supply intensive (M1 Abrams), available in very limited numbers (Ariete, Challenger 2, K2 Black Panther, Leclerc), or using non-standard munitions (Challenger 2). As such, the Leopard 2 is the obvious choice (the Leopard 1 is a Cold War-relic that isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion on modern tanks, though the Leopard 1 in later versions certainly can take down a T-62 in a fight).
Finland has the Leopard 2 in two different (MBT) versions, the older Leopard 2A4 and the newer Leopard 2A6. As opposed to what some has reported, both are very much in use and occupy a key role in the Finnish wartime forces as the main armoured spearhead (again, a key capability when it comes to throwing out an attacker that has gotten over the border). The exact numbers are somewhat uncertain for the 2A4, as a number of older hulls have been bought for the express purpose of being cannibalized for spares, and a number has been converted to specialised roles such as bridge-layers, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, engineering vehicles, and so forth. However, it is safe to say that the number of operational Leopards in Finnish service sits at roughly 80 Leopard 2A4 and 100 Leopard 2A6.
If European countries start sending Leopards to Ukraine – and by now it is starting to be evident that as with most German red lines, this one will become void at some point – the talk in Finland is that Finland would participate, but that the number of tanks would be very limited and that the support would likely focus on training, spares, and similar support missions. Because Finland “can’t send many tanks“.
And here is where I call a foul. Finland can send a significant number of tanks, but it would be expensive and we would take a national security risk.
The short version is that we could send all Leopard 2A4, which would mean the tank part of an under-strength armoured brigade (your order of battle will vary, in Poland 58 tanks is a battalion, in the US 87 tanks is a brigade). The Leopard 2A4-force was slated for a mid-life upgrade already a decade ago, but that was eventually scrapped due to cost and the opportunity to buy second-hand 2A6NL from the Netherlands at throwaway cost. The word then was that they would replace the 2A4 which we couldn’t afford to upgrade, but as it turns out the Finnish Defence Forces decided to instead double the armoured force.
Here we run into a particular quirk of the Finnish Defence Forces: The Army doesn’t like to talk. This isn’t just restricted to tanks, but in general they don’t discuss their wartime formations, and as such they don’t talk about their plans for the future as that would lead to people getting ideas about the current situation. While I can understand that from an OPSEC-perspective, it also leads to situations of serious questions about civilian and budgetary oversight, and for the Army it is significantly harder to “sell” their needs compared to the Navy or the Air Force who rather clearly communicate their equipment needs (which granted are more straightforward, as the number of platforms and their capabilities are to a certain extent simpler). The Army has a hard time saying “Trust us, anything less than 180 main battle tanks and we’re open for invasion” when we apparently were okay with 100 for quite some time after the T-72s all went to scrapheap and the 2A4 was the sole tank in the fleet.
However, I will go out and say that I agree with the current discourse that a single brigade’s worth of tanks is significantly too few for a country the size of Finland, and even two brigades is a questionable minimum. However, defence budgets are tough, so let’s say we are at the rough equilibrium where we can balance the costs of operating 200 tanks with the combat capability needed. Until someone open up the calculations and capabilities a bit more, that sounds like a reasonable equation. If we send the Leopard 2A4s somewhere else, they would obviously need to be replaced, and for once we have something approaching a reasonable cost-estimate. The Norwegian project to acquire new tanks sport a budget of approximately 1.8 billion Euros (19.3 Bn NOK) for 72 new tanks. Say an even 2 Bn EUR for 80 tanks and a solid replacement on a one-to-one basis for Finland. The original plan for the Norwegian deal was deliveries from 2025, but that would have included contract signing last year, and it is safe to assume delivery times might have gone up a bit. As such, shipping away the Leopards now and at the same time ordering a replacement would leave our tank force cut by ~45% for 5-8 years.
So why would Finland send tanks to Ukraine? Why can’t anyone else do so? The whole point was that the Leopard 2 is in widespread use, right?
Numbers are deceiving, and not all Leopard 2s are the same. The 2A4 is the oldest current version, and is in relatively widespread use, while the 2A6 represent a new standard with among other things a more modern gun. The 2A5 sit in-between the 2A4 and the 2A6, while the 2A7 is significantly more modern and only now really starting to roll off the production lines in any serious numbers. However, not all 2A4s are the same either, as most countries do a certain amount of local changes. This can range from mounting your favourite 7.62 mm machine gun to developing national standards calling for their own designations (looking at you, Swedish Strv 122). The Finnish 2A4 is rather close to the German baseline, sporting new and enlarged storage compartments, modified side skirts, and a number of minor detail changes.
As such, while you can certainly mix and match – in particular as long as you stay with the same version – maintenance and spares will obviously be easier the closer you stick to a single national variant. In other words, taking ten vehicles here and ten vehicles there isn’t necessarily the most efficient way (although vastly better than getting ten Challenger 2 and ten Leopards).
And then the numbers aren’t as overwhelming as some would like to make them out to be. There are twenty countries operating the Leopard 2 (21 if you count UAE and their four Wisent 2 AEVs). If we look at the 2A4, in addition to Finland, Spain, Norway, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Chile, Singapore, Canada, and Indonesia operate the tank in any sizeable numbers. Scratch the countries in Asia and South America, because so far the Ukraine aid has been a decidedly North American and European affair. Then you can remove Greece and Turkey, since neither will part with any armour before it literally is falling into pieces. This leaves Norway, Spain, Poland, Canada, and Finland. Poland and Norway are as much of frontline states as Finland, and while Poland already has shipped serious amounts of tanks to Ukraine the roughly 50 2A4s are the only tanks in Norwegian service. Spain indeed has been interested in sending the tanks, but found them to be in too poor condition to be of use. Canada has 42 used in a training role, so these might be of use.
(You can of course argue that Greece and Turkey should behave and come together for a common cause, but we are looking at realistic options here. Germany industry also has some tanks, but these are in varied status. E.g. Rheinmetall has 22 Leopard 2, which can be delivered by 2024 at the earliest)
Going to the 2A5 and related versions (including modernised 2A4s), we are looking at Switzerland (strictly “neutral”), Sweden (120 tanks of the unique Strv 122 version, sole tank in use), Poland (frontline state), Singapore (in Asia), Canada (just twenty 2A4M), Indonesia (in Asia). For 2A6, we have Germany, Spain, Finland, Greece, Portugal (just 37 tanks), Canada (just twenty tanks), of which Spain has a serious number (219) of their Leopard 2E-version which could provide a serious number. Germany obviously would be the big player, but they are in fact situated at less than 150 tanks currently, and can hardly be expected to be the leader for this project (or generally when it comes to hard security in Europe).
As such, Finland is – while not completely unique – one of the few countries that could send a sizeable number (more than a battalion) of tanks in good condition, of a single configuration, without giving up most or all of our most modern tanks.
The counter-argument is obviously that we aren’t a NATO-member (yet), which makes things tricky. I agree on that, and that is indeed the key question which only the top-diplomats can currently answer – how safe does the current status as applicants make us feel? How much of a risk would we take by halving our tank force for half a decade?
At the same time, there is a number of other issues affecting Finnish security that would support the decision to send tanks. Ukraine’s success on the battlefield has measurably increased Finnish security in that the forces on the other side of the border are getting shot to pieces somewhere else. Similarly, the war dragging on would in itself be destabilising for the region, as a more desperate Russian political leadership might lash out in unexpected actions, or groups or parts of society inside Russia might start acting in ways counter to Finnish interests and security. On the opposite, further Ukrainian success on the battlefield would likely cause yet more Russian forces to leave their garrisons for a battlefield away from our borders. I believe that most of my readers would agree that a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield in the near-future would be the most preferable outcome for Finnish security (and that is from a strictly realist point of view, there certainly is a moral aspect here as well, but that is a more complex question which would require too much space for me to open up in detail in this post).
A key issue for the FDF would be the question of personnel where we suddenly would train half the number of wartime tank battalions for a few years. This would need careful planning to ensure that there are available officers and NCOs with experience once the new tanks are brought into service. But considering the high tempo of operations during recent years and the fact that the 2A4 and 2A6 gun tanks are only one part of an armoured force that include a number of platforms (at the same time, I realise that going from the 2A4 to a MT-LB might not be a career development to everyone’s liking…) it might be possible to work out a reasonable solution to this issue as well.
As mentioned, the Leopard 2A4 are by now approaching a decade since the planned MLU was cancelled, meaning that they will need either a serious upgrade or a replacement within the next five to ten years in either case. As such, the option of shipping them off to secure Finnish interests in another country is not as outrageously expensive compared to what the eventual budget for them will be in either case (2 Bn EUR is still a huge amount). However, there is the issue with the new replacement tank being several years away. Here, it is notable that Finland has likely never been safer since before the Bolsheviks managed to secure power after the Russian civil war, meaning that we possibly have been offered a unique window that allow for the risk-taking required (if indeed the risk of sending them is seen as greater than the risk of Ukraine not getting a brigade worth of Leopards and how that would benefit Finnish security). It is also notable that even if the war ended tomorrow and Russia started rebuilding their forces, missing the officers and NCOs who have been killed or wounded on the battlefield will cause issues for any rebuilding program.
What could be the next steps if those with access to the folders with red stamps on would decide that the risk of sending Leopards would be smaller than the risk of not doing so? The government and leading opposition parties would have to get together (we are close to a parliamentary election, and this kind of radical decision would need broad parliamentary support to survive), and take the decision to prepare the shipment of the Finnish Leopard 2A4 fleet to Ukraine, publicly announcing it to put pressure on Germany to allow for the export, and decide on additional funding outside of the ordinary defence budget to fund the 2 Bn EUR replacement program. Next step would be to call Norway and the suppliers for their program (Hyundai Rotem and KMW), and ask to be let in on the program. In the best of words, we would be able to just rip off the Norwegian evaluation and ask if everyone would be happy to include an option for an additional 80 or so tanks to Finland according to the same terms and conditions of the Norwegian contract in the same way Estonia has tagged along on Finnish buys of radars and artillery (if we talk really nice to the Norwegians, we might even reach some compromises when it comes to delivery slots despite that causing some delays for them. After all, a strong Finnish Defence Force is a good thing for Norwegian security as well). If there is something with the Norwegian requirements we can’t agree to, we might have to run our own procurement competition, but in either case it should offer plenty of valuable experiences from both bidder and buyer points of view to start the discussion with them – ensuring we hit the ground running in a procurement program where speed would be of the essence.
As such, it’s not that Finland can’t deliver a serious number of tanks to Ukraine – it’s that we aren’t prepared to pay the costs and take the risks such a decision would include. And I for one does not know for certain if that is the correct decision or not.