Abrams To Ukraine: Pros and Cons

(photo courtesy defense.gov)

There are general arguments with respect to whether the United States ought to be supplying Ukraine with weapons of war during their present conflict with Russia. Moral purists will even argue, and not without justification, that a proverbially free democracy like the U.S.A. should not be in the business of weapons supply at all, even with close allies. Libertarians say that it’s unreasonable to engage in any overseas warfare whatsoever for any reason but self defense. Finally, there are specific objections to permitting the Abrams to be deployed on any modern battlefield where the vital interests of the United States are not at issue.

Much of this can be simplified to the single question: Does the United States have any reason at all for involvement with the Ukraine war?

There are pro-Russian partisans who would advance many arguments against involvement; their bias is evident, and their arguments can safely be ignored: If the same point can be levied against Russia, it’s comparatively irrelevant. Those who are anti-war in general have yet to demonstrate how peace can be achieved without force; while admirable, there’s no practical weight to their perspective despite its obvious moral superiority. Further, some would point out that America has failed to involve itself with the widespread sympathetic protests in Iran, Myanmar, and central Africa while abandoning Afghanistan to a terribly oppressive regime — which is a correct, if limited, observation, but in no wise directly bears on the question at hand.

Instead, for a general justification, we’re compelled to examine only if the national interests of the United States are endangered, and can potentially be served by supporting one side, the other, or potentially even both. That’s a severely low bar; American interests are broad, and Ukraine has significant strategic, logistical, and economic importance. Examined in this light, there is no way to reject American involvement.

Given that the United States can justify involvement, should it sell weapons?

“I suppose we could put a government health warning on the rifle butts: ‘This gun can seriously damage your health.'”

Sir Humphrey Appleby, “Yes, Minister: The Whisky Priest”

It is axiomatic that, if one is in the business of selling weapons, they will eventually end up in the hands of people with the money to buy them and the will to use them. Once they leave the factory, there’s a limited amount of control that can be exerted; once they leave the country, there’s almost none. This was admirably demonstrated in the U.S. military’s evacuation from Afghanistan; top-end military gear ended up not just with the Taliban, but also with Iran and Russia.

The sale of weapons does generate income, and supports the American arms industry in specific and the economy in general. Moreover, each sale represents future influence in terms of ammunition sales, parts for repairs, and replacements; anyone wishing to use even low-tech weapons systems in war will need to remain on sufficiently good terms with the supplier to engage in future deals. These are extremely compelling justifications.

Militating against this is the following caveat: that top-end military weapons have an advantage only due to their technological superiority. We wouldn’t sell the Abrams to Russia because they’re competitors in weapons manufacture; they would purchase it not to use but instead to find weaknesses and design exploits. Similarly, we might well wish to avoid supplying the Abrams to a combat opponent of Russia for the same reason; after all, what is a battlefield if not the ultimate testing crucible?

So much for sales. However, it must be acknowledged that much of the aid sent to Ukraine is not in the form of loans but actual direct costs or even gifts, such as direct personnel allocation, transport, training, and ammunition. The profit motive alone is therefore insufficient; instead, the question comes down to whether the potential influence gained is worth the price of making the Abrams system available for Russian examination.

While the Marine version of the Abrams system was indeed deployed in Helmand province, there’s little reason to suspect that any were left behind. Only those few units disabled and then destroyed could (and probably did) fall into the hands of Russian analysts. Thus, there’s legitimate reason to oppose these sales.

However, the Army is presently engaged in testing prototype M1A2 SEPv4 Abrams builds, which will begin entering service as soon as 2025. Ukrainian sales will be of earlier-generation Abrams vehicles, of which the Army presently has a vast surplus; there’s nobody considering an export that includes even the current top-line Abrams. If the technological differences are truly that great, the risks would appear to be minimal.

As such, we are compelled to conclude that doing this would not be against American interests. It is justifiable under our present policy status.

This is not to say that we’re in favor; ideally, TNFN takes the position that involvement in foreign wars is to be avoided, if only because it’s expensive in terms of both money and lives. There’s always a substantial risk in engaging in a proxy war with a nuclear power. There are also compelling reasons to avoid closer association with the government of Ukraine. Finally, it’s axiomatic that war is an evil to be avoided if at all possible.

But that’s not the question.

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