Forbes | by David Axe | January 15, 2023
Just two weeks after the administration of U.S. president Joe Biden announced it would donate 50 M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles, a Ukrainian army brigade has begun training on the vehicles.
And not just any brigade—the 47th Assault Brigade. A new, all-volunteer unit that’s hastening the Ukrainian army’s evolution into a NATO-style force. Not just with the M-2s, but also American rifles and ex-Slovenian tanks armed with British guns.
A video purporting to depict 47th Assault Brigade troopers inside an M-2 circulated on social media on Sunday. The troopers apparently have traveled to the U.S. Army’s training range in Grafenwoehr, Germany in order to learn how to operate the 25-ton vehicle.
The version of the M-2 that the United States is donating to Ukraine isn’t the latest version. No, it’s the variant of the infantry fighting vehicle the U.S. Army developed in the aftermath of the 1991 war with Iraq. The Operation Desert Storm, or ODS, variant of the M-2 by now is a 30-year-old vehicle. But its age belies its effectiveness.
The three-person M-2 hauls a six-person infantry team into battle, protects the infantry as they dismount then supports them with its 25-millimeter autocannon and TOW anti-tank missiles that the crew steers via wires that unspool from the missiles’ rears.
After the ‘91 war, the U.S. Army upgraded its thousands of M-2s to the M-2A2 ODS standard, which added a laser rangefinder and GPS and boosted the vehicle’s anti-tank firepower by installing racks for shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles. The Javelin boasts an infrared seeker rather than wire guidance, like the TOW has.
Now an M-2 crew and its dismounted infantry team both could shoot missiles at enemy tanks, each relying on a different form of missile guidance. The ODS modifications made the M-2 a somewhat better infantry-carrier—and a much better anti-tank platform.
In service with the Kharkiv-based 47th Assault Brigade, Bradleys could become the missile half of gun-missile tank-killer teams. The brigade’s 28 super-upgraded M-55S tanks, which Slovenia donated last fall, provide the guns.
The 47th Assault Brigade is a young unit—and unique in the Ukrainian order of battle. It’s an entirely volunteer formation—no conscripts—and reportedly leans heavily on its non-commissioned officers, like brigades in NATO armies do.
The 47th Assault Brigade also possesses a greater proportion of NATO-style weaponry than other Ukrainian brigades do. Brigade troopers carry American M-16 rifles and M-203 grenade-launchers rather than the AK-47-style rifles that most Ukrainian troops carry.
The M-55S itself is a hybrid: a 36-ton, Soviet-designed T-55 tank hull with Israeli subsystems and a British-made, 105-millimeter L7 main gun firing NATO-standard ammunition.
The M-55S can hit enemy tanks as far away as 4,400 yards, depending of course on the ammunition type it’s firing. The M-2’s turret-mounted TOW missiles meanwhile can hit tanks from 3,800 yards away. The infantry in the M-2 can dismount and shoot Javelin missiles as far as 4,000 yards.
In short, combined-arms teams mixing tanks and fighting vehicles with NATO-type guns and missiles can strike at enemy armor three different ways from around 4,000 yards. That’s a thousand yards farther than a Russian T-72 tank can fire anti-tank shells from its 125-millimeter 2A46 main gun.
Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general who early in his career commanded a Bradley crew, stressed the benefits of this range mismatch. The M-2 and other new vehicle types Ukraine is getting from its NATO allies “will allow Ukraine’s emerging combined-arms teams to conduct high-tempo maneuver,” Hertling tweeted.
That’s especially true in southern Ukraine, Hertling added. There, the terrain is flat and mostly devoid of trees—and there are few ways for armored vehicles to hide. Since both armies can see each other coming from miles away, the army that shoots farther has the advantage.
It’s been conventional wisdom since late last year that the Ukrainians are hoping to launch a new southern counteroffensive along the Zaporizhzhia sector—a counteroffensive that could isolate tens of thousands of Russian troops on the left bank of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.
But the 47th Assault Brigade at present is in Kharkiv Oblast, in northeastern Ukraine near the border with Russia. The Kremlin for months has threatened to re-invade Ukraine from the north—in essence, repeating its initial strategy from Februay 2022.
That strategy failed, of course. After six weeks of hard fighting ending in April, the overextended Russian army retreated from north-central Ukraine. A few months later last fall, the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that ejected the Russians from the northeast, as well.
It very well could be folly for the Russian army to repeat its northern gambit. But the Ukrainian general staff isn’t taking chances. It has shifted forces northward—forces that apparently will include the 47th Assault Brigade with its M-55Ss and M-2s. While the brigade with its long-range, anti-tank firepower might be best-suited for operations in the wide—open south, for now it seems set to man defensive positions in the heavily-forested northeast.
If in coming weeks and months there are signs of the 47th Assault Brigade redeploying southward, it could mean the Ukrainian army is reshuffling its brigades in order to position its farthest-shooting formations for a new southern counteroffensive.
That said, it’s possible those 50 M-2s the United States so far has pledged are just the first of many. That is to say, it’s possible more Ukrainian brigades soon could get Bradleys of their own. Including brigades that already are in the south.