Ukraine’s Big Rigs Haul Damaged Tanks Away From The Battlefield—So They Can Get Fixed Up And Fight Again

Both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war are losing a lot of tanks. Just one side seems to be working out a reliable system for recovering and repairing damaged and immobilized tanks. The Ukrainians.

Ukraine’s evolving tank recovery and transportation system is evident in a striking photo that appeared on social media on Wednesday. It depicts an American-made, Ukrainian-operated M1070 heavy equipment transporter—in essence, a military-grade heavy flatbed—hauling a captured Russian T-90M tank away from the front.

The Ukrainian army has 14 M1070s and is getting a 15th. Germany donated most of the 40-wheel truck-trailer combinations. A two-crew M1070 weighs around 20 tons with its trailer and can haul at least 70 tons. That’s the weight of an American M-1A2 tank.

The M1070s and other heavy equipment transporters work in concert with tracked, armored recovery vehicles. An ARV rolls onto an active battlefield to winch a knocked-out tank and tow it to the safety of the battalion rear area. There, crews winch the damaged tank onto a HET, which then hauls it, by road, to a depot for repairs.

Once a tank is all fixed-up, the same HET can haul it back to its battalion.

To be clear, the Russians also use armored recovery vehicles and heavy equipment transporters. But seemingly less often and less elegantly. The Russian army disbanded its existing HET regiments shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the absence of HET regiments, the job of recovering derelict tanks apparently fell to the maintenance battalions of front-line brigades. A brigade’s maintenance battalion should have both ARVs and trucks, but it’s not clear they have the biggest HETs.

It’s possible the Russian army’s 10 support brigades operated a few HETs. It’s also possible a lack of coordination between maintenance battalions (which belong to combat formations) and maintenance brigades (which don’t) meant that, in practice, units struggled to access these few HETs when they most needed them.

In any event, it’s apparent that, for many years, the Russian army lacked a robust, road-based tank-transportation system. That might have something to do with the many thousands of tanks at the Russians’ disposal. It’s not enormously important to recover every damaged tank when losses are light and there are thousands more tanks in reserve.

Of course, Russian losses in the current war aren’t light. And the Kremlin quickly is depleting its equipment reserves.

Someone seems to have anticipated the current crisis. In 2017, the Russian army began forming new HET regiments and equipping them with 600 KamAZ-65225 trucks. The 11-ton KamAZ-65225 can haul a 65-ton load. That’s more than enough to handle a 45-ton T-72, T-80 or T-90 tank.

It’s unclear how many of the new KamAZ-65225s were in service when Russia widened its war on Ukraine in February 2022. There’s scant evidence of the new HETs operating near the front line in Ukraine and southern Russia. At least one suffered some damage in a Ukrainian drone attack.

It’s no easier to find evidence of older MAZ-537 heavy trucks in Russian service in and around Ukraine. There is, however, a video making the rounds depicting a Ukrainian armored tractor towing a mudbound Ukrainian MAZ-537 that itself is hauling a captured Russian T-72.

The Russians’ 2017 HET reform may have been too little, too late. The tally of Russian losses speaks to a lack of heavy equipment transporters in Russian service. The Russians have abandoned in Ukraine nearly 3,200 tanks, fighting vehicles, howitzers and other heavy weapons.

The Ukrainians, by contrast, have abandoned fewer than a thousand heavy vehicles. And the Ukrainian army is working hard to expand its ARV and HET inventory. In addition to getting HETs and ARVs from Germany and the United States, Ukraine is building custom recovery vehicles on the hulls of captured Russian T-62 tanks.

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