How mobile bridges can help in Ukraine

On March 3, the Ministry of Defense announced that it would send mobile bridges to Ukraine. The bridges are the distinctive part of the Pentagon’s 33rd offering of existing US equipment to supply Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February 2022. These bridge-capable vehicles, along with the other equipment being sent, reflect the shape of the war and offer a glimpse of the tools the Biden administration expects Ukraine will need in the coming spring thaw.

An Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge (AVLB) is essentially a portable and permanent structure that is supported, placed and then removed by a modified armored hull. The special armored bridges sent to Ukraine are based on an M60 tank chassis, our colleagues at The War Zone report.

Rivers, canyons, and deep gaps in terrain can create impassable barriers for militaries, allowing defenders to concentrate their forces at existing bridges or crossings. Crossing such a gap may require flying to the other side, although this depends on an air transport force capable of massive movement and a cleared landing zone. It could mean physically building a new bridge, which can take time and is vulnerable to attack. Or it could mean taking the bridge onto the battlefield on the back of a tank and lowering it when needed.

‚ÄúThese vehicles were designed to escort armored columns and allow them to cross rivers, streams, ditches and trenches. The bridges are carried on the chassis of armored vehicles and are launched on river or creek banks. Once the crossing is complete, the vehicle can pick up the bridge on the other bank and continue,” the Department of Defense said in a press release about the latest drop.

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The exact number and model of AVLBs sent to Ukraine are not yet known, although the general family is M60 or derived from the M60 Patton tank. This makes the models of a specific vintage of the Cold War, designed for the lighter armored vehicles and tanks of that era. Variants of the M60 AVLB saw service in Vietnam and were used in training exercises with NATO and in wars such as Iraq.

The bridges are stored folded in half. When erected from the vehicle, the bridges span 60 feet, can support up to 70 tons, and are 12.5 feet wide. Raising the bridge takes between 2 and 5 minutes and retrieving the bridge, which can be done at either end, takes around 10 minutes.

Some heavier vehicles, including modern main battle tanks, can only use the bridge at slower speeds and through narrower gaps. The US Army and Marine Corps are working on a new bridge and launch vehicle capable of supporting Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams Tanks to better meet the needs of the US military.

Even with limitations, the bridges will expand how and where Ukrainian forces can operate and move. Being able to quickly span a narrow but otherwise impassable river dramatically expands how and where an army can move and attack, and creates room for surprise.

Additionally, the drawdown package announcement notes that the US is sending Ukraine “explosive ammunition and obstacle-clearing equipment,” which can allow for both cleaner retreats and surprise advances. War leaves battlefields littered with craters, ruins, unexploded bombs and intentionally laid mines. Blasting a path through such hazards can restore movement to otherwise frozen forces.

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In addition to the bridges and demolition equipment, the latest drawdown includes three types of artillery ammunition. The HIMARS missile artillery systems, invaluable to Ukraine’s autumn offensives, will be replenished with more missiles. The United States also supplies Ukraine with 155mm and 105mm howitzer artillery shells donated to the country by US and NATO allies. These guns use different ammunition than stocks inherited from the Soviet Union, which made up the bulk of Ukrainian artillery before the war and still make up the overall majority of artillery pieces today. But supplies of Soviet-style ammunition are scarce, also being the size used by Russia, and Russia has been aggressively buying up existing stockpiles of the cartridges around the world.

The fourth type of ammunition included in the drawdown is 25mm or the type used by Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. This tracked, artillery, and armored vehicle is more of a combat transport than a tank, despite its looks, but its 25mm guns are useful against all types of vehicles beneath a tank’s heavy armor. The package also includes tools for maintenance, vehicle testing and diagnostics, parts and other less conspicuous but still invaluable work to ensure vehicles remain functional, or at least can be repaired and quickly back in service.

Overall, the recent equipment pick-up this year fits the pattern of shipments to Ukraine. U.S. supplies continue to give Ukraine the tools to conduct existing artillery duels along grueling front lines and build up the armored forces and support facilities such as moveable bridges needed for a future offensive.

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