“The enveloping (maneuver) is very good, but what if there are mines?” the Spanish instructor warns his Ukrainian students during the talk prior to the exercise that they are going to carry out this Monday in the San Gregorio field (Zaragoza). . “If it’s an order, it’s an order; and if there are mines, bad luck”, answers one of them, a bald and robust man who seems to be the oldest.
On Wednesday, the 55 soldiers who arrived in Spain on February 16 to learn how to drive the Leopard, the German-designed battle tank that the European allies have made available to Kiev, will return to Ukraine via Poland. Many trust him to push back Russian troops that invaded the country in February 2022 this spring.
It has been four weeks of intense training at the National Training Center (Cenad) of the Army, with 12-hour days, with no rest other than Saturday afternoon. “Of course we would have liked more time, but the program has been fulfilled. We have not had to slow down the pace of the course as we feared. They leave very well prepared”, proclaims Captain Contreras with satisfaction. The key, he adds, “is in his experience and motivation. His mood is surprisingly good. They are looking forward to returning to their country to defend it.” Those who have come to Spain, he explains, were already tankers, although the tanks they were used to were of Soviet origin; And they have fought on the front line. Another instructor is less optimistic: “There is everything, some came from the countryside and only knew how to drive a tractor.”
They are all male and one of the youngest is their boss, a 21-year-old lieutenant fresh out of the academy. The rest span a wide range of ages; among them, re-enlisted reservists aged 60. Lieutenant Colonel Román acknowledges that it is not the ideal age for a combatant, but he makes an unappealable argument: “This is a war. It is what it is”.
The first two weeks have been dedicated to intense training with the simulators. In the Cenad there are all kinds: fixed and dynamic, tower, driver (which reproduces the blows and swings when driving off-road) and shooter. Later, they have moved on to the school car, adapted for teaching, and, finally, to the Leopard 2 A4 tanks, like the ones that Spain has promised to kyiv. The instructors, around thirty, come from the Alcántara de Melilla Regiment, one of the few units of the Spanish Army that still operates this model and not the more modern Leopard 2E.
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“What we are going to give them is better than what they have, it is one step above,” says Captain Contreras, referring to the T-64 and T-72 that the Ukrainian Army has. Instead, it is not superior, he admits, to the T-90 or T-14 Armata of the Russian forces, but so far Moscow has only been able to field only a small number of its most advanced tanks.
In addition to training 10 complete Leopard crews —driver, loader, shooter and tank leader—, 15 specialists in mechanics, electricity and weapons have been trained in Zaragoza, capable of ensuring second-echelon support of the tank —out of the four planned revisions by the manufacturer, based on its completeness—without leaving the front.
The students from Zaragoza are the elite of the more than 500 Ukrainian soldiers who are receiving basic or specific military training in Spain (precision shooting, demining, health care) under the direction of the Toledo Training Coordination Center (TTCC). Despite this, the European Union Military Mission for Ukraine (EUMAM) has not granted him command status, to which Defense aspired, a role reserved for Germany and Poland.
The Leopard crews already trained will be back in Ukraine in a few days, but kyiv has not requested to train more crews for now. There are still weeks to go before the six tanks that the Santa Bárbara company is rehabilitating at its plant in Alcalá de Guadaíra (Seville) are ready; and even more so for the four additional tanks that President Pedro Sánchez promised his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodímir Zelenski, on his last visit to kyiv.
The great challenge will be to bring the armored vehicles to the battlefield. Transporting them by rail is the fastest, but not the most inconspicuous. And driving them through Ukraine is very expensive: they consume up to three liters of diesel per kilometer. Putin has made them a priority target. Its destruction, military sources acknowledge, would not only be a military success, but above all a propaganda one. Moscow has vowed to scrap the main symbol of European military support for Zelensky.
For this reason, military sources stress the need for tanks to have powerful cover from combat vehicles and anti-aircraft defense. “A Leopard, by itself, is very vulnerable,” they warn.
In his previous talk, the instructor captain insists on reviewing the self-protection measures. After training each soldier in their tactical post and the crew of each tank, the last phase arrives: being able to act jointly with a section of five tanks, which includes night combat and live fire, with Spanish tanks playing the role of the Russian enemy. . “Is everything clear?” he asks them, just before they climb into their Leopards and drive off in a cloud of dust across the San Gregorio field.
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