Another round of U.S. military aid for Ukraine will, for the first time, include Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges, or AVLBs. This vehicle, which is derived from the Cold War-era M60 Patton tank, can deploy a folding bridge to help friendly forces, including tanks and other heavy armor, cross waterways and other obstacles like trench lines. The announcement that the Ukrainian military is now set to get AVLBs comes as its Western partners have already been working to transfer more modern Western tanks and other heavy armored vehicles.
The Pentagon announced the new tranche of aid containing the AVLBs, as well as 227mm artillery rockets, 155mm and 105mm artillery shells, 25mm automatic cannon ammunition, demolition munitions, and other items, earlier today. The entire package is valued at approximately $400 million and is what is known as a 'drawdown,' meaning that its contents will come straight from the U.S. military's own stocks.
The official release does not specify the exact type of AVLB these are or say how many Ukraine may now be in line to get. The Pentagon has since confirmed to The War Zone that these are M60-based bridge layers, but the total number of vehicles in the aid package is still unclear.
Where within the U.S. military the vehicles with come from isn't known. The U.S. Marine Corps, which has been a user of the M60-based AVLB types, is in the midst of a major force restructuring that has seen, among other things, the service divest all of its M1 Abrams tanks and various associated heavy support vehicles. The U.S. Army has also been in the process of replacing it's last remaining M60 AVLBs with M1 tank-based designs in recent years.
The Marines began using AVLBs based on the M60-series in the 1980s, but the core design is significantly older than that. The U.S. Army first put them into service in the early 1960s. The baseline variant of the M60 tank, upon which the initial versions were based, had begun entering Army service in 1957. These AVLBs were eventually made using hulls from multiple M60 variants.
The most immediate difference between the M60 AVLB, which is operated by a crew of just two, and an M60 tank is the removal of the turret and its replacement with a hydraulic bridge-launching mechanism. Less obvious are the substantial changes in the internal configuration of the bridge-laying vehicle compared to its parent tank. The front end of the hull, where the driver sits in an M60 tank, is now full of hydraulics. As a result, the ALVB's driver sits together with the vehicle commander in a new position in the center of the hull where the turret ring had previously been.
The bridge itself is stored folded in half while the vehicle is on the move and then is unfolded by the bridge-launching mechanism when it is deployed. The original bridge design is around 60 feet long and some 12 and a half feet wide. Improved designs have been introduced over the years, defined primarily by increased weight ratings.
Exactly how much weight the bridge can sustain depends on how it is emplaced, with it being able to support heavier equipment if more of it is on stable ground. For instance, versions of the bridge used with the M60 AVLB can support the weight of a current generation M1A2 SEPv3 tank, which tips the scales at around 72 tons, but only when positioned across a gap no more than 48 feet wide, according to one unclassified Army manual.
It typically takes between two and five minutes for the ALVB's crew to emplace the bridge and around 10 minutes for them to load it back onto the vehicle.
The vehicle is unarmed, but the armored hull provides protection for the crew while performing its mission. In terms of other self-defense features, M60-based AVLBs can be equipped with launchers for smoke grenades or create a larger smokescreen by pumping fuel into their exhaust systems.
For Ukrainian forces, even a relatively small number of M60 AVLBs could provide useful additional mobility and flexibility on the battlefield. This could be valuable both in support of offensive operations, as well as to open new avenues for units to make strategic withdrawals or otherwise reposition while on the defensive.
Sending the M60 AVLBs to Ukraine also makes good sense because of the more specific nature of the conflict there. While armored bridge layers are most often associated with crossing narrow waterways, like canals and small rivers, they can also be used to help get heavy equipment across areas full of other obstacles, including trenches, large craters, and soft, muddy ground. Eastern Ukraine, where the most intense fighting is currently ongoing, is full of waterways and trench lines. Significant portions of the countryside are now heavily pockmarked and otherwise strew with debris from more than a year of artillery-heavy combat.
It is important to note that the bridges that the M60 AVLBs launch are not capable of spanning major rivers or other large bodies of water. Crossing those kinds of natural obstacles, especially under fire, presents significant challenges, as the Russian military has found out on numerous occasions in the course of the conflict so far.
The Pentagon's decision to send M60 AVLBs comes after a flurry of announcements in the past two months from Ukraine's international partners, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, about planned transfers of various types of more modern Western tanks and other heavy armored vehicles. The new armored bridge layers would, of course, be able to support Ukrainian units that will eventually be equipped with those new vehicles, as well as ones with Soviet-era designs and derivatives already in the country's arsenal.
The increasing diversity of Ukraine's armored vehicle fleets, among other things, has already prompted questions about potential training, maintenance, or logistical hurdles. While the Ukrainian military is not set to receive any M60 tanks for the United States or any other country, at least right now, it is worth noting here that the U.S. military has already announced that it will transfer a number of M88 armored recovery vehicles. The M88 also has significant commonalities with the M60 family, including being powered by variants of the same series of diesel engines.
Whatever the case, Ukrainian forces, especially units with tanks and other heavy armored vehicles, look set to get additional help moving about the country's battlefields in the form of ex-U.S. tanks lugging folding bridges.
Howard Altman contributed to this report.
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