It made headlines all over the world when, on June 8, a battlegroup from the Ukrainian army’s 33rd Mechanized and 47th Assault Brigades ran into a minefield just south of Mala Tomachka, in southern Ukraine Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
The Ukrainian brigades lost some of their best vehicles that day: a Leopard 2A6 tank, more than a dozen M-2 infantry fighting vehicles and three Leopard 2R engineering vehicles.
The Leopard 2R losses arguably were the most notable, as they represented half of all the ex-Finnish vehicles in existence. Vehicle-maker Patria designed the Leopard 2R to clear minefields, fill trenches and excavate berms—a sequence of tasks armies call a “breach.”
And breaching is just what the counterattacking Ukrainian army has been trying to do for three weeks now, all across the southern front in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts. Only after opening a major breach in Russian defenses can the Ukrainians deploy the bulk of their new 10th Operational Corps—and attempt to liberate Russian-occupied southern Ukraine.
So for advocates of a free Ukraine, the loss of half the Leopard 2Rs in a single engagement might have seemed like a major blow to the counteroffensive’s prospects.
But the Leopard 2Rs represented just a small proportion of the Ukrainian army’s specialized breaching fleet. Thanks in large part to Germany, Ukraine operates scores of engineering vehicles that, alone or in teams, can clear mines, fill trenches and excavate berms.
The most numerous is the Wisent, built by Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft in Germany. Ukraine is getting 42 of the 45-ton vehicles from Germany plus an unspecified number of additional copies from Norway.
The two-person Wisent 1 is a Leopard 1 tank chassis with a 1,000-horsepower diesel engine, a 30-ton crane and attachments for either a dozer blade or a mine-plow built by Pearson Engineering in the United Kingdom.
That’s the same Pearson mine-plow that equips most of the best Western mine-clearing and breaching vehicles, including the Leopard 2R. The plow’s greatest attribute is its width. “Ground-engaging tines arranged across the full width of the vehicle displace buried pressure-fused mines to create a trafficable path,” Pearson stated.
As they use the same plows, there’s not a lot of difference between the Leopard 2R and Wisent 1. Yes, the former is heavier and better-protected, and boasts an additional 500 horsepower to heft that extra weight and put more oomph behind the plow.
But it’s worth noting that extra armor and engine power didn’t make much difference outside Mala Tomachka, where the sheer density 0f mines—plus intervention by Russian helicopters—doomed the attacking force.
The Ukrainians so far have lost just one Wisent in combat, during the same June 8 breaching attempt that claimed those three Leopard 2Rs. That is to say, the Ukrainian army still has plenty of breaching capability left, even after the debacle south of Mala Tomachka two weeks ago.