After months of wheedling, the German government has finally pledged to Ukraine a first batch of Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
The 30-ton, tracked vehicles with their 20-millimeter auto-cannons, MILAN anti-tank missiles and steel armor represent a significant upgrade for the Ukrainian army’s mechanized infantry—and, alongside M-2 Bradley IFVs the Americans are donating, could help to give the army the mobility, protection and firepower it needs to launch a major offensive in 2023.
The German government announced the decision on Thursday following a phone call between US president Joe Biden and German chancellor Olaf Scholz. “President Biden and Chancellor Scholz expressed their shared determination to provide necessary financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support to Ukraine for as long as needed,” the government stated.
“To this end, the United States intends to provide Bradley-type infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, and Germany intends to supply Marder-type infantry fighting vehicles. Both countries plan to train Ukrainian armed forces on the respective systems.”
The Marder isn’t a new vehicle. It is actually one of the world’s older IFVs. But the Marder despite its age remains one of the world’s better IFVs owe to its balance of speed, protection, firepower and capacity. Capable of traveling 40 miles per hour while carrying three crew and six infantry, the Marder can keep pace with the German army’s Leopard tanks, drop off infantry in the middle of a firefight then support those infantry with cannon fire and missiles.
As a bonus, the Marder is reliable. Especially compared to newer, less mature vehicles such as Germany’s Puma IFV. The German army recently paused acquisition of hundreds of Pumas—and replaced some of them with old Marders—after all 18 Pumas participating in a NATO exercise broke down at the same time.
The Marder has its roots in World War II, when the German army learned the hard way that formations with lots of tanks but few infantry can punch through enemy lines, but can’t hold the ground they captured. In battle with masses of Soviet infantry, German tank units often achieved local breakthroughs—only to get overwhelmed on all sides by enemy infantry as the tanks’ momentum slowed.
The Germans added more infantry to their tank divisions, but the infantry struggled to keep up with the fast-moving tanks. For two decades after the war, the German army experimented with armored vehicles that could haul the infantry into a tank battle and make sure the soldiers survived the first few critical minutes as they dismounted and scurried for cover.
The German HS.30 was, in 1958, the first vehicle to combine all the qualities that today make an IFV an IFV: speed, armor protection, a turret-mounted gun and an infantry compartment with a rear exit—so that the infantry safely could disembark the vehicle while under fire from the front.
The HS.30 was an ergonomic mess, however, and design changes eventually eliminated the rear exit and made the vehicle unusable in combat. The German army hurried to replace the HS.30 with a more elegant design: the Marder.
German arms-maker Rheinmetall manufactured more than 2,000 Marders, starting in 1969. They saw combat in western Afghanistan in the 2010s—a less-than-ideal environment for the vehicles, as they initially lacked air-conditioning. But German troops appreciated the Marders’ armor and firepower.
The German army still possesses more than 300 Marders, and might hang on to them for a long time owing to problems with the new Pumas. Hundreds of Marders are in storage in Germany. Not long after Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting in February, Ukrainian officials began making inquiries.
The Ukrainian army was, and still is, desperately short of IFVs. Each of the army’s two-dozen mechanized brigades each need at least a hundred fighting vehicles, but there were just a thousand in the pre-war inventory—most of them ex-Soviet BMP-1s that, while roughly the same age as the Marders , are less well-protected and come fitted with a low-pressure cannon that many observers consider all but useless in an intensive fight.
Anticipating that Berlin would pledge Marders, Rheinmetall last fall began reconditioning some of the long-stored vehicles. But the German government balked, apparently fearing the Russian government would consider the Marders as “escalatory” … in a war that was managing to escalate all on its own.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, expressed his disappointment. “Not a single rational argument on why these weapons cannot be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses. What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”
It’s possible Berlin’s resistance to the transfer finally broke after Washington’s own resistance to an IFV transfer also broke. The Biden administration waited until this month to pledge to Ukraine an initial 50 of its thousands of surplus M-2s. The Marder decision came just days after the M-2 decision was leaked to the press.
Whatever the politics behind the sudden generosity as far as fighting vehicles go, the Ukrainian army surely is grateful—and relieved. The cold mud of early winter has slowed offensive operations in Ukraine. But the ground could freeze this month. Maneuver again will be possible.
It’s unclear how fast the Ukrainians can reequip a couple brigades with their new-old IFVs. Once they do, expect these brigades to lead whatever offensives Kyiv is planning for the coming year.