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US to accelerate delivery of tanks to Ukraine

A soldier walks past a line of M1 Abrams tanks, Nov. 29, 2016, at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP, File)

(CNN) — The US will dramatically accelerate the time it takes to ship Abrams tanks to Ukraine by sending older M1-A1 models of America’s main battle tank instead of the more modern version of the tank, according to two US officials.

The switch will allow the tanks to arrive as early as fall of this year, one of the officials said, shaving months off the previous timeline that could have taken a year or longer.

On Tuesday morning, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said the US was working to speed up the delivery of tanks to Ukraine.

“We’re working on that. There’s some changes that you can make to the process, to sort of speed that up,” Kirby said on MSNBC. “The Pentagon is working as fast as they can, and they’ll have more to say on adjustments they’re making.”

The US had previously announced it would send the more modern M1-A2 version of the Abrams battle tank, but that would have required either building new tanks or modernizing existing older tanks, then training Ukrainian crews on the more advanced system. The M1-A2 has a newer digital targeting system that makes it a more capable tank, but it also required more training for Ukrainian troops to operate the more complex tank and to maintain the system.

The decision to speed up the delivery of tanks comes as Ukraine is preparing to launch a spring offensive against Russian forces, built largely around the more powerful and more advanced systems Western countries have agreed to send, including tanks and other armored vehicles.

Reuters first reported the decision to send the older Abrams tanks.

The US still intends to send 31 M1-A1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the same number as previously announced. The size of a complete Ukrainian tank battalion.

In mid-February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said these systems would “make a pretty significant difference” in Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive.

Austin urged other countries last week to send tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine as soon as possible.

“We have to deliver swiftly and fully on our promised commitments,” Austin said at a news conference following the latest meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, an unofficial organization of some 50 countries providing aid to Ukraine. “That includes delivering our armored capabilities to the battlefield and ensuring that Ukrainian soldiers get the training, spare parts and maintenance support that they need to use these new systems as soon as possible.”

Last month, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said all of the options the US was considering to get tanks to Ukraine would take months.

“We’re looking at options for how to get the Ukrainians tanks and there are a variety of different ways that we could do that,” Wormuth told a group of reporters at the time. “We’re looking at what’s the fastest way we can get the tanks to the Ukrainians. It’s not going to be a matter of weeks.”

But she warned that even the faster options still involve “longer timelines” that may take a more than a year.