Germany’s Leopard 2 main battle tank has been on the lips of European, Ukrainian and Russian officials for over a week amid pressure by Berlin’s allies to send the heavy weapons system to Kiev. When was the tank created? What environments is it designed to fight in? Why is there so much trepidation about its deployment in Ukraine? Sputnik explains.
The debate over the possible delivery of German Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine continues to escalate, with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin barely concealing his disappointment at a press conference at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany last week after failing to get Berlin to agree to hand the tanks over. Austin told reporters that Kiev has a shrinking “window of opportunity between now and spring” before it starts a fresh offensive, and needs to “pull together the right capabilities,” including tanks.
Warsaw took the rhetoric up a notch on Monday, with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Arkadiusz Mularczyk warning that Germany had found “itself in international isolation” over the tank issue. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced Sunday that Berlin “would not stand in the way” if Poland or another Leopard-2 operator were to go send their own Leopard 2s to Kiev.
What is a Main Battle Tank?
A main battle tank (MBT), also known as a "universal tank" or kampfpanzer (German for "battle tank") is a term used by Western militaries to define the main weapons platform of the armoured ground forces – which combines heavy firepower, strong armor protection, and mobility. In Soviet and Russian military terminology, MBTs are known simply as "main tanks," and tend to be lighter, smaller and shorter than their Western counterparts - in accordance with doctrines focused on high mobility warfare and tiers of armoured columns in which tank-on-tank combat is only one component of a main tank’s uses. Western powers, by contrast, spent the final three decades of the 20th century and until today on building ever larger, heavier, costlier, and more powerful tanks.
MBTs are a product of the immediate post-WWII period – when advances in armour, heavy guns, and engine power made it possible to build heavier armored units that combined mobility and firepower. The earliest MBTs included the British Centurion, the Soviet T-54, and the US Patton series.
From the late 1940s up to today, four generations of main battle tanks have been developed, with the second generation (late 1950s to 2010s) typically featuring improvements in terms of even heavier guns, the first forms of protection against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks (NBC) and the ability to fight at night. The third generation (mid 1970s to late 2010s) added composite or explosive reactive armour, automatic and/or computerized fire control systems, and improvements in thermal imaging.
Fourth generation tanks (2010s to today) have concentrated on technological enhancements, such as AI-assisted manoeuvring and fire control, improved turrets, hulls and weapons systems. Only a few hundred fourth-gen tanks, like Japan’s Type 10, and South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, have been fielded, with the US, France, Russia, Germany, Turkey, the UK, India and others working on their own designs – whether it’s a deep upgrade of existing platforms – like France’s Leclerc XLR and Britain’s Challenger 3, or a new one, like Russia’s T-14 Armata.
What is the Leopard 2 and What Was It Designed to Do?
The Leopard 2 is a third generation MBT. Developed in the 1970s by Munich-based weapons giant Krauss-Maffei and introduced into service with the West German military in 1979, the Leopard 2 was the successor of the Leopard 1, a second-generation Kampfpanzer designed by Porsche and built by Krauss-Maffei from the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.
Like most contemporary Western and Russian tanks in service today, the Leopard 2 is a product of the Cold War, when NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced one another down across the plains and forests of a divided Germany.
The 62 ton, 10 meter long, 3.75 meter wide, 3 meter tall tank has a crew of four, and features a liquid cooled V12 twin-turbo diesel engine, allowing it to traverse between 220 and 340 km of territory at speeds of up to 70 km/h on a single tank of fuel.
Its main armament is its Rheinmetal-built Rh-120 120 mm smoothbore gun – the same platform used in the US M1 Abrams, Japan’s Type 90, and South Korea’s K1A1, and in the future, the British Challenger 3. The gun has two versions –the L/44 and the L/55 – which differ in calibre length, and consequently shell velocity and range. Secondary armament includes twin 7.62mm machineguns.
The tank features composite armour, including steel, ceramics and tungsten, with its armour between 30 and 860 mm thick. Tank enthusiasts have pointed to several weak spots in the Leopard 2’s construction, including the gunner’s primary sight – literally a hole in the turret’s crucial frontal armour, and the crew compartment, which is protected by a rolled homogenous armour design which makes the tank’s entire turret vulnerable to enemy fire in conditions of asymmetric warfare (more on that below).
West German factories produced 3,600 Leopard 2s between 1979 and 1992, making them one of the most widely built tanks among NATO armies. Four upgraded variants were developed by the end of the Cold War to improve the base model - the 2A1, 2A2, 2A3 and 2A4, featuring improvements such as a gunner’s thermal site, better armour and NBC protection, and new communications equipment. 2A4s feature an automated fire suppression system, all-digital fire controls, and titanium armour.
The Bundeswehr upgraded over three quarters of its Leopard 2s to the 2A4 variant by the end of the Cold War. The current version, the 2A5, adopted from the mid-1990s onward, features thickened, angled turret armour, new thermal imaging and computers, cameras, GPS, and other improvements. At the same time, there are even more advanced variants, such as the 2A6 and 2A7, which have a limited presence in the armed forces that adapted them. In fact, some countries are upgrading their 2A5S to the level of these two versions. Its first deliveries began in the 2000s.
How Many Leopard 2s Does Germany Field?
Germany today possesses only a fraction of the Leopard 2s built, with just 328 of the MBTs in its inventory. Most of the rest were sold off after the end of the Cold War.
How Many Leopard 2s Do Other Countries Have?
The Netherlands and Switzerland bought several Leopard 2s apiece in the 1980s, with the tanks exported from the 1990s onward to more than a dozen other countries, including Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Portugal, as well as Greece, Turkey, Indonesia, Singapore, Chile and Qatar.
What is the Leopard 2’s Service Record?
In its 44-year service life, Leopard 2s have been deployed in about half-a-dozen missions by NATO countries, starting with the bloc-led ‘peacekeeping force’ which occupied Kosovo following NATO’s aerial aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999. The Bundeswehr sent 28 Leopard 2s to Kosovo in a show of force, but their mobility was restricted due to their immense weight, which was beyond the capacity of some local bridges to handle. Bundesweher Leopard 2s were also sent to Macedonia in 2001, protecting a logistics warehouse until their withdrawal in 2004. Dutch forces deployed Leopard 2s to Bosnia for NATO’s IFOR ‘peace enforcement’ operation.
The Leopards’ first combat experience, and battlefield losses, began to accrue during the US-led war in Afghanistan. In the course of fighting against the Taliban,* three Canadian and six Danish Leopard 2s were irretrievably lost, with another 15 Canadian Leopards disabled but repaired. Losses were attributed mostly to roadside bombs, with vehicle crews typically surviving with only minor injuries thanks to the tank’s good armor protection. However, the driver of a Danish Leopard 2 was killed in July 2008 by an improvised explosive device (IED), with the other crew members receiving injuries of varying severity.
Turkey deployed dozens of its Leopard 2A4 tanks to northern Syria in 2016 and 2018, where they engaged in fierce firefights against Kurdish and Daesh (ISIS)** fighters. A dozen or more Turkish Leopard 2s have been knocked out in fighting in Syria to date, lost to IEDs, suicide car bombs, or anti-tank guided missiles, with two captured by Daesh in late 2016 outside al-Bab City. In 2017, German media calculated that up to ten Turkish Leopard 2s were destroyed by Daesh, six using the Kornet, a widely-exported Russian anti-tank guided missile. In 2018, Kurdish forces published footage of a deadly missile attack on a Leopard 2 in which the tank was destroyed and its four-man crew killed.
The Leopard 2s’ performance in Syria sparked questions among German observers regarding the tanks’ suitability to urban environments and against insurgents. “The heavy tracked vehicles are designed for a duel [against other tanks] and their maximum protection is in the front…Since, the Russian Kornet anti-tank guided missile, for example, can penetrate armour even 1.2 meters thick, a tank is relatively vulnerable in its less protected areas,” one report indicated at the time.
If they are sent to Ukraine, German tanks will face similar issues, plus problems associated with facing off against a conventional foe with heavy artillery and air support. Russian military planners will be almost certain to prioritize the destruction of any Leopard 2s spotted on the battlefield, just to convey to Kiev’s Western patrons that the powerful tanks are not invincible.
How Does the Leopard 2 Compare to America’s M1 Abrams?
US officials have urged Germany to deploy their Leopard 2s to Ukraine, citing their fuel efficiency and ease of maintenance compared to America’s MBT – the M1 Abrams. In a briefing last week, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh explained that Abrams just aren’t suitable to conditions in Ukraine.
“The Abrams are a – it’s more of a sustainment issue. I mean, this is a tank that is – requires jet fuel, whereas the Leopard and the Challenger – the - it’s a different engine. They require diesel. It’s a little bit easier to maintain. They can maneuver across large portions of territory before they need to refuel. The maintenance and the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams is just – just doesn’t make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians at this moment,” Singh said.
In point of fact, the Abrams’ Honeywell AGT1500 engine is "multi-fuel capable", meaning it can run on jet fuel, but also regular diesel, gasoline or even a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil known as marine diesel. Singh was right about the Abrams’ awful gas mileage, with the tank requiring a whopping 392 litres to traverse 100 km, and burning 38 litres per hour just while running idle. The Abrams engine’s extremely hot operation and exhaust is also a safety hazard to any troops nearby. The tank has a range of up to 200 km cross country, and 426 on the road.
In other words, it’s unclear why the Pentagon is pressing Germany to give up its Leopard 2s, instead of sending Abrams. Perhaps Washington fears that its MBT’s reputation could be further sullied after several hundred were wrecked or damaged following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
What is Russia and Ukraine’s Equivalent of the Leopard 2?
Owing to the differing strategic visions of armoured combat by NATO and Warsaw Pact planners, there is no single Soviet or Russian tank designed specifically to take on a Leopard 2 tank in a one-on-one engagement. War nerds the world over have engaged in endless "which tank is better" debates for decades, mostly involving the Soviet/Russian T-80 and T-90 main tanks. Proponents of the Leopard 2 point to its thicker armour, better fire control systems, and deadly main gun. However, fanboys of the T-80 and T-90 point to their reliability, agility, smaller size and lower profile, as well as lower production and maintenance costs, which means more can be fielded across a larger battlespace.
As with any modern weapons system, real-world performance would depend on a broad range of factors, including how much artillery or ATGM-wielding infantry support there is, strategic and tactical level battlefield intelligence, the competency of commanders, and of course, the skill of tank crews.
Why is the Deployment of Leopard 2 Tanks to Ukraine Controversial?
As Russian officials have warned ad-nauseam, the sending of heavier and heavier NATO weapons to Ukraine constitutes an escalation of the crisis, serving as more evidence of the Western alliance’s use of Kiev as a proxy in its conflict against Moscow. The deployment of Leopard 2s in Ukraine would also mean the first time that German tanks have been on former Soviet soil since the Second World War – a psychological factor undoubtedly certain to affect both German and Russian thinking on the current conflict.
Commenting on the debate over Leopard 2s for Kiev, Unal Atabay, head of the Ankara-based Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Research Centre, told Sputnik that if Berlin were to give the go-ahead, the prospect for negotiations to try to bring the Ukrainian crisis to an end would become even more illusive.
“The constant supply of additional weapons to the Ukrainian side increases the intensity of hostilities, risk escalating tensions in the region and prolongs the conflict. Who benefits from the continued fighting? As hostilities drag on, discontent grows in Europe, which increases the disagreements between European countries and the US,” Atabay told Sputnik in an interview.
The researcher emphasised that the Western policy of pumping Kiev up with weapons has not provided the expected dividends, failing to “break Russia,” and on the contrary, prompting Moscow to strengthen its military potential and to increase the production of weapons and ammunition.
“Germany’s strategy is aimed at freeing itself from US pressure and ensuring greater independence for the European Union. Therefore, Berlin can offer some resistance” to US overtures, Atabay says.
In light of the existence of US, British and French MBTs, which have not been sent to Ukraine at any scale, the scholar believes that the pressure on Germany to send its Leopard 2s to Ukraine is aimed at preventing Berlin from carrying out a more independent foreign policy.
* An Afghan militia under United Nations sanctions for terrorist activities.
** A terrorist group outlawed in Russia and many other countries.
Credits : Ilya Tsukanov
- A Moscow-based correspondent specializing in Eastern European, US and Middle Eastern politics, Cold War history, energy security and military affairs