The Buzz

Get Ready, Russia: Germany Is Expanding Its Tank Forces by 40 Percent

Germany has begun the process of upgrading 103 out-of-service Leopard 2A4 and 2A6 tanks to the latest model, the Leopard 2A7V—an upgrade that will cost the state the equivalent of 760 million euros ($833 million). The big news is that by revamping and deploying these new vehicles, the Bundeswehr is expanding its tank fleet by over 40 percent, from 225 to 320 main battle tanks.

This increase in force size is going to take time: the revamped Leopards will enter service between 2019 and 2023. There are also provisions to convert thirty-two additional tanks into specialized engineering and bridge-laying support vehicles.

Before getting our elbows greasy diving into the technical details, we should consider the expansion’s obvious significance: the additional tanks are part of Germany’s gradual rearming of the Bundeswehr after years of downsizing and declining operational readiness, due to the end of the Cold War and trust in the U.S. military to shield it from future threats. The German public, mindful of the legacy of World War II, has shown little enthusiasm for getting involved in foreign wars or maintaining a large military.

However, defense policy changed in 2014, when Moscow demonstrated its willingness to use military force to advance its foreign policy objectives in eastern Europe by seizing Crimea from Ukraine in April 2014 with “little green men,” followed by the deployment of Russian tanks (crewed by active-duty Russian Army “volunteers”) in support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. German security concerns have recently been further aggravated by a new element of unpredictability in the U.S. commitment to NATO. While the Trump administration recently declared that NATO is “no longer obsolete” after entering a dispute with Moscow over Syrian chemical weapons, Berlin probably still feels it may need to play a larger role as a security provider in central Europe.

The Leopard 2 has for several decades stood among the top main battle tanks in the world, alongside the American M1 Abrams. Both vehicles share potent Rheinmetall 120-millimeter guns, boast advanced sights and fire-control systems permitting accurate fire on the move, and tip the scales at well over sixty tons in weight due to their heavy composite armor, which renders their frontal armor virtually immune to most Cold War–era antitank rockets and missiles. The Abrams and Leopard 2 are also relatively nimble for heavy main battle tanks, able to cruise over forty miles per hour.

Comparing the M1 and Leopard 2 leads to a sort of Coke-Pepsi rivalry—which is to say that they both do roughly the same thing, but there are enough little differences to inspire die-hard advocates for each. The Leopard 2’s diesel engine is often favorably compared to the loud, gas- turbine engines used in the M1, affording the German tank greater operational range. The M1A2 tanks used by the U.S. Army benefit from ultra-dense depleted-uranium armor and ammunition that enables superior defensive performance and higher penetrating power, respectively. However, Germany has political issues with using depleted uranium, so the later Leopard models compensate with highly sloped wedge-shaped turrets with spaced composite armor, as well as longer-barrel guns (fifty-five-calibers instead of forty-four) to generate greater kinetic energy for their tungsten armor-piercing shells, in order to (mostly) catch up to the punch of American DU rounds.

Nearly 3,500 Leopard 2s have been produced in numerous variants over the years, each version boasting improvements in armor protection and firepower since the first in the series entered service in 1979. Leopard 2s currently serve in the armies of eighteen countries, including Canada, Indonesia, Poland, Qatar, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

Although the Abrams has seen a lot more combat over the decades, the Leopard 2 has been battle tested—though not against the Soviet tanks it was designed to duel with. In Afghanistan, Canadian and Danish Leopard 2s serving in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force survived hits from IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades, though a few were damaged and one Danish crew member was mortally wounded by a mine explosion. In return, the Leopard 2s were praised by coalition commanders for providing effective fire support for international forces battling the Taliban.

The Leopard 2 did not fare so well when Turkey deployed a battalion of them in December 2016 as part of its campaign to capture ISIS-held Al Bab near the Syrian border. Deadly antitank weapons have proliferated in the Syrian conflict, and much less well-armored Turkish M60 Patton tanks had suffered heavy losses to both ISIS and Kurdish rebels. In a series of attacks, ISIS destroyed or disabled as many as ten Leopard 2s using old Russian antitank missiles. Some of the Leopard 2s were even “captured” before being knocked out by coalition air strikes.