Developed and built by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH, Germany’s Leopard 2A7 is arguably the best operational tank in the world. Like all German tanks, it is an exceptionally well-balanced and well-engineered design, but it comes at a price. Russian tanks on the other hand have traditionally emphasized quantity over quality, but the T-14 Armata seems to break with that tradition. In many ways, it’s more like a Western machine, and won’t be built in huge numbers like the T-72.
While it’s probably still not as good as the Leopard on a one on one basis, the Armata could be a formidable threat since Moscow is not that far away from Germany—and having Russian tanks driving into Berlin is not exactly an unprecedented feat. While the chances of Russian and German tanks meeting in some future war in Europe is extremely remote (a better chance if foreign buyers purchase them and they go head to head), Berlin's tanks in a theoretical match-up would face a problem. While the Leopard is probably overall more than a match for the Armata—it doesn’t have the right ammunition to defeat the T-14.
The Leopard 2A7 is the latest in a long lineage of German tanks designs that started with the diminutive Panzerkampfwagen I, which was developed in secret due to the limitation imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The Panzer I was an unimpressive vehicle, but it was the first in a series of armored combat vehicles that included the fearsome Panther and King Tiger tanks of World War Two. In many ways, the Panther—which could argue was the forerunner of the modern main battle tank--set the pattern for post-war Western tank designs.
The first post-war German design was that Leopard 1, which set the standard for Western tank designs when it was first introduced in 1965. Originally, Germany had intended to replace the Leopard 1 with a tank it was jointly developing with the United States—the MBT-70. However, after it became clear that the MBT-70 was an epic disaster, Germany developed the Leopard 2 while U.S. Army developed the M1 Abrams. The key differences were that the Leopard 2 used a more efficient and reliable diesel power plant and a much more potent Rheinmetal 120mm L44 cannon that was later retrofitted to the American tank. The Germans correctly believed that the larger weapon was needed to counter improvements in Soviet tank design.
Over the years, the Leopard 2 has been improved with a longer L55 cannon that offers far better performance against more heavily protected enemy tanks. One of the self-imposed limitations of the Leopard 2 is the fact that Germany refuses to use depleted uranium for its tank rounds (or armor for that matter)—which means that Bundeswehr has to find alternative materials. As such, German tank rounds are made out of tungsten—which does not quite offer the performance of a depleted uranium sabot round like the U.S. Army’s M829A3 or future M829E4 (A4 when operational).
Because of the limitations of tungsten ammunition, the Bundeswehr has some doubts as to the ability of its penetrator rounds to punch through the armor of the latest Russian tanks. Specifically, there might be instances where German ammunition might not have enough kinetic energy to ensure a kill against the T-80, T-90 and obviously the Armata.
One option for the Germans is to test and certify American ammunition like the M829 series or develop its own depleted uranium sabot rounds. However, there are political and technical challenge that would have to be overcome. Firstly, there is strong political resistance to developing depleted uranium ammunition in Germany. Secondly, using American ammunition might be difficult since those rounds are built to such tight tolerances—it’s not clear it the M829 would be compatible with the longer L55 barrel on the newest Leopard 2 variants.
The German response to renewed Russian challenges in Eastern Europe and renewed emphasis on tank development has been to start a new armored vehicle project of its own. Provisionally called the Leopard 3, it’s not know what the new German tank will look like, but if the Bundeswehr is prevented from using depleted uranium ammunition, it will like have to move up to a 140mm cannon.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveMajumdar.