Why the Leopard 2 Tank Is So Important to Ukraine: At Ramstein airbase on Friday, multiple countries pressed Berlin for permission to donate German-built Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine as part of a package of arms transfers said to include “hundreds” of armored vehicles of various types.
After the end of the Cold War, Berlin sold off many of the 3,600 Leopard 2s built, which are today operated by 21 countries across four continents. The 55 to 65-ton Leopard 2s boast significant armor, firepower and spotting advantages against most of Russia’s 40-50 ton tanks. President Duda of Poland, which operates 240 Leopard 2 tanks, has declared plans to transfer a Leopard 2 company (10-15 tanks) to Ukraine. Finland has also indicated it might donate some of its 200 Leopard 2s, 100 of which are in storage.
But after the meeting, newly appointed German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius continued to demure, claiming Berlin’s blessing would come only if the move is agreed to by “all allies.” Some sources allege that means Germany may only authorize Leopard 2 transfers if the U.S. also donates some of its M1 Abrams main battle tanks. While there are many Abrams in storage which are broadly comparable to the Leopard 2, they’re less fuel-efficient and require jet rather than diesel fuel, unlike most Ukrainian tanks.
Why Germany Is Nervous to Send the Leopard 2 to Ukraine
Evidently, the legacy of Hitler’s genocidal invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II still leaves Berlin in knots, recalling an era in which its ‘Big Cats’—heavily armored Tiger and Panther tanks—prowled across Eastern Europe, developing so fearsome and exaggerated a reputation that 70 years later the former type starred as the supernatural villain of Russian war film White Tiger.
But now Kyiv wants Germany’s big cats to return; this time to defend Ukraine, not aid in its conquest. But German Chancellor Scholz has insisted there’s a red-line on transferring Western-built tanks, mesmerized by fears of Russian counter-escalation and the prior history of German tanks as weapons of aggression—never mind that defending armies too need tanks to take back invaded territory.
Scholz’s hesitation may eventually crumble as he comes under increasing pressure from the U.S., France, United Kingdom and Poland, and as Moscow continues to double down on its war in Ukraine. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck has already stated his support for authorizing third-party Leopard transfers to Ukraine.
After all, the United Kingdom has already confirmed it will deliver a company of domestic Challenger 2 main battle tanks. Warsaw has also implied it might move ahead with a transfer without Berlin’s agreement.
But Berlin’s blessing could open the floodgates for transfers numerous other Leopard 2 operators, notably including Canada (60x 2A4s and 20x 2A6Ms), Greece (183x 2A4s and 170x 2A6HELs), Norway (52x 2A4s), Spain (108x 2A4s stored in poor condition, 219x upgraded 2A6s) and Sweden (120x Strv-122s based on the 2A6). Germany itself may retain 200 older 2A4s in storage according to IISS.
Over all, it seems increasingly likely Leopard 2s will see battle in Ukraine, finally facing the high-intensity mechanized warfare they were designed for in the closing phase of the Cold War. This article looks at the capabilities Leopard 2 tanks could bring to Ukraine should it enter service, as well as the type’s combat record.
Cold Warrior Tank
Succeeding the agile but lightly armored Leopard 1 in West German service in 1979, the Leopard 2 and its near-contemporary Abrams reflected confidence that new composite materials technology could make heavy armor effective even against deadly anti-tank missiles. It was hoped in a World War III scenario. Their qualitative superiority could offset the Soviet Union’s huge quantitative advantage.
The Leopard 2 differed by using a more fuel-efficient diesel engine rather than the Abrams’s noisier, faster-accelerating gas turbine, and initially had a bigger main gun. Over time, the Abrams adopted the Leopard 2’s gun and increasingly incorporated ultra-dense depleted uranium to enhance armor and shell penetration, while German engineers pursued alternate engineering solutions.
Thus, Leopard 2 tanks are not all created equal. The Leopard 2A4, the ultimate Cold War model, has a conventional-looking vertical front turret armor plate.
But the post-Cold War Leopard 2A5, 2A6 and 2A7 look very different thanks to futuristic-looking wedged front turret armor. These models boast greatly improved protection, better sensors, and (with the 2A6 and 2A7 series) longer and more powerful 55-caliber guns.
The older 2A4 model is most likely to make its way to Ukraine, though one can’t rule out the later models entirely. The advantage possessed by the 1980s-era 2A4 is inevitably narrower facing Russia’s newest T-90s or modernized T-72B3s, T-80Us and T-80BVMs; though documented equipment losses reveal Russia’s military and its proxies still use many older T-72Bs, T-64s, and T-62Ms.
Many countries also possess functional Leopard 2 spinoffs, including the Bergepanzer BPz3 Buffalo armored recovery vehicle, the Panzerschnellbrücke 2 bridge-layer and AEV3 Kodiak engineering vehicle. Ukraine has so far received 31 older Leopard 1-based equivalents of these useful vehicles. Finland’s Marksman anti-aircraft vehicle combines a Leopard 2 with a twin 35-millimeter cannon turret.
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Armor and Mobility
Like the Abrams and Challenger 2, the Leopard 2’s armor uses a ‘secret sauce’ of composite materials blending steel, rubber, ceramic, plastic and Kevlar to protect against high-velocity kinetic-energy shells, and even more efficiently against shaped-charge HEAT munitions used in rockets and missiles. The protection is concentrated in the turret, which on the 2A4 is equivalent to 590-690 millimeters of Rolled Homogenosu Armor (RHA) versus kinetic sabots, and 810-1290 millimeters RHA versus HEAT munitions.
Starting with the 2A5 model, an added wedge of sloped, spaced armor measuring 1.5-meters long boosts turret protection to 850-930mm RHA versus kinetic shells and 980-1730mm versus HEAT munitions. That renders parts of its front turret resilient even against Russia’s powerful Kornet and Khrizantema anti-tank missiles and Svinets and Lekalo 125-millimeter tank shells.
However, the front hull on both models range only from 600-620 millimeters versus kinetic threats and 620-750 millimeters versus HEAT. And like all modern main battle tanks, the Leopard’s side and rear armor are significantly more vulnerable, though still protected against light anti-armor weapons. Add-on modular armor kits have also been developed to beef up vulnerable areas for urban operations where attacks may come from any direction.
Even should armor get penetrated, the Leopard 2 and its crew have decent survival odds thanks to separate ammunition stowage to reduce risks of internal explosions, spall liners to absorb shrapnel, halon-spewing automatic fire-suppression systems, and panels that blow outwards to vent (and thereby reduce) the deadly pressure of an internal explosion.
For mobility, the Leopard 2 uses a powerful 1,500-horsepower MB 873 liquid-cooled diesel engine that allows the 60ish-ton behemoth to achieve top speeds of roughly 42 miles per hour (officially)—or closer to 60 when pulling out all the stops. More importantly, a Leopard 2 that runs into trouble can roll in reverse at up to 19 mph compared to 3-6 mph for many Soviet tanks. It can also be fitted with a snorkel to wade through water obstacles up to 4 meters deep.
Firepower, Fire Control and Sensors
The Leopard 2A4 uses the same powerful Rheinmetall 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon as modern Abrams tanks. The 2A6 model and later use a longer (55 instead of 44 calibers) higher velocity variant.
But ammunition has a greater effect on penetration. The later DM53 and DM63 kinetic sabot shells can penetrate 650 or 750 millimeters of armor at 1.24 miles—possibly adequate to defeat frontal armor on more modern Russian tanks girded with Kontakt-5 or Relikt explosive reactive armor. It’s not so likely with the older DM33 or DM43 shells which penetrates 470 and 560-600 millimeters RHA respectively at that range, though older Russian tanks lacking heavy ERA remain comprehensively vulnerable.
Due to NATO standardization, Leopard 2s could also potentially use U.S. or French 120-millimeter tank shells, though whether either would transfer potent depleted uranium sabots boasting exceptional 800mm penetration is debatable. The U.S.’s M829A3 depleted-uranium sabots and brand new German DM73 round are specifically designed to ‘bypass’ Relikt-type ERA.
The Rh-120 can also fire multi-purpose DM-12 HEAT rounds effective against both soft and armored targets (penetrating 480mm RHA) and DM11 anti-personnel shells that can be programmed to airburst or to detonate only after penetrating a structure. Supplementing the main gun, Leopard 2s has both a co-axial and turret 7.62-millimeter machine gun, with the latter upgraded to a more sophisticated remote weapon station in the latest models.
Being first to spot and hit the enemy historically wins more tank battles than having a harder hitting gun. To that end, a Leopard 2’s gunner benefits from a 4x and 12x magnification EMES-15 stabilized thermal day/night sight, assisted by a 6-mile-range laser rangefinder. The commander also uses a PERI R17A3 stabilized panoramic sight with 8x magnification.
The EMES-15 appears comparable to the French-built Catherine-FC thermal sight on the Sosna-U optical system used on modernized Russian tanks (T-72B3, T-80BVM, T-90A.) Older Russian tanks lack stealthy passive thermal sights and use lower magnification sights. Having lost access to Catherine-FC due to sanctions, Russia’s capacity to domestically produce enough PNM-T sights to substitute is unclear. Soviet/Russian and Ukrainians tanks use slower gun-launched anti-tank missiles for long-distance shots, while the Leopard can engage targets with shells up to 3 miles away
Poland’s Special Leopard 2s
Poland has a mixed force of 105 Leopard 2A5s, 90 Leopard 2A4s, and 45 uniquely upgraded Leopard 2PLs and 2PLM1 models based on the 2A4. These benefit front turret armor reinforced allegedly beyond the standard achieved by the 2A5, KDN-1 and KLW-1 day/night thermal cameras, improvements to the improvements of the L/44 gun to better use DM63 shells and DM11 shells, and addition of a 17kW auxiliary power unit that can keep systems operational without the engine on. The further tweaked PLM1 variant has active cooling for its electronics, a more flexible periscope, and upgraded laser rangefinders.
As Poland has already given modernized T-72M1R and PT-91 tanks to Ukraine, it’s not impossible the 2A5 and 2PL models could get donated, not just the unmodernized 2A4s.
Following tense but largely non-kinetic peacekeeping deployments in the Balkans, Leopard 2s first saw significant combat in Afghanistan in 2007, when Canada and Denmark deployed 2A6 and 2A5 model Leopards respectively. As detailed by Jill Münstermann in Leopard Tanks in Action, the type was successful in delivering precise direct fire at Taliban forces with lower collateral damage risk compared to air and artillery strikes and proved fairly resilient to hits from mines and rocket propelled grenades, though a Danish 2A5 was lost to an IED which mortally injured a crew member.
Things went differently in 2016, when the Turkish Army deployed Leopard 2A4s to support its intervention in the Syrian Civil War, particularly the Battle of al-Bab. Dispersed in small, isolated units to static hilltop positions overwatching the battlefield, they suffered shocking losses: five blasted by anti-tank guided missiles, two by kamikaze trucks and one by shelling; and two more captured by ISIS militants.
This inglorious episode highlighted the risks to assigning tanks a static role on a fluid battlefield in which infiltrating enemies had ample opportunity to find long-distance firing angles on vulnerable side armor. Turkish 2A4s again saw action in an offensive targeting the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in 2018, where several may have survived accurate anti-tank missile attacks.
Leopard 2 in context of Ukraine
Ukraine’s military primarily operates variants of the T-64, T-72 and T-80 tank families. Adding Leopard 2s to this mix poses challenges: they would require an additional crew member (a loader instead of mechanical autoloader), use different NATO 120-milimeter shells, consume fuel faster, and be too heavy to cross many Ukrainian bridges. But crucially, unlike the U.S. Abrams, Leopards run on diesel fuel like the vast majority of Ukrainian tanks.
According to IISS, basic training for Leopard 2 crews requires 3-6 weeks depending on role—a timeframe likely to be condensed 33-50% by crash-course-style instruction. However, training and equipping maintainers could actually take longer.
The Leopard 2’s thermal sight and powerful gun, if suitably supplied with modern shells, allow it to overmatch most Russian tanks at long distances, at which range its front turret can survive most return fire. That said, it’s not invulnerable, particularly to ambushes on its flanks like most tanks, and even to heavier hits on its front hull.
If Leopard 2 transfers are authorized, the fact that there are so many potential donors and that new tanks are assembled nearby in Germany, may make it an appealing core for Kyiv’s future armored force. However, German industry’s inability to build the latest Leopard 2A7V model rapidly (causing Poland to buy tanks from the U.S. and South Korea) and Berlin’s general jitteriness authorizing arms transfers to Ukraine might give Kyiv pause.
For now, though, Kyiv will appreciate whatever it can get—its need for more armor with which to liberate occupied territory in 2023 is as much about quantity as quality.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.