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Ukraine prefers German 'Leopards' in war against Russia; here's why

The Leopard 2 main battle tank has gained a well-deserved reputation since its first use in 1979. Girish Linganna explains why the German tank is Ukraine's choice in the war against Russia

Ukraine prefers German 'Leopards' in war against Russia; here's why
First Published Mar 11, 2023, 9:16 AM IST

Germany's sudden announcement to supply Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine to extend their help generated a lot of controversy in the market. On January 25, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared his intention to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow associates such as Poland to re-export their own. This verdict came after lengthy discussions. Scholz insisted that the United States had to accept the idea of donating its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine before he would release the Leopards. His request was eventually granted, as the US declared a few hours later that they would donate 31 Abrams tanks.

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On the other hand, Britain had already committed to providing 14 of their main battle tanks (MBT), known as Challenger 2. However, it was the German-made Leopard 2 tanks that Ukraine desired the most. 

What Makes These Tanks So Special?

The Leopard 2 main battle tank has gained a well-deserved reputation since its first use in 1979. Finland and Poland are among the European countries owning a substantial number of them, with some being held in reserve (as shown in the table). The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has recorded that Turkey has more than 300 of them. The Leopard 2 has undergone several modifications throughout the years, with Germany planning to send the newly-acquired 2A6 version. On the other hand, other countries are likely to provide the previous 2A4 model.

How Will Ukraine Benefit From This?

Although all the modern tanks are better than Russian tanks like the T-72 and the T-90 from the Soviet era, they are not as efficient as the Western tanks regarding stabilisation. 

Ukraine, which needs around 300 tanks, can benefit from the Leopard 2. According to defence-intelligence provider Janes, the Leopard 2A4 is about 55 tonnes, and the Leopard 2A6 is around 58 tonnes. Both tanks have a maximum speed of 72 kph (45 mph), which is faster than the Abrams (68 kph) and the Challenger 2 (56 kph). Additionally, they can go 550 km before refuelling, which is the same as the British Challenger and better than the Abrams (426 km).

How Is Leopard 2 Better From Other Tanks?

According to the Royal United Services Institute, another think tank, Western tanks can fire accurately even when in motion. Tanks like the Russian T-72 have no protective blast doors between the crew and the ammunition compartments, which makes it possible for three people to operate them rather than four like in the Western models. 

However, this makes them more vulnerable to the above strikes, which may result in a catastrophic explosion. Furthermore, there are around 2000 Leopards in Europe, making it easier for them to be shipped to Ukraine and to provide spare parts.

Possible Challenges For Ukraine While Using Leopard 2 

The Leopard 2 does possess certain drawbacks as well. During a Turkish action against Islamic State in Syria in late 2016, at least 8 Leopard 2A4s were supposedly destroyed by the insurgents, who targeted their weak points at the back and on the sides. The Abrams has higher firepower compared to the German tank.

The German and American tanks have a 120mm turret-mounted cannon as their main weapon. However, the Abrams has three additional machine guns, while the Leopard 2 has only two. The Americans also use uranium, which has been depleted of its radioactivity, to strengthen their shells, thus improving the Abrams' capacity to penetrate armour.

However, the difficulties of the German tank are gradually being taken care of, but more of modern adaptations of the Leopard 2, for instance, have improved armour on the turret. The Leopard 2A6 also has a longer 120mm smoothbore gun, which augments its penetrating capability. Yet even the earlier models have their advantages for use in Ukraine.

The Abrams runs on a turbine engine powered by jet fuel, whereas the Leopard uses diesel, which is more accessible. Another major challenge can be the amount of time required for training the Ukraine soldiers and the level of maintenance they would require to scale and use effectively.

Final Verdict 

Following Germany's verdict, their allies have set the goal of giving Ukraine two battalions of Leopard 2s, consisting of nearly 80 tanks. Alongside the commitments by the US and the UK, it will bring the total number of tanks promised over the amount required to create a real impact on the front. Having said that, training is also an important factor in the equation, as combining the tanks with other systems is necessary. 

Germany will soon start teaching Ukrainians how to use Leopards, and the US has already initiated combined-arms drills for Ukrainian troops, gathering a range of specialists. It is essential to guarantee that the importance of Scholz's judgement amounts to more than just a symbolic gesture.

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