Armor: Turkish Leopards Find Redemption


September 29, 2019: Turkey has lost eight German-made Leopard 2A4 tanks in combat since their troops entered Syria in August 2016. Also lost were about 11 older U.S. made M60T tank and several other less well-protected armored vehicles. The Leopard 2A4 is very similar to the American M1 and these were the first combat losses for the Leopard 2. Turkey bought 354 used Leopard 2 tanks during the great post-Cold War sell-off of European tank fleets. The 55 ton Turkish Leopard 2A4s have not been upgraded as much as those of other users, especially Germany and Canada. The American M1 has also had lots of upgrades since the 1990s. The biggest shortcoming of the Turkish Leopard 2A is that they have not received upgraded armor.

Most of the Leopards lost in Syria were hit by ATGMs that later models of the Leopard 2, M1 and Israeli Merkava are largely immune to because of upgraded armor and other protection improvements. Another Turkish problem is they did not provide their Leopards with sufficient infantry support. The ATGM hits did not always destroy the Leopard 2s but did disable them and caused the surviving crew to abandon the vehicle. Some of these Leopard 2s were heavily damaged by Turkish airstrikes to prevent Islamic terrorists from making any use of them.

Germany had been upgrading its own Leopard 2s and those of foreign customers. The Canadian Leopard 2A6Ms had been upgraded for 2008 service in Afghanistan under conditions similar to what Turkey faced in Syria. Upgraded Danish Leopard 2A5s also served in Afghanistan and both Canadian and Danish Leopard 2s proved far more robust than the Turkish 2A4s. In 2017 Germany began upgrading its Leopard 2s to the 2A7V standard, using the experience of Canadian, Danish and Turkish Leopard 2s in Afghan and Syrian combat. Turkey requested upgrades for its 340 Leopard 2s to the Leopard 2A7V standard. This would have been worth over a billion dollars to the Germans but political opposition in Germany, because of the use of Leopard 2s against civilians (especially Kurds) blocked the upgrade.

In response the Turks had a local firm, one that built the new Turkish Altay tank, develop and install an upgrade for some Leopard 2A5s for use in Syria or against PKK (Kurdish separatist) rebels in Turkey. The upgrade consisted of adding blocks of ERA (explosive reactive armor) on the sides of the tank and around the turret. In addition slat (a metal cage) armor was also installed around the turret. A Turkish designed APS (Active Protection System) was installed that senses and jams incoming ATGMs. The first of these Leopard 2A5s were available in early 2019. None have seen combat in Syria yet.

The new Turkish Altay is similar to modern American and European tanks and has been in development since 2008. The Turks plan to buy a thousand of the new Altays for about $5.5 million each. These will be acquired in four lots of 250 each although not all may be needed depending on the regional military-political situation. Although accepted into service during 2017, only about ten Altays have been produced so far,

Altay is similar to the American M1. Both have a 120mm gun, composite armor, and high-end electronics. The two tanks are so similar because in 2011 Turkey paid South Korea $400 million for rights to much of the technology in the new 55 ton South Korean K2 tank. This vehicle was in turn based on the 1980s K1, which deliberately emulated the M1 design in many ways and did so with the cooperation of the United States. The K1 and K2 proved to be successful designs, and the Turks already had decades of experience maintaining and upgrading American M-60 tanks (the predecessor of the M1). With the addition of the South Korean tech, the Altay rapidly took shape.

The K2 design was attractive to the Turks because it used a number of new electronic defenses. These include a laser detector that will instantly tell the crew the direction the enemy laser beam is coming from. Most tanks use a laser range finder before it fires its main gun and enemy infantry or aircraft use a laser designator for laser-guided missiles. The K2 fire control system also enables the main gun (120mm) to hit low flying aircraft, especially helicopters. There are also numerous improvements to the K1 mechanical and electronic systems, as well as more armor (both composite and ERA). This made the K2 (and Altay) easier to use and maintain. An autoloader reduces the crew to three men. The Altay is more heavily armored than the K2 and does not use the auto-loader. Saudi Arabia is considering purchasing several hundred Altays as part of an effort to cement an unofficial alliance with Turkey against Iran and anyone else who might threaten Saudi Arabia and its immediate neighbors. Some other Moslem states are also interested.

The Leopard 2 is not the only modern tank to encounter problems in Syria and Iraq. During the 2003 Iraq invasion no American M1 tanks were destroyed outright by enemy weapons although four M1s were disabled, but not destroyed, by Russian made Kornet ATGMs the Iraqis had. Several M1s were badly damaged, and some of these (the ones that could not move) were destroyed by U.S. troops to prevent advanced equipment falling into the hands of the enemy. The frontal armor of the M-1 continued to be invulnerable to any enemy weapons. But side and rear armor were vulnerable, as it was in the Leopard 2A4. In a friendly fire incident an M-2 Bradleys 25mm cannon, firing depleted uranium armor-piercing shells, penetrated the rear armor of an M1 and damaged the engine. RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) proved useless against the M-1, except in a few cases where they hit a vulnerable component (like a hydraulic line.) By 2005 the Americans had acquired a lot more combat experience with the M1. By then about 1,100 American M-1 tanks had served in Iraq and about 70 percent had been in combat where seven percent were badly damaged, at least badly enough to get them shipped back to the factory for rebuilding.

The Kornet E is a Russian laser-guided ATGM with a range of 5,000 meters, and was sold in the 1990s to a number of Middle Eastern nations. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate enough modern tank armor to render the side armor of the Israeli Merkava or U.S. M1 tanks vulnerable. The missile weighs 8.2 kg (18 pounds) and the launcher 19 kg (42 pounds). The system was introduced in 1994 and has been sold to Syria (who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah and Hamas). ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other rebel groups captured some Kornets in Syria.

American M1s suffered their first heavy losses in Iraq during 2014. Nearly a third of the 140 M1s the Iraq Army had received between 2010 and 2012 were destroyed or heavily damaged. Before 2014 no M1s had been destroyed by enemy action, but that was in large part because they were used by well-trained crews and commanders. Moreover, nearly all the American M1s that had been in combat had better armor. This impressed Iraq. Back in 2008, Iraq ordered 140 M1A1SA tanks, along with over a hundred support vehicles (for maintenance and transportation, like 35 tank transporters). The request includes training and technical support, for a total contract cost of over $2 billion. The tanks began arriving in 2010 and all were delivered by 2012. Iraq received newly built tanks, largely equipped to the "SA" (Situational Awareness") standard the U.S. Army developed in 2006. The M1A1-SA includes the latest thermal (FLIR, or heat sensing) sights, a special engine air filter system developed to deal with the abundant sand and dust in Iraq, the telephone on the rear fender, which allows accompanying infantry to communicate with the crew, and numerous small improvements.

There are several items that American M1s have the Iraqi SA tanks did not get. The Iraqi M1A1s had no depleted uranium armor, no ERA, and no additional protection against anti-tank missiles. Most of the M1 damage was done to M1s captured intact by ISIL and then attacked by American aircraft. But over a third of the M1s were destroyed or damaged by ISIL fighters. The Iraqi troops using the M1s did not, as they were taught by the Americans, use their M1s in conjunction with infantry. This allowed ISIL fighters to get close enough to M1s during combat to place explosives and disable or destroy some of these M1s.

Since early 2015 Saudi Arabia has had M1A2S tanks in Yemen and is believed to have several hundred there (or on the Yemen border) now. There have been some media reports of Saudi M1A2S losses, including several videos of the Shia rebels there doing some serious damage to these tanks. Iranian media has mentioned at least five M1A2S tanks lost and the Shia rebels captured at least two, which were apparently hunted down and destroyed by Saudi warplanes.

As the Americans discovered in Iraq, the M2A2S is still a potent weapon in irregular warfare, especially with well-trained and resolute crews. The U.S. shared their experience with the Saudis and now that the Saudis have had similar success with the M1A2S in Yemen, although with higher losses. What always makes the difference is the competence of the crews and the commanders sending into combat.

Since these Leopard and M1 incidents with ATGMs occurred, the United States decided to follow the Israeli example and equip their M1s (and lighter armored vehicles) with APS (Active Protection System), initially the Israeli Trophy as well as American made APS systems. Most APS consists of a radar to detect incoming missiles and small rockets to rush out and disable the incoming threat. A complete system weighs about a ton. There are lighter APS systems for smaller vehicles. Unlike the earlier APS systems, developed by Russia, the Israeli versions are much more reliable and have proved themselves in combat against Russian ATGMs and RPGs.

Modern Russian tanks have also encountered problems in Syria and Iraq. Iraq ordered 73 Russian T-90 tanks in mid-2017. The first 36 arrived in February with the rest following within two months. The new T-90 tanks were promptly used to replace their American M1 tanks, which proved vulnerable to ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). That was something of an exaggeration, as Syrians had already discovered two years earlier. That was when Russia gave Syria 30 T-90s, which were immediately put to work fighting various rebel factions. What the Russians failed to note was that some of these rebels had the American TOW wire-guided missile. While the T-90 has defenses against most ATGMS, the ones that are laser-guided, these defenses were less effective against the TOW. That because the T-90 ATGM defenses consist of two systems. One is a “dazzler” that is connected to laser sensors on the tank. If the sensors detect a laser beam hitting the tank the “dazzler” turns on sending out a laser that disrupts the targeting laser and causes the ATGM, if it is headed for the front of the tank, to miss the target The second ATGM defense offers some protection against TOW because it consists of plates of ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) which explodes when hit by the HEAT warhead used by ATGMs. HEAT forms a superhot plasma when it strikes something and the plasma can melt through most armor. The ERA explosion disrupts the formation of the plasma and prevents much of the penetration of the tanks’ metal armor. During the first incidents of ERA use against TOW, crews were seen abandoning the tank, even though the vehicle was shaken but not penetrated. Syrian crews came to fear even laser-guided missiles and would sometimes turn and try to get behind a building when the laser sensors alerted them that an ATGM was incoming. This was often a fatal mistake because it meant the dazzler was no longer aimed at the laser beam, which was now aimed at the side of the tank that did not have ERA. The ATGM hit and the tank was destroyed. Worse, more recent models of the TOW have a “top attack” warhead to defeat the ERA by detonating as it goes over the tank and penetrating the thinner armor on top, which also lacks ERA. Even though the rebels didn’t have any top attack TOW missiles, Syrian troops, or at least their Russian and Syrian advisors, adapted and proceeded more cautiously when it was suspected that they were facing ATGMs, especially TOWs.

Despite these precautions, six of the Syrian T-90s have been lost to ATGMs since they first arrived in late 2016. Three T-90s captured by rebels. Two of these were destroyed while being used by the rebels while the third one was recaptured. This highlights another problem the Syrian and Iraqi army shares; poorly trained and led troops. At this point, the Syrians avoid using their T-90s in close proximity to the enemy and the T-90s are less frequently seen in combat.

The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available on the market. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of older T-72s, which proved no competition for the American M1. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities since the 1990s but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. The T-90 was a late 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90 in order to help with export sales. That succeeded in making the tank an export success with most (nearly 90 percent) of those produced going to export customers. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its 550 newly built T-90s into the reserve. While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next-big-thing the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be cheaper and more reliable than T-90s, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs.

This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU (trying to merge T-80 elements into the T-72 design) and the decline in manufacturing quality in Russia's defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90s began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time, the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades) and these cost nearly two million dollars each but can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government is giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media. The Iraqis don’t really care about the superiority of the T-72B3 because the T-90s are easier to obtain, do the job (usually fighting irregulars) and have large profits built in that allow for generous bribes to Iraqi officials who approve the purchase orders.




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