Rheinmetall, a major German defense manufacturer, recently revealed the working prototype of its Panther, a new tank designed to replace the 63-ton Leopard 2A7V. Rheinmetall developed the 63-ton Panther with its own funds and says it can begin mass production by the end of 2024 if there are any orders.
Panther is one of the two NextGen (next generation) tanks to actually be built. The other one is the 55-ton Russian T-14 Armata. A working prototype appeared in 2014 and several have taken part in every Moscow May 8th Victory Day Parade since 2015. T-14 was supposed to enter service in 2022 but was delayed by economic sanctions and a shortage of skilled workers. The T-14 uses a lot of high-tech components from Western firms. A “test batch” of 100 production model T-14s was ordered in 2016 and but the tank has suffered several design and production delays since then. In 2022 it appears that even 32 T-14s could not be completed. There have been several visible changes to the T-14 since 2015. Crew size has been increased from two to three. There appear to have been changes to external sensors as well as the engine. The biggest obstacle is cost. Even if planned production of over 2,000 T-14s were carried out, each one would still cost nearly $10 million. The Russian defense budget cannot afford the $2o billion cost of a NextGen tank. Based on Russia’s experience in Ukraine, the T-14 would not have performed as the Wonder Weapon it was supposed to be.
Rheinmetall followed the T-14’s development, and the performance of the most advanced Russian tanks (the T-90M) in Syria, while developing Panther. Rheinmetall is the source of many key technologies in the Leopard, M1 and several other tanks and is recognized for the quality and effectiveness of its tech. The most effective is expensive and that means Panther will cost more than $10 million each even if built in large quantities. The British Challenger 2 tank costs over $12 million each mainly because so few have been built. Another problem is that some current Western “third generation” tanks are nearly as effective as NextGen designs, cost less and are already available in large numbers. China shows no interest in a NextGen tank design, mainly because it takes a more calculated attitude towards new weapons.
Currently the American M1A2SEP and the Leopard 2A7V are two most effective and numerous modern tanks. There is also the lighter 57-ton French LeClerc 2 and the 63-ton British Challenger 2. Both of these tanks were built in small numbers (about 400 each). Rheinmetall won the billion-dollar contract to produce the Challenger 3, which is a major upgrade of Challenger 2, including a new turret and much improved 120mm gun.
There was a lot of talk about the need for a NextGen tank in the 1980s, but that disappeared with the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, NextGen tanks were not an issue but what to do with over 10,000 modern tanks, most of them American M1s and German Leopard 2s, was a problem. Most of these tanks were sold off, cheaply or went into storage. After a decade of that NATO nations realized there was still a need for modern tanks and so began two decades of upgrades, but no NextGen tank.
Meanwhile Russia, humiliated by the poor performance of its T-72 tanks in combat, created the T-90 (actually a much-improved T-72). India bought most of them and Russia sent some of their T-90s to Syria after 2015, but was disappointed by their performance. Some early model Turkish Leopard 2s also saw action in Syria, where they demonstrated they were not as invulnerable as the latest M1A1 tank. The M1 has the most extensive combat record and that provided practical advice on what upgrades were needed.
Another source of innovation was from Israel, a small country that can afford to build its own tanks. Nearly 2,000 Merkava tanks have been built since the first appeared in 1979. This was a year before the first M1 entered service. Both tanks began with 105mm guns before upgrading to 120mm. While the Merkava weight increased from 61 to 65 tons, the M1 grew from 54 to 66 tons and nearly 11,000 have been built so far with many later upgraded. Same with Merkava, which means about half of those built are still in service, most of them upgraded Merkava 3s in reserved brigades. The active-duty troops have the 380 Merkava 4s.
Israel and the U.S. have always cooperated in developing and sharing new tech for their tanks. A lot of the tech is familiar; fire control, day/night sensors, internal layout and new forms of protection. Some of these items are unexpected and quite useful. One example is a way to make maximum use of external cameras. In 2017, a ground vehicle VR (Virtual Reality) system called Iron Vision was introduced and Merkava 4 was the first tank to get it. Iron Vision meant a tank could largely dispense with the traditional dependence on the tank commander spending a lot of time with his head sticking out of the turret to get a better view of the situation. The VR helmet display worn by crew does not just show real-time video of what is outside but also an overlay of other information or even a map. Israel pioneered the development and use of these helmets for pilots and the F-35 stealth fighter was designed to use such a helmet. Most modern tanks are equipped with these small external digital vidcams but Iron Vision makes the external cameras much easier to use and a lot more effective.
While the Leopard 2 has maintained a similar level of tech with the M1 and Merkava and on paper was the best of the three tanks, in practice the M1 and Merkava have an edge. This was partially because both Israeli and American tanks and crews have more combat experience and have kept developing new tank tech. The M1 has the overall edge because more are in service and still succeeding in combat. Russia needed a T-14 more than the West needed a Panther NextGen tank. One reason for that is the West develops most of the new tank tech and has larger and more robust economies than Russia. The West sees NextGen tanks as something to counter the Russian threat. That is easier and cheaper than the Russian requirement to outperform the best Western tanks. China is uninterested in developing a NextGen tank because it would be too expensive and there are cheaper ways to deal with Western tank superiority.