Armor: December 29, 2004

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: Who has the most effective tank in the world continues. The most likely candidates are western tank designs (the M1 Abrams, the Challenger, the LeClerc, and the Leopard 2), which are much better on a tank-for-tank basis than Russian designs like the T-64 and its descendants (the T-72, T-80 and T-90).

Which of these four Western tanks is the best? Websites like globalsecurity.org or recognition guides from Janes can give basic specifications. Added to combat records, one can see that the French LeClerc drops back on one major issue: It has an autoloader which is much slower and maintenance-intensive than a 19-year-old private.

That leaves the Big Three of Western tanks. The Challenger is slow, but heavily armored. It also has a gun with a longer range (in Desert Storm, a Challenger killed an Iraqi tank five kilometers away) than either the M1A2 or the Leopard 2. That said, it is much slower than the other two (56 kilometers an hour vs. 72 for the Leopard 2 and 67.6 for the Abrams), and it is arguably at its best on defense.

The Leopard 2 and Abrams are very similar tanks. The major difference is in the type of engine used. The Leopard 2 uses a diesel engine, while the Abrams used a gas turbine. Each engine has its advantages and disadvantages. The Leopard 2s diesel is more efficient, giving the German tank more range (550 kilometers to 426 kilometers for the Abrams). That said, the gas turbine on the Abrams is quieter, meaning that opponents without infrared systems will have a harder time detecting the Abrams at night, which can mean their only warning an Abrams is around could be when the Abrams sends a 120mm candygram their way most of the time, the result will be a direct hit.

There are smaller differences. The Leopard 2 has two 7.62mm machine guns one anti-aircraft gun, the other a coaxial machine gun. The Abrams has three: One 12.7mm machine gun for anti-aircraft work (also very useful against infantry and unarmored vehicles), a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun, and a second machine gun mounted near the loaders hatch. The Abrams has an edge here, since the loader can cover a sector in addition to  the coaxial machine gun and the commanders machine gun. This means it is that much harder for infantry to sneak up on the Abrams than it would be to sneak up on a Leopard.

The matter of auxiliary power is another thing not always mentioned in the specs. The Leopard 2 has none. The Abrams features an auxiliary power unit, which allows it to shut off the turbine in some instances, allowing it to conserve fuel. In situations where the Abrams is on defense, this is a huge advantage not only because the Abrams saves fuel, but because infrared sensors have a harder time picking it up. Again, the first indication the Abrams is there will be when it fires and well-trained Abrams crews are very accurate. If you see an Abrams firing at you, it is probably the last thing you will see.

Finally, there is another item that doesnt show up in the specs: Internal arrangement. The Leopard stores some of its main gun ammunition in the crew compartment, and uses steel as its liner. While the steel can keep something out, it also creates nasty spall fragments when a sabot or HESH (high-explosive squash head) round strikes the tank. The Abrams keeps its main gun ammo in a separate compartment and has a spall liner while using aluminum, reducing casualties when an Abrams is hit. This is important an uninjured crew can fight back even if the tank is damaged. This was proven In Desert Storm, when an Abrams stuck in the mud continued fighting despite taking three hits from the main guns of Iraqi T-72 tanks and promptly dispatched the offending T-72s. The tank defied American efforts to destroy it in place, and after being recovered had the turret replaced and was back with its unit in 24 hours. The damaged turret was sent back to the United States for analysis.

In short, the Abrams still takes the title overall, despite arguable deficiencies in range (which careful logistics planning can overcome), as its combat record proves. The Leopard 2 is a close second, and the Challenger 2 isnt far behind the Leopard. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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