Armor: Be Good To Your Leopard

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January 22, 2020: The Portuguese Army is carrying out a “mid-life upgrade” for their German Leopard 2A6 tanks. This will keep the Leopards operational and up-to-date for another decade or two. Their 2A6 models were the latest version when obtained second-hand (and barely used) from the Netherlands in 2008. Since then most of the more than 2,000 2A6s in service have undergone this refurbishment and a growing number have been upgraded to 2A7 and later standards. Work on the Portuguese Leopards will be carried out from 2026 to 2030 and cost about $51.2 million.

Worn components repaired or replaced while some major systems will undergo modifications that include many upgrades aimed to improve crew situational awareness and comfort. The driver will receive a passive imaging camera suite to improve the front and rear-view camera. Other upgrades involve an air conditioning unit to cool electronics in the turret and improve crew endurance. Another upgrade will be an APU (auxiliary power unit) to cope with increased power demand and deliver continuous power supply while the vehicle is idle for long periods. There will also be a new fire extinguishing system in the driver and combat compartments plus better capacitors in the electrical suite to mitigate harmful electrical discharges. The main gun will get mechanical and hydraulic gun stabilization, while the turret control and drive systems will be replaced by electric ones.

Portugal agreed to purchase its 37 Leopard 2s from the Netherlands in 2007. All of these arrived in 2009. These used Leopards replaced 97 American M60 tanks, a 1960s design that was popular for several decades. Some 15,000 M-60s were produced from 1959 to 1983 but it was largely replaced by the American M1 and Leopard 2 in the 1990s. The M1 entered service in 1980 and 10,300 have been built so far. The Leopard 2 followed in 1983 and 3,600 were built. Production of both these tanks sharply declined after the Cold War ended in 1991. At that point, a lot of existing Leopard 2s were no longer needed and became a hot item in the second-hand market. By 2010 secondhand Leopard 2s were hard to come by because so many had already been sold or scrapped. Portugal tried to acquire more used Leopard 2 tanks but unfortunately for them there no more to be had.

Portugal was not the only one trying to obtain more Leopard 2s. Germany sold off or retired so many of its Leopard 2s that, by 2017 when they sought to rebuild their tank force to face the new Russian threat, it found Turkey, Chile, Greece, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and Poland each have more operational Leopard 2 tanks than Germany. This odd situation was revealed in late 2017 when it was discovered that 53 Leopard 2s were unavailable because they were undergoing upgrades and 86 were inoperable because of spare parts shortages. That meant Germany only had 95 Leopard 2 tanks that were combat ready. That’s 39 percent of the 244 Leopard 2s then operated by the German army.

This was all attributed to a 2015 program to expand and upgrade the German tank force. That involved taking 104 retired (in the 1990s) Leopard 2A4 tanks and putting them back into service after refurbishing the older tanks and upgrading them to the A7V standard. The 104 reactivated Leopard 2A7Vs did not begin arriving until 2019 and it will take until 2023 to complete the process. There may be further additions to the active tank force depending on how much of a threat Russia continues to pose.

Most Germans believed peace would last after the communist governments Russia had imposed on most East European nations after 1945 suddenly collapsed in 1989 followed by the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991. That marked the end of the Cold War. On top of that Germany was reunited in 1990 and the Russian-equipped East German military was largely scrapped. At that point, the German Leopard 2 fleet shrank over 85 percent (from 2,000 to 225). Germany also retired over older 2,200 Leopard 1s. Most of the retired Leopards were sold off or scrapped. But nearly a thousand Leopard 2s were put in storage just in case. Until 2014 Germany believed that those retired Leopard 2s would eventually be sold off or used for spare parts. A minority of Germans thought there was still a risk of a renewed Russian threat and so plans were made to keep upgrading Leopard 2s for foreign customers who were now operating most of the remaining Leopard 2s. Only 225 German Leopards were kept on duty.

Continuing to encourage Leopard 2 upgrades made business sense because back in the 1990s the two most modern and effective tanks were the American M1 and the Leopard 2. In many respects, the Germans were just trying to stay competitive with the M1 upgrades. For example in 2014 Germany, Canada and Denmark agreed to upgrade over a hundred of their Leopard 2A6 tanks with ATTICA thermal imaging systems used by the tank commander and gunner. In most modern tanks both the commander and the gunner have high tech sights, usually with thermal (heat imaging) capability. The ATTICA sight is 3rd generation and that means images are sharper, more easily linked with other systems and the equipment is more reliable and easier to maintain. Third generation also means the engineers have added more wish-list items they have been receiving from earlier users over the years. The upgrade costs about $100,000 per sight and give Leopard 2 users something most M1 users already had.

In 2009 Germany began upgrading its few active duty Leopard tanks from the 2A6 to the A7+ standard. That meant more armor on the sides and rear. This was needed to provide protection against RPG rockets. There were also more external cameras so the crew inside could see anything in any direction, day or night. That made a remotely (from inside the tank) controlled machine-gun station on top of the turret more useful. Other upgrades included better fire control and combat control computers and displays, a more powerful auxiliary power unit and better air conditioning, and numerous other minor improvements to mobility (engine, track laying system, wheels and related gear), soundproofing and the thermal sights. This would increase the weight of the tank to nearly 70 tons.

The Leopard 2A7+ also got more effective ammunition for its 120mm gun. This included fragmentation shells that detonate above or behind a target. Non-lethal ammo has also been developed for the Leopard 2A7+. The manufacturer also announced it was beginning work on Leopard 3 (a major upgrade of the Leopard 2).

In 2016 the Leopard got its latest upgrade; the A7V. This added a few features to the A7+ including a 20 KW auxiliary power supply so the stationary tank could continue to operate all its electronics when the main engine was shut down. The other addition was the ability to easily add additional armor modules.

The 55 ton Leopard 2A6 was introduced in 2006, is still the most commonly used model, and is a contemporary of the American M-1. The 2A6 model has a stabilizer (for firing on the move) and a thermal imager (for seeing through night, mist and sand storms.) Germany has been selling less capable (but refurbished) 2A4s since the 1990s. This enabled many nations to inexpensively upgrade their aging armored forces. Since 2000 many nations have upgraded to the A6 standard. Most users prefer to continue upgrading their Leopards, mainly because there are no new tanks to buy. Thus the appeal of an upgrade to the Leopard 2A7+ standard.

Until the 1980s, the German Leopard I was considered one of the best tanks available. Entering service in the late 1960s, it was the first post-World War II German tank design. Although a contemporary of the American M60A3, the German tank was considered superior. For this reason, Germany was able to export Leopards to many nations. Most of the 4,744 produced (plus 1,741 Leopard chassis adapted to other uses, like recovery and anti-aircraft) have since been retired (in storage) or scrapped. Many owners eventually had to melt down their Leopard 1s is because there was not much of a market left for 44 ton tanks, even those equipped with a lot of nifty upgrades. The original buyers of Leopard Is have already flooded the market and by the 1990s only Leopard 2s were wanted.

The German Leopard 2 appeared in 1979 and was an immediate export hit, especially to replace elderly U.S. M-60 tanks (a 1960s design.) But when the Cold War ended in 1991 many Leopard 2 users looked to sell off many of their Leopard 2s. Most of the original 3,500 Leopard 2s have been sold as second-hand vehicles to Austria, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Portugal, Greece, Chile, Turkey and Spain. Originally, West Germany bought 2,125 new Leopard 2 tanks, the Netherlands 445, Switzerland 370, Sweden 120, Spain 219 and Greece 170. Although a contemporary of the U.S. M1, many consider the 62 ton Leopard 2 a superior tank, even though the M1 has much more combat experience and subsequent upgrades based on the experience in battle.

In 2003 both Germany and the United States believed the usefulness of heavy tanks like the M-1 and Leopard 2 were over. Then came Iraq and Afghanistan where it was found that these traditional designs were still very useful, especially with the most modern accessories like thermal sights, vidcams for all-round visibility from inside the tank and modern air-conditioning systems that can withstand tropical heat. Thus upgrading the Leopard 2s remains a big business. --- Przemyslaw Juraszek

 


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