Attrition: First Leopard 2 Combat Losses

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February 13, 2017: Turkey has lost eight German made Leopard 2A4 tanks in combat since their troops entered the Syria in August 2016. Also lost was an older U.S. made M70T tank and four 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 Leopard 2A4 is a contemporary of the American M1, but without the upgraded armor. Most 2A models have a stabilizer (for firing on the move) and a thermal imager (for seeing through night, mist and sand storms.) Germany has been selling refurbed 2A4s since the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and the German army was much reduced in size. This enabled many nations to inexpensively upgrade their much older tanks. Turkey already had older Leopard 1 tanks and was familiar with the Leopard line. While the Turkish crews were trained to NATO standards the Turkish Leopard 2s did not have the additional equipment and protection the U.S. had added to its M1s as a result of extensive combat experience since 2003.

Most of the eight Leopards lost in Syria were because of ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) that later models of the Leopard 2, M1 and Israeli Merkava are largely immune to. These ATGM hits did not always destroy the Leopard 2s but they did disable it and cause the surviving crew to abandon the vehicle. Some of these Leopard 2s were late heavily damaged by Turkish air strikes to prevent ISIL from making any use of them.

During the 2003 Iraq invasion no American M-1 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 was 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 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 have been 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 captured some Kornets in Syria.

As infantry have known since World War I, tanks draw fire. But they are well protected, and fewer than twenty of the 4,400 tank crewmen involved in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 were killed, two thirds of them while standing up in a turret hatch, with at least head and shoulders exposed. The main cause of lost tanks is, as it has been since World War II, is mines and bombs. A few tanks have rolled over particularly large bombs, which in some cases flipped the tank. But other times, mines blow off one of the tracks, immobilizing the tank and making it the center of a fierce fight. But the terrorists and anti-government forces have come to avoid American tanks. In 2007 a Canadian Leopard 2A7 was disabled by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. That vehicle was recovered and repaired. One of the Turkish Leopard 2 losses was due to a suicide truck bomb that disabled the tank and the Turks were not able to recover the Leopard.

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 (Explosive Reactive Armor), 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.

 


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