Title: The Leopard 2: the return of the main battle tank

Sub-title: Once thought passé, main battle tanks are now making a big comeback. For example Krauss-Maffei Wegmann’s Leopards play a key role in Canada’s Afghanistan mission. Now it hopes to upgrade the 100 vehicles that the CF has just bought from the Netherlands.

 

Christopher Müller slipped into the Leopard II A6 tank gunner’s chair as though that’s where he lived. He gave the vehicle’s night vision scopes, fire controls and other gauges a quick once over and then grunted satisfaction.

 

“This is a wonderful piece of equipment,” said Müller, a former German Army tank platoon commander said with a big smile. “For a while, the main battle tank’s role in land operations was called into question in some quarters. But at Krauss-Maffei Wegmann we never believed those assessments. So it is nice to see the machines’ prestige on the rise again.”

 

If the lessons learned from Canada’s experiences in its Afghanistan deployment are anything to go by, Müller could not be more right. “Simply put, tanks save lives,” claimed a recent Canadian Armed Forces background paper on the subject. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s use of lethal and readily available anti-armor weapons, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is a clear threat. Tanks have also provided the Canadian Forces with the capability to travel to locations that would otherwise be inaccessible to wheeled light armored vehicles, including Taliban defensive positions.”

 

With that kind of a “thumbs up,” it should come as no surprise that tanks are now considered an integral part of the Afghan mission. There was no clearer indication of that, as when late last year, Canada announced a $650 million purchase and upgrade initiative to acquire 100 Leopard 2 tanks from the Netherlands, which will then be retrofitted and upgraded to prepare them for deployments in asymmetrical conflicts.

 

Initially, many of these tanks will be used to support the current Afghan contingent. That deployment includes 21 Leopard Is and 20 or so Leopard 2 A6s, similar to the one that Müller was demonstrating, which are currently on loan from the German Army.

 

While all the facts aren’t in yet, initial data indicate that the choice of the Leopard 2s appears to have been a good one. For one, the vehicle has an impressive long term success and durability record. Over the years an astounding 8,000 Leopard Is and Leopard IIs have been sold to an impressive list of 16 user nations. These countries now comprise an informal “Leopard Club,” which meets regularly to share product improvements, operational data and even on occasion, procurement costs regarding hardware improvements.

 

The loyalty among Leopard users comes as no surprise to Krauss-Maffei Wegmann executives says Müller. The Leopard II has been a winner in many trials and competitions involving main battle tanks. And like many Krauss-Maffei Wegmann personnel, Müller is not shy about claiming its superiority over competitors’ offerings ranging from the U.S. M-1A1 Abrams, the UK’s Challenger 2 and the French Leclerc models.

 

Rebuilding Canada’s armored vehicle capabilities

While 100 additional tanks may seem like a lot, it is anything but. Even after the federal government’s recent commitments to help start to rebuild the Canadian Armed Forces’ physical assets, budgets nevertheless remain tight. In fact, 100 tanks is thought to be the smallest number that can be purchased, that would still enable the economical establishment of operational tanks units, an adequate reserve and which could provide spare backup units.

 

For example even after the 100 Leopard IIs bought in the current round are fully upgraded to prepare them for their new roles, only 40 will be ready to be deployed in combat. Another 40 will be put in reserve for training purposes. These reserve tanks` deployments will split between the Combat Training Center in Gagetown, where individual tank training will be conducted and a base out West where group training will occur. The last 20 tanks will be used as special purpose support vehicles.

 

An indispensable element in theater

By all accounts CF personnel are thrilled to get access to the new capabilities. In fact the new acquisitions represent a significant U-turn in Canadian policy regarding tanks, which as recently as a few years ago were in effect being phased out, in favor of other wheeled armored vehicles, notably the hugely popular LAV III.  However the Afghanistan deployment and several others that NATO members have participated in, in recent years, show that that tracked vehicles, with heavy firepower continue to play an indispensable element in theater says Müller.

 

“When positioned on a hill or other strategic area, tanks can provide incredible ground cover for infantry forces,” says Müller. “In Iraq for example US policy regarding many cities is “first in, last out. That means tank units will be the first to enter many of the more hazardous Iraqi cities and they will be the last to leave, when forces are clearing out.”

 

Tanks also bring another clear advantage to asymmetrical warfare deployments such as Afghanistan. “The fact that tanks can deliver more precision strikes than say artillery or cluster bombing is crucial,” says Müller. “These deployments are about winning the hearts and minds of the locals. They cannot be won through merely military measures. So minimizing collateral damages is crucial.”

 

Saving lives remains a key concern

And of course one of the key variables in maintaining Canada’s commitment to the Afghanistan mission lies in keeping casualties down. While Canada’s soldiers and their families are often the last to complain about the incredible strain that these tours often take, public opinion is exceptionally vulnerable to the “drip drip” constant news coverage of every single death. That means saving lives, which is always a key concern, has also become an operational necessity.

 

There too tanks can play a role. “The heavily protected direct fire capability of a main battle tank is an invaluable tool in the arsenal of any military,” reads the Canadian Forces background briefing paper. “The (Leopard 2 tanks) are able to operate in intense heat as their electrical turret systems and more powerful engines generate significantly less heat than the hydraulic systems of Canada’s (older tanks). They will also be fitted with climate control systems once in theatre.”

 

A big decision

While the fact that main battle tanks do have a key role in future CF operations is now generally accepted, less clear is what those 100 Leopard tanks will look like once they head in theatre. True, these are impressive machines. With their front, roof and modular protection systems, their 120 mm smooth bore guns and electric turret and gun drives, these are not the type of machine that you want to mess with.

 

That said,  although those 100 Leopard 2s that Canada is getting from the Netherlands are in excellent condition, before they can be deployed they will need to be upgraded to ready them to deal both with asymmetrical warfare threats such as rocket propelled grenades and IEDs and to ready them to operate in the hostile Afghanistan environment.

 

The fact of the matter is, that as good as they are, those 100 Leopard 2 A6s, were built to take on Cold War threats. Bank then, the biggest fear among military experts was thought to be a massive Soviet tank onslaught that might one day piece through central Europe. As a result, planners expected Leopard 2 deployments to occur in large masses, together. Not surprisingly then, these vehicles` armour tends to be concentrated in the front.

 

However for War on Terror type deployments, the Leopard 2s will need to operate in smaller groups, often in populated areas, in which they could be attacked from any side. In fact to protect troops from IEDs, the terrorists’ favourite tactic, the CF will almost certainly want the Leopard 2s to have increased armour protection on the vehicles’ soft underbelly.

 

That said, according to one expert, at this stage the precise form those upgrades will take remains up in the air. “The Letter of Intent indicated that DND could end up with a mixed fleet,” said Larry Brownrigg, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann’s representative in Canada. “Personally I do not think that that would be such a great idea. This approach may save some money in the short term, however it would present various technical, financial and operational availability risks all of which could affect the CF`s deployment flexibility, often at critical times.”

 

The good news is that Krauss-Maffei Wegmann`s Münich facilities offer an impressive range of professional upgrade services and are used to taking on special challenges head on. For example one Müller believes that many features included on one of the Leopard 2 latest variants, the PSO, could be also installed on the CF`s A6s. These include mine protection features such as an adaptable belly place, new driver`s seats, track protection, as well as enhanced side and turret/chassis protection.  In fact some of these features, such as slat-armour protection against RPGs have already been installed on CF tanks that are already in Afghanistan.

 

However on the day that we met Müller, he was in a thoughtful mood. Despite the fact that his recent ride in Leopard made him recall his good old days as a Cold War commander, he was thinking mostly about the future. “The Canadian Forces are deployed in a very dangerous part of Afghanistan,” said Müller thoughtfully. “The threats that they are under are far different than those I had to deal with. But here at Krauss Maffei, we have been thinking about those new threats for a `long time. And we will do whatever we can to help.

 

 

Peter Diekmeyer is Canadian Defence Review’s Quebec correspondent.

 

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