Leopard 1A5 – See first, shoot first (and then what?)

The news that Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands will join forces to supply 100 Leopard1A5 is good news for Ukraine. That is the case even if it is significantly older than the Leopard 2A6 and a step below the 2A4 when it comes to protection and raw firepower. It is, however, in some ways what Ukraine needs.

The Leopard 1 as it once was, pictured in West German service during REFORGER/AUTUMN FORGE ’83. Forty years later, the tank seems set to fulfil the mission it was designed for – to exchange fire with Russian tanks invading a European democracy. Source: CMSGT Don Sutherland, USAF/Wikimedia Commons

The Leopard 1 (known simply as ‘Leopard’ when it first entered service) was an attempt to push the Mobility – Firepower part of the performance triangle while sacrificing some of the Protection in the process. It wasn’t an overly successful concept and the Leopard 2 took a step back to a more balanced (and successful) concept. The bad news is that the Leopard 1 has not improved with age as the Cold War has faded into history. The prime example is the main armament: the legendary 105 mm Royal Ordnance L7 (M68 to you US tankers) which was responsible for the firepower-part of the original Leopard’s design. Once the finest tank gun of the west and fitted to a host of different tanks, it is by now (as are rifled 105 mm guns in general) outdated for tank killing. The 105 mm rifled has been gradually replaced in the West by 120 mm smoothbores as the main tank armament starting in the 80’s with the introduction of the Leopard 2. However, on the positive side, while the L7 is outdated, so are a lot of the potential targets on the battlefield in Ukraine. The T-62 and T-64 are roughly of the same generation, and a lot of the T-72 running around are not the latest and greatest T-72B3M, but Cold War carry-overs.

Another key aspect here is that when discussing tank guns, ammunition is often forgotten. There are huge differences between the capabilities of individual tank rounds also when fired from the same gun. It is somewhat unclear how the 105 mm rounds will be sourced, and what ammunition will be used by the Leopard 1A5s. Countries that still operate 105 mm equipped tanks obviously have rounds in storage, and likely relatively new ones. Greece with both the Leopard 1 and M48 Patton is a good example, and they might share a few rounds even if their tanks are expected to stay where they are. There are still modern 105 mm on offer which includes e.g. Nexter offering the MECAR developed M1060A2 and -A3 APFSDS-T anti-tank rounds (as well as a HEAT-round). What kind of production numbers you get is anyone’s guess, as is how many and what kind of rounds are left in storage. An interesting round that is unlikely to reach Ukraine is the M900 APFSDS-T which was used by the US in the now retired Stryker-version desginated M1128 Mobile Gun System, which while very cool-looking was retired due to a number of different issues. As one of the last modern platforms to bring the M68 to the battlefield, its failure is the kind of thing people point to when questioning whether the 105 mm has any role on the modern battlefield. Still, the fact is that the vehicle did see the light of day and operational service up until recently means the US does have modern 105 mm APFSDS-T rounds in service despite the 105 mm Abrams having been retired, though these rounds come with depleted Uranium penetrators which are controversial and unlikely to be exported.

The 105 mm L7 gun is already in service on the Ukrainian battlefield, here with the 47th Magura Brigade and their ex-Slovenian M-55S tanks. Source: Ukrainian MoD/Wikimedia Commons

For the Leopard 1 in particular, the best widely used round for the Leopard 1A5 is the DM63, a German license produced version of the Israeli M426. You might/probably/perhaps/will bag a T-72B with it, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to try. There are Swedish trials which have seen DM63 (locally called Slpprj 90, a wonderfully impossible to pronounce abbreviation from the words SpårLjus PansarPRoJektil) pass “straight through” the turret of a T-72M1, though it is notable that the M1 is a relatively weakly armoured export-version of the tank. A Finnish armoured officer in turn makes the comparison to the older 120 mm DM33, so most older versions of T-72 and T-80 (and T-62/T-64) should be vulnerable.

Of course, the Israeli connection might be an issue. Or then not. There’s unconfirmed (and I stress that word) reports the Slovenian delivery of the M-55S included the DM63 (seems likely Israel had to sign off on the M-55S in either case considering Elbit’s role in the upgrade, giving some credibility to the rumour). If you could get the Israelis onboard, you might also be able to low-key buy an even nicer piece of kit – Elbit’s M428 Sword. In either case, the M-55S has brought the L7 to the Ukrainian battlefield already, meaning that at least on a smaller scale someone has been studying the options for supplying the gun with ammunition.

However, in either case, let’s not bash the L7 too much. Ukraine currently has tanks capable of using significantly better rounds in the form of the Soviet-origin 125 mm smoothbore 2A46 fitted to the T-64, T-72, and T-80 families of vehicles. With the capture of T-90 and the modern Svinets-family of rounds, Ukraine has access to the most modern Russian APFSDS rounds available which are expected to be decades better than anything that can be fired from the L7. However, that statement – while factually correct – is still misleading as at the same time it seems clear that in many cases Ukraine has had to settle for Cold War-relics as ammunition due to lack of modern rounds. As such, a modern 105 mm round you have has better performance than a modern 125 mm round you don’t.

Picture released by the Ukrainian General Staff, which Finnish armoured corps major (G.S.) Mäenpää pointed out shows a 3BK18M HEAT-round being loaded onto a T-80BV. The usage of a mid-70’s HEAT round by what for the Ukrainian War is a relatively modern platform shows the danger of focusing on stated performance of individual tank guns. Source: @GeneralStaffUA Twitter

However, everything is not terrible with the Leopard 1. Key among the nice features are the sensors. The Leopard 1A5 is an upgrade to the baseline Leopard 1 based around the EMES-15 sights and fire control system developed for the Leopard 2 (the 1A5-version being designated the EMES-18) which are top notch compared to almost every tank rolling around in Ukraine at the moment. The Leopard 1A5-designation is also more vague than might initially be expected, as among the possible candidates for delivery is both ex-German 1A5 and ex-Danish 1A5DK which are even further upgraded (described as “except for the gun, much better than the [Leopard 2]A4“). In addition, though so far not approved for export, there are also a number of ex-Belgian Leopard 1A5BE in storage as well as Canadian Leopard C2 which correspond to the 1A5-standard.

A Danish Leopard 1A5DK with a RAMTA mine plow showing off the heavily modified turret. Source: Vinding/Wikimedia Commons

The 1A5DK are expected to make up a serious part of the deliveries initially, and as such will further improve on the strengths of the tank (as a side-note, the Danish Leopard 1A5 have also seen combat, when the Jydske Dragonregiment squared off against a number of Srpska T-55s in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994). In modern tank combat, seeing the enemy first and hitting with the first round are a big plus (you will still have to get through the enemy armour, but it’s a start), so the value of these features shouldn’t be underestimated. The lower weight compared to the Leopard 2 (and Abrams and Challengers) will also be a benefit on the battlefield where the lack of (undamaged) heavy road infrastructure and muddy terrain in parts of the country benefit a lighter vehicle. Sure, you probably would prefer to have the armour and 120 mm gun, but better mobility is at least something.

…and perhaps most importantly, the 1A5 are available in nice numbers. Yes, they are old. Yes, sourcing spares and ammunition will be a headache. Yes, they will take time to get out of storage. But having tanks is better than not having tanks.

13 thoughts on “Leopard 1A5 – See first, shoot first (and then what?)

  1. DEmoDE

    Apparently many of Leo1 Rheinmetall bought (80+) are former Italian Army ones, already bought years ago by RUAG to be sold to a certain south America country. Contract never finalized. They are italian hulls with second hand german Leo1A5 turrets. Parked for years at Officine Goriziane.

  2. Smokerr

    Keep in mind that we are not seeing a major clash of Armor vs Armor in Ukraine. As has been true of most Armored assaults, they attack the least armored section of a line. The goal is to break through and roll a line up, not go toe to toe with other tanks. Clearly an Armored force can and does deal with other tanks, but most of its action is against infantry and their dug in positions. The Normandy breakout came against a very weak armor area of the German lines.
    Yes there were clashes but those in quantity were the latter response and as is typical of an Armored attack against a set Armored force, they took major losses. M4 Sherman’s took on Panthers best when the Germans attacked and the M4s could pick and choose when to fire.

    1. Patrik "BP" Andersson

      Forget the Normandie, that was just a sideshow to the Eastern front which saw the largest tank battles in the war, Kursk only on third place.

      The ting that matters isn’t the gun or armour on those Leopards, it is whether or not they have night- and more importantly, thermal vision systems or not. Second most important is of what generation and quality.
      Right now, both sides have a lack of capability in the dark, so if the Leopards have such sights, theat is worth more than whatever ammunition they carry.

      1. Pvt.Joker

        What I am worried about is that China will supply Russia with better optics, thermals and comms.

        China has the potential to mass produce anything.

        They might even combine their future MBT projects, China could be interested in fitting Russian guns on their turrets.

      2. TransWorld

        China is keeping on the safer side of the line in regards to Russia despite the Fraternal Friendship (which can then become unfraternel on a dime). Chip supply is a complex aspect that the US leads in design and equipment and can put a hold on export to China.
        Yes China is buying oil and gas at a huge discount which meets the goals of the sanctions.
        China and Russia have their flash points and its worth reading the history of the Armour (sp) River basin. China has declared itself a near arctic power (read that as they want Siberia and are flooding Siberia with Chinese workers).
        If you follow China you see the beginning of their economic bubble pop, huge numbers of Apartments are vacant, unfinished, paid for and the companies building them gone belly up.
        China is going to be cautious about getting embroiled in more than they are, possibly for some time. Pacific Nations and even Europe is beginning to get that its a threat.
        I don’t dismiss it at all lightly but its not a cozy relationship, they both have areas they clash in trying to dominate the near nations from the old Soviet Union.

  3. J

    Leopard 1 is surely better than just taking selfies like Finland does. Year two is here and western support is still amateurish and weak. Finland says it is a superpower in artillery, but can’t produce 122 mm rounds in significant numbers for Ukraine. How can you fight a war if you can’t make hundreds of thousands rounds for your most common gun in a month? This has been a real test for defense planning in Europe and everybody fails. Sad thing is that it’s been a year and industry is still sleeping and politicians aren’t hurrying like they should when there is ongoing genocide in Europe. Just having fun and selfies.

    1. Smokerr

      It depends on your stockpiles. The US has huge stockpiles of 155 mm and does not count on making 100,000 a month either. Maybe Soviets cold war or the US/UK WWII.
      But if you do not have the stockpiles then you are fooling yourself as I have yet to read anyone say about a war, dang, we used a lot less ammo than we thought we would.

    2. Pvt.Joker

      What Finland produces and the numbers are not public information.

      What we do know is that Finland has large production capacity for different weapons and ammunition and has invested a lot in it during the past decade.

      I dont think many nations in Europe can match the potential and capacity.

      1. Smokerr

        Definitely better to have and not need. But getting an unused facility up to speed means people to staff it and the source of components to mfg it as well. Unless its underground its at risk (assumes a capable Russian military).
        You need stockpiles and hopefully where they are out of reach and methods to deliver.

  4. TransWorld

    The US is working on a 105 mm tracked rig called the MPG (Mobile Protected Firepower). Basically its an assault gun with a turret. South Korea uses a lot of older tanks and the role is to survive artillery fire that the North Koreans have in multitudes). South Kore is not tank country.
    A l
    Leo 1 would fulfill a lot of the Ukrainian need and while they might have issue taking out a Soviet tank from the front, from the side its probably a given. You still have all those Javs around carried by infantry with remarkably good range and effective. You need that infantry support no matter how big and bad you MBT is regardless.

    1. Pvt.Joker

      The MPG is a weird concept in its present configuration, for its role I would include an HMG RWS, ATGM and a 60mm mortar.
      That would increase its survivability more than an APS as the intended role limits its use even more than in a real tank.

      1. Smokerr

        I would call the MPF an interesting concept. Basically its a Stug III Assault gun concept with a turret. Keeping in mind the Pzkw 4 had a very short 75 mm gun for infantry support initially.
        There has been split into SPA (self propelled artillery) and a light infantry division does not have tanks.
        The US at one time had the Sheriden for that role (it did not work well). The 105 mm Stryker was an attempt at providing an Assault Gun in direct support. Reports at it had so many problems (I have yet to see what) that its been removed.
        The MPF is a response to the listed need that uses a lot of off the shelf components from other armor (Ajax and Griffen).
        Its not intended for use as tank on tank. It will be with Infantry that also has Javs and Gustov 4. It seems to have an auto loader (not confirmed) so its got a rapid strike capability of multiple rounds if needed at a tank.
        Also keep in mind the US did well with its WWII tank destroyer concept. Basically it was a mobile anti tank gun without the Armor of a Medium tank. And it often was fighting Panther and Tiger as well as the up-armored Pzkw 4.
        Certainly in a defensive role it would have utility and give it a DU shell and the penetration capability would be high.
        It does come with a maint and supply burden that the light infantry is not used to and that needs to be resolved.
        There is also a light weight 120 mm smoothbore the US has developed that might be an interesting add to it down the road.

  5. Smokerr

    And then there is silence, they are having a hard time getting any tanks let alone the Leopards that so much noise was made over. I think Finland is sending two mine clearing type. The US may have to move to getting more M1 and sooner, sigh. Maybe the Koreans can supply K2 now that they seem to have stalled in taking over European market!

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