Yesterday Norway’s prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre stood outside in the middle of a serious snowfall at the military base in Rena and declared that Norway will get 54 new tanks with an option for 18 more, and that these will be Leopard 2A7NO ordered from KMW.
This put an at least temporarily to rest the debate about the role of tanks and the future of the mechanised Brigade Nord which was a strange story of late last year, and which I discussed in the post which caused by far the most significant reaction in mainstream media any of my posts have seen.
As noted earlier, when the procurement kicked off it was generally seen as an obvious win for the Leopard 2A7. Norway has operated both the Leopard 1 and 2, and in general has a healthy cooperation with Germany when it comes to a number of key systems, the Type 212CD submarine program being perhaps the most important program. Then came the reports of the K2 Black Panther actually outperforming the Leopard in the winter trials, the Black Panther entering the European market in style through the Polish deals, and finally the German political squabbling over the question of tank deliveries to Ukraine, all of which seemed to point towards the possibility of an upset.
That was however not to be, and in the end the favourite held. The message at the press conference emphasised the strong political and industrial benefits of the Leopard 2 – the prime minister speaking fondly of “cooperating” with their “close ally” Germany on the project, and the fact that Finland and Sweden also operate the Leopard 2, as does Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. This certainly was a significant hurdle for the K2. No matter how good a deal Hyundai Rotem might have offered, for the foreseeable time all of Norway’s geographically closest partners operate the competitor. Poland might be an exception, but Poland is also a country and a sea away from a Norwegian point of view.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency (FMA) would have recommended the K2 as the superior tank for the Norwegian requirements. What is confirmed, however, is that both tanks did meet the requirements laid out by the FMA for the tests. With that in mind, the decision from both the prime minister, minister of defence, and minister of finance to spend the better part of their speeches on the fact that from a holistic point of view the Leopard 2 was the better package for Norway certainly could be an indication that other aspects than pure performance of the individual vehicles played a significant role. This is no criticism, if the race was close the added value of what in essence is a standardised tank in Northern Europe (again, Poland being the exception) is certainly something that should be factored in. For my favourite topic of the common defence of the High North, while the future might be somewhat unclear for the Finnish Leopard 2A4s, the 2A6s will serve on for the foreseeable future, and if the Swedish Strv 122REMO-program really is about such a significant upgrade as the Strv 123 Tankograd reported on, they are bound to stay in service for years.
According to most open sources, the differences in combat capability between the Leopard 2A7 and K2NO in the current configurations are rather limited. The K2NO might sport a an autoloader, but that has a relatively small impact on the combat performance (it would mean that the Norwegian armoured units can make do with 54 crew less, but that is a minor consideration for the brigade as a whole). The question of weight and suspension is more interesting, with the K2NO reportedly tipping the scale at 61.5 t with the 2A7NO coming in at between 61.5 to 64.3 t according to KMW. Notable is that KMW’s homepage list a number of different features as uncertain, including APS, added top-side armour, and cooling for turret and hull. Those most likely are not three tons, but considering the K2NO to my understanding has e.g. the APS integrated it is likely safe to say it is somewhat lighter, which coupled with the more modern suspension probably isn’t a bad thing in Norwegian terrain.
This however brings us to the big difference between the contenders – while both tanks have the same stuff, on the K2NO they are integrated from the start of the design while the Leopard 2A7NO have them bolted on (this is the kind of extremely crude oversimplification I can get away with because I write my own blog and don’t have an editor, but you get the point). The new tank will not only serve in the current configuration, but will spend decades in service with all the upgrades that come with it. In that regard, an argument can certainly be made that the K2 likely offer more room for growth, something which might be interesting once the 2030’s starts to wrap up.
At the same time, the argument can be flipped. Leopard 2 is a mature design with a proven track record in Europe and beyond, including in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan. It might be suffering from a bit of excess weight, but the basic design is sound and with new-built hulls it is still as competent as ever in meeting everything the enemy can throw at it. The large user base also means that even if you won’t buy into the latest German standard, you are still likely to find a few friends with whom to share R&D costs.
The Leopard 2A7NO might have been the safe choice and from the point of view of potential buyers the strong position of the Leopard on the European market might not be completely unproblematic, but from a logistics point of view it certainly makes sense. For Finland (and Sweden) as well as for Norway the most important thing is that the Army did get their tanks, and while I had held out hope for the complete 72 tanks to be ordered at once this is certainly significantly better than the news we got last year. We might have to continue to wonder about how Norway struggle to find enough money for a serious defence budget, but at least we will continue to have three Leopard users in the High North, and that is certainly something to cherish!
…and I will say I much appreciated the prime minister noting the importance of the new capability for Finland and Sweden as well (and that Norway expects a quick ratification of our NATO-membership), when we now start to plan the common defence of the North.