Eurosatory saw some interesting developments when it comes to western tank designs – a field which honestly hasn’t seen an overly impressive pace for the last few decades. Are we finally moving into a stage of more than incremental developments? Possibly, although I believe it is fair to say we are not there quite yet.
Following a period of the tank having been relatively hard to kill without the use of another tank, we are back in a place where tanks can be killed by a number of different systems. This is nothing particularly new, but throughout history we have seen the ebb and flow of the relative vulnerability of the tank on the battlefield. Still, nothing has quite been able to provide the mix of protection, mobility, and (direct) firepower, and this unique mix of capabilities is the key driver explaining why countries keep investing in the increasingly expensive and complex system that is the modern main battle tank. At the same time, most tanks in service today are based on late-Cold War designs, and already for a few years the question of what’s next has been on the mind of mechanised forces in the west.
The answer for Europe has so far been MGCS, a new joint Franco-German tank which will be designed and built by KNDS (the merged European land-defence giant consisting of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Nexter Systems) and Rheinmetall. However, as usual there does seem to be questions regarding the workshare and the role of the different companies within the larger setting, and for the time being rather than a nice clean-sheet design the most tangible result has been the EMBT (Enhanced or European Main Battle Tank, depending on who you ask). This debuted on Eurosatory back in 2018, and back then was in essence a Leclerc-turret on a Leopard 2-chassis. What exactly made that tank better than just buying either of the original ones was a bit unclear, unless you absolutely positively must have a Leopard with an autoloading 120 mm gun, so it was largely seen as a case of just proving that the different branches of KNDS really could work together.
The EMBT made a renewed appearance at this year’s show, but it has been rather heavily reworked. It still sports the 120 mm autoloader with 22 rounds (capable of taking Nexter’s latest SHARD APFSDS-round), but the tank has gotten quite the update. This include a RWS clearly tailored to provide anti UAV-capability in the form of Nexter’s ARX 30 sporting the 30 mm 30M781 gun also found on the Eurocopter Tiger, which has air-burst capable rounds. UAV-intergration on the tank is also a big deal, and the whole concept is built around a four-crew setup, with gunner and commander in the turret, and a driver flanked by a systems operator handling the UAV/RWS/BMS-side of things. The new drive-by-wire and digitalisation of other systems are also made with an eye on future reduced crews or fully-unmanned operations. Notable is that it seems apparent that very few of the systems employed are new, but rather this is a technological low-risk approach that combine a number of existing technologies to provide something new and better. A detail that a Swedish tanker caught was that the turret is wider than the hull, which might not be what you want in a dense forest.
My understanding is that KNDS does not try and market the EMBT, but that this is a pure technology demonstrator to keep up the momentum of the MGCS at a time when it seems to be facing the frankly expected issues of joint-projects of this scale.
Rheinmetall is left out of the EMBT-fun, and the company is likely questioning whether there is meaningful room for two German companies in MGCS. At the same time, much of the extremely lucrative Leopard 2 upgrade work as well as current new-builds are heading to KMW, including the latest 2A7-based variants which have found a place both in Germany as well as for export customers such as Qatar and Hungary. However, Rheinmetall is far from ready to give up on the MBT-market just yet, and has launched a counter-attack in the form of the Panther KF51.
The Panther is described as a new tank and not a Leopard-upgrade, although the situation might not be quite as straightforward as Rheinmetall’s marketing department would want us to believe. The turret is indeed new, however, the hull is a more open question. Rheinmetall states that it borrows the “mobility” part from the Leopard 2, which is confirmed to mean the whole tracks (suspension, tracks, rollers, …) as well as the powerpack. This is reported as consisting of an unspecified 1,100 kW engine – almost certainly the MTU MB 873 – and the HSWL-354 gearbox. Whether the hull itself is a Leopard 2 hull is more unclear. Early rumours were talking about a refurbished Leopard 2A4-hull, and from the outside there isn’t much in the way of differences that couldn’t be put down to a bit of laser-cut plates and a visit to the welding shop to ensure a more streamlined look with the new turret. The latest word seem to be that it is indeed a newbuilt hull, albeit one that borrows heavily from the Leopard. However, Rheinmetall also discuss it along the lines of the Panther being of interest to current Leopard 2 users as “this could mean that the existing chassis could continue being used, even if a change of calibre became necessary”.
Interestingly enough, despite being all-new-ish the Panther does in some ways feel like a more conservative approach to tank design compared to the EMBT. As an example, the tank does not come as standard with the fourth crew-member, but is designed to be able to facilitate one in case the user want a systems operator. The remote-weapon station is also a rather more bland affair, being a 7.62 mm Natter on the tank shown in Paris (although Rheinmetall is keen to point out they are flexible on this point). The Natter with the 7.62 mm is said to offer counter-drone capability, but to be honest while 7.62 mm is better than just keeping your head down and praying, it is so only by the tiniest of margins.
The most eye-catching specification is obviously the new 130 mm main gun, which really is a beast. It is an in-house product marketed as the Future Gun System, and has earlier been seen on a Challenger 2-testbed (the seemingly unlikely choice of platform was related to the UK modernisation program, which eventually opted for the 120 mm L55A1). It is described as sporting “a 50 per cent longer kill range” compared to an unspecified 120 mm gun, and doing so with “an unrivalled rate of fire due to the autoloader performance”. The second point certainly sounds like it deserves some caveats – although I haven’t seen any confirmed numbers for the rate of fire I would be surprised if the autoloader is able to match a trained loader on a Leopard 2 or Abrams. Still, even with those caveats, it does seem clear that the 130 mm offer significantly more energy in the anti-tank role, and allows for quite a bit more punch when packing explosives in HE-shells.
The obvious downside is that the rounds take up space. The tanks fit two 10-round magazines in the turret, and an additional 10 rounds in the hull for a total of 30 rounds maximum. While this is eight more than the EMBT, it is less than the roughly 40 which is the current standard for most western tanks. Everything is a compromise, and the question of how few is too few is obviously open for debate, but it needs to be remembered that if the tanks wants to use either of two of the main marketing points – the ability to have a four-round launcher for HERO 120 loitering munitions or the fourth crew member as a systems operator – these would replace one of the two magazines in the turret and the rounds stored in the hull respectively. In other words, the tank would be down to just ten rounds, at which point the tank would in effect be a heavily armed sensor/reconnaissance vehicle with a 130 mm self-defence weapon. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly might be a role for a small number of such vehicles in the mechanised units of the future, but you won’t do much traditional tanking with just ten rounds. One detail which is notable is that Rheinmetall has fitted a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun as the co-axial buddy of the main gun, meaning that for some lighter targets where a normal 120 mm/7.62 mm tank would spend a 120 mm round, heavy machine gun fire might do the job and allow the Panther to save a few of precious rounds. How big the target set is that is A) too hard for 7.62 mm, B) soft enough for 12.7 mm, and C) so soft that 120/130 mm is overkill, is up for anyone to ponder but that will certainly be part of the answer if you approach a Rheinmetall sales-representative and ask about the 30 round maximum capacity.
Of course, anything you can do with the 12.7 mm, you can most certainly do even better with the 30 mm of the EMBT, which is a calibre that really open up the possibility of engaging lightly protected vehicles and wreaking havoc in urban terrain without wasting main gun shells, so while the 12.7 mm is nice compared to current tanks, it isn’t really a selling point compared to the EMBT (unless the Panther is fitted with a 30 mm RWS as well).
While 120 mm is plenty enough today – especially in the most modern form with uprated maximum pressure and latest ammunition – on the horizon looms better protected vehicles such as the T-14 Armata. A key detail is that while it is entirely possible that 120 mm APFSDS can penetrate the Armata, going up in size to a 130 or 140 mm gun ensures more margins in circumstances where the 120 mm can struggle (such as hits in highly protected spots) and allow the same performance as the 120 mm at longer ranges (hence Rheinmetall’s statement that the 130 mm “enables a 50 per cent longer kill range”).
As a side-note, Israel – the country with the most experience of successful peer-level armoured combat after World War II – has consistently ensured that their Merkava-series of tanks have been among the western ones carrying most rounds. The Merkava-series overall has some interesting and rather specific design choices to match the unique Israeli requirements, and it is open for debate which lessons can be generalised, but this is something I fell is worth noting when discussing two tanks sporting 22 and 10-30 rounds respectively for their main guns.
However, what really caught my eye with the KF51 was not the weapons or seating arrangements, but the weight and mobility. The combat weight is stated to be below 59 (metric) ton, which is a lot, but significantly less than any modern competitor. The latest version of the M1 Abrams, the M1A2SEPV3, tips the scale at almost 67 ton (66.77 to be exact), while the similarly heavy 66.7 ton Leopard 2A7V has had to receive changes to its gearbox, lowering the top speed to 63 km/h, to ensure being able to accelerate as the does 2A4. The EMBT sits in the comfortable middle ground, at 61.5 ton. In short, with the Panther we have a vehicle sporting the engine, transmission, tracks, suspensions, and weight of a ‘legacy’ Leopard 2 (2A4 is 55.1 t, 2A6 is 59.9 t), and it is a quite safe bet that the mobility of the Panther KF51 is on par with those. Rheinmetall goes as far as calling it a medium tank, but outside of the marketing world this is still well and truly a main battle tank, even if it is on the lighter side in today’s world. This also grants it a 500+ km range (compared to 460 km for the EMBT), and in addition the dimensions are set to ensure “it also fits the tunnel profile AMovP-4L without preparation: a requirement that no current MBT upgrade fulfils” – a marketing line I have no idea about the significance of (tunnels are a curiosity in our very flat part of the world, so profile AMovP-4L does not tell me anything).
The question is obviously how this affect protection, as armour has a tendency to add weight. Rheinmetall describe the tank as sporting “a ground-breaking, fully integrated, comprehensive, weight-optimised survivability concept”, a statement which include too many descriptive phrases to pass as good writing. However, they do open up on the details a bit more, stating that the tank is protected through a combination of active, reactive, and passive technologies, including a top-attack protection system, smoke launchers, pre-shot detection capability, and the holy grail of active protection systems: a large-calibre KE APS, which supposedly can disrupt incoming tank-calibre anti-tank rounds. If they have nailed the technology, that is really an outstanding feature. Designing the tank from the ground-up (more or less…) does indeed allow for more weight-efficient protection compared to just bolting on more modules as is done during upgrades of old designs, but it is notable that Rheinmetall does not make any claims on the passive armour being world-beating. It seems safe to assume it is good, but not outstanding.
Another key element of both the EMBT and the Panther KF51 is that they are built around fully digital systems, allowing for greater integration with new sensors, weaponised commander sights, and seriously improved ability to share information between both other tanks as well as other systems, such as offboard UAVs. An interesting step with the Panther is that the digitalisation allows for sensor and weapon control being passed between crew members, in theory letting any workstation take over any task or role. This is obviously also a major step in the direction of allowing for unmanned turrets or vehicles.
But is there a market for the Panther (besides the obvious “let’s battle-test it at Kursk”-joke)? At first look the answer might seem to be “No”. The Leopard 2 is still offering plenty of tank for the money on today’s battlefield in a tried and tested format, while if you want to buy into the next-gen hype there will almost certainly be something coming out of the MGCS/EMBT and the 140 mm ASCALON gun (offered as an option for the EMBT) even if I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the way of the MBT-70/KPz 70 and split into two distinct national projects borrowing technology from the common predecessor. Why then would anyone want to buy a tank with a non-standard gun that might end up as just a niche calibre, and where several of the key components seem to be incremental upgrades rather than radically new? The Panther might trace its lineage to the older MBT Revolution concept – Rheinmetall’s earlier modular upgrade package – but in many ways the Panther is an evolution rather than a revolution, especially when put side-by-side with the EMBT (which as noted I fell is a bit more radical in its design choices and concepts of operation, even if it as well largely rests on proven sub-systems).
But to be honest that is also the strength of Rheinmetall’s proposal. The Panther KF51 is still quite a bit from an operational vehicle, including questions being raised about seemingly mundane but operationally extremely important stuff such as storage lockers, but many of the more modest aspects of it might sit better with smaller and more risk-averse customers found along Europe’s more eastern countries, from Greece to central and Eastern Europe. Take for example the obvious difference with the gun. If the 120 mm is to be replaced as the main gun due to a need for better anti-armour performance, the 140 mm ASCALON obviously will deliver the biggest bang on the market. But it also will eat up the round count even further, which on the EMBT that already is constrained to 22 rounds in 120 mm almost certainly means a drops to sub-twenty rounds in 140 mm. On the other hand, if the 130 mm round is good enough, the Panther allow for a significantly heavier round than your everyday 120 mm while still keeping 30 rounds aboard the tank. So is the 130 mm FGS a half-measure that gets you an unwieldy non-standard round without being the best tank-killer in town, or a good compromise between effect and round count? The jury is still out.
The same principle goes for the fourth crewmember which comes as standard on the EMBT but optional on the Panther. Is it worth ten rounds, or do you take the loss in situational awareness for 50% more ammunition?
So where would we find the Panther? The obvious answer is countries who feel that they need more killing power, and who wants it now. This is a key selling point, as while KNDS seems to have their sights squarely set on the MGCS which is still well over a decade away – the current plan being that “the commissioning of the MGCS should take place between 2035 and 2040 if the Armée de Terre and the Bundeswehr agree on a common requirement and if industrial companies find a fair workshare” – Rheinmetall seems to be more focused on offering something here and now. To put it bluntly, if you want a new tank by 2030, you are not going to order the MGCS.
Another key detail is that as it seems one can indeed rework a Leopard 2 hull for most or all of the systems involved, this could offer a radical upgrade path for current users of older Leopard 2-variants. This is likely of particular interest to those sporting the shorter 120 mm Lh-120 L44 and thereby being unable to benefit from the latest advances when it comes to 120 mm ammunition. These include vehicles such as the 2A4 and 2A5 (including the Swedish Strv 122). An interesting detail in the case of Finland is also found in an interview with then-commander of the Finnish Army, Gen.Lt. Petri Hulkko back in 2021. In the article in Finnish paper Ilta-Sanomat, Hulkko briefly discusses the current and future state of the Leopard 2-family, and states in no uncertain terms that the 2A7V is not an interesting option, because of the weight leading to lowered mobility and as Finland is not particularly interested in an APS-system capable of defeating incoming anti-tank missiles. “Our protection isn’t based on armour alone, but also mobility,” the general stated. Finland is, however, following the development of the Leopard-family to see if it will bring something interesting in the future.
Say for example a tank that is lighter than the current 2A6 while sporting heavier weaponry. Or a fully digital 2A4.
Finland managed to get the ex-Dutch 2A6s approximately ten years ago for roughly the same cost as the planned 2A4 MLU, raising the number of Finnish main battle tanks back closer to 200. The current line is that the Leo 2A4 stays in Finnish service until their usage becomes prohibitively expensive, although they have indeed undergone some upgrades recently. Considering the current situation, as well as the fact that the 2A6 in Finnish service will soldier on for at least twenty years more into the 2040s, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to expect the discussion about a possible MLU-program for the 2A4s to pop up again. A Panther-based solution could certainly then be in the cards as a way of getting a serious boost in combat capability without trading mobility if there is seen to be a need for a tank with a larger gun than the 2A6.
A middle of the ground but still significant upgrade could see a mixed fleet with the majority of modernised Leopard 2A4s retaining their 120 mm guns but including other improvements – such as the digitalised systems and crew stations – and a smaller number also switching to the larger calibre. While mixed tank units have become a rarity following the development of the main battle tank, back in WWII and during the immediate post-war era sporting a smaller number of tanks with better firepower was not an uncommon feature of armoured units – such as the 17 pdr-armed A30 Challenger and Sherman Firefly of the UK forces in WWII, or the heavy M103 that accompanied US M48 Pattons in the 60’s and early 70’s. For that to be a feasible option, a few things need to align, the most important of which is the presence on the battlefield of an enemy vehicle that is heavily armoured enough that it is not reasonable to equip most tanks with a weapon that can defeat it – either due to cost, weight, or poor performance in other aspects (such as overly large rounds or poor performance against other targets).
Are we heading into that perfect storm again after over half a century of the main battle tank reigning supreme? I wouldn’t say it’s a likely scenario, but it isn’t impossible either. In general the modularity of platforms such as EMBT and Panther might open up for greater diversity among the tanks, as weight and space restrictions in all likelihood will ensure that no single tank will be fitted with all the optional extras. This could see e.g. the aforementioned recce tank with unmanned systems/loitering munitions and a dedicated systems operator operating alongside more traditional MBTs, or say one tank in each platoon having enhanced anti-UAV/loitering munitions capability in the form of heavier RWS.
Regardless of the outcome, both the EMBT and the Panther shows that there is still surprisingly much life in the old Leopard 2 chassis, and while the Panther KF51 might struggle to find buyers in the current form, I would not be surprised to find some of the technology demonstrated in the two tanks to eventually end up in either a Swedish Strv 122 MLU or a restarted Finnish Leopard 2A4 MLU.