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tank gun of the west and fitted to a host of different tanks, it is by now (as are rifled 105 mm guns in general) outdated for tank killing.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 However, on the positive side, while the L7 is outdated, so are a lot of the potential targets on the battlefield in Ukraine.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 Sp√•rLjus 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.) M√§enp√§√§ 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.