No Tanks to You

The world of military defence and national security isn’t standing still, so for the next three days we will take a look on a current topic from each of the three countries that make up NATO’s northern flank, kicking off with the northernmost one: Norway.

Norway needs modern tanks.

In my world, the statement is obvious enough that I had not thought I would write a post on the topic, but here we are.

Readers of the blog might be familiar with the fact that Norway has been running an acquisition program simply called “Nye stridsvogner” – which literally means “New tanks”. The international interest has largely come down to the fact that it has been a rather thorough one, including local trials pitting Europe’s main battle tank the Leopard 2 against South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, something that is quite rare in the world of tank procurement these days.

Norwegian Leopard 2A4 further south along NATO’s frontier, here with the eFP Battlegroup in Lithuania. Source: eFP BG Lithuania FB

The current Norwegian tanks are ex-Dutch Leopard 2A4, sporting a rather limited amount of local modifications compared to your standard 2A4. This includes a larger storage box on the back of the turret, two added antennas (one of which is for the GPS), and sporting some non-standard side skirt configurations (including borrowing Leopard 1 light skirts from older spare stocks), as well as sporting the Dutch-standard FN MAG light machine gun on the turret roof instead of the MG 3 (the smoke dispenser were converted to German standard upon delivery). In line with other non-upgraded 2A4s, what once was one of the best tanks in the world is showing serious signs of obsolescence (T-62 making sad noises). The original plan was for a serious upgrade program to take place, aiming for something close to the 2A7V-standard. However, like many Leopard-operators, it was eventually found to be more cost-efficient to just buy new tanks.

The expectation was that the Leopard 2A7NO would beat the K2NO Black Panther, an order would be placed late this year or early 2023, and in a few years time the new tanks would have replaced the ex-Dutch vehicles. That expectation has hit a bump already earlier, with reports coming out that the K2NO did in fact perform rather well in the winter trials. This was followed by the Polish order for the K2 and K2PL, which meant a K2NO-order would not make Norway the sole operator of the exotic tank in NATO. At the same time, Germany was making a mess of its grand Zeitenwende in the eyes of many European countries while accompanying its aid to Ukraine with a significant amount of squabbling, eroding its status as the obvious solid supplier of tanks to western countries.

With the significant political and supply base/synergy benefits of the Leopard called into question, it suddenly it seemed we had a real race on our hands. It wasn’t necessarily that K2NO was significantly better than the 2A7NO, but as opposed to the 2A7NO which had a lot of capabilities bolted on to the original Cold War-era design, the K2NO benefited from having been designed with these in mind. That in turn provide significant benefits to growth potential for the future, as well as weight savings which are a non-trivial matter in a snowy mountainous country such as the Republic of Kor… I mean, Norway.

And then in late November, the curveball hit hard. Norwegian Chief of Defence, general Eirik Kristoffersen, recommended to the Norwegian government that the tank procurement should be cancelled, and the freed up funds should be channelled to fund helicopters and long-range fires for the Army. This was rather quickly leaked and confirmed by the general to the press, and was followed up by a rather spectacular in-fighting in full glare of publicity, with the Chief of Operational Headquarters lieutenant-general Yngve Odlo publicly stating that he does not see any alternative to tanks and want the procurement to go through. He gets backed up by the commander of the sole Norwegian brigade Brigade Nord, brigadier Pål Eirik Berglund, who talked to Norwegian daily and paper of record Aftenposten and stated that “Without new tanks, we will be missing an essential component of the combat capability we need.” While the commander of the Army, major-general Lars S. Lervik, is said to oppose the proposal made by Kristoffersen but in public remains loyal (at least to the extent that he declines to comment and stated that he gives his advice to the general, who then gets to say what he wants to the government), the commander of the armoured battalion (Panserbateljonen) lieutenant colonel Lars Jansen said that the first he heard of the whole thing was when media broke the story.

The kind way to put it, and I’ve seen some make that argument, is that this isn’t a big deal, but normal discussion among professionals when money is limited and choices need to be made about where to spend it, with what can best be described as pitting a 21st century land version of the Jeune École arguing for firepower and mobility against a more traditional school of thinking emphasising taking and holding terrain. However, it is hard to see that such a deep and open split between many of the most senior commanders of the force would be a sign of healthy debate – the question is after all about one of the most important acquisition programs of the joint force which has reached a very late stage, in particular when coupled with the readiness displayed by other senior officers to publicly go against their commander.

The idea to cancel the tanks and place the bet on long-range fires is somewhat in line with the media speculation fuelled by the Instagram Wars of the last few years, in which videos of UACs and loitering munitions or light infantry with anti-tank weapons hunting enemy tanks have spread like wildfire and led some to declare the tank as being dead (again, one might add). However, what experiences from Ukraine seem to indicate is that the increased lethality on the battlefield means what you really need to survive is more, not less, protection. This takes the shape both in heavier protection for infantry protection vehicles, logistics vehicles, and so forth, but also a need for tanks to spearhead assaults and perform the numerous roles they have done on the battlefield since at least the Second World War. While the Ukrainian defensive victories of the first months of the war might have been driven by comparatively light forces, there is a reason why Ukraine is begging for all tanks they can get their hands on.

However, there is a second part to the argument in the case of Norway which is geography, and that deserves to be looked at.

The Norwegian border region in the far north is called Finnmark, and like the areas south of the border in Finland and Sweden it is dominated by wilderness, relatively sparse infrastructure, and a population density which makes talking to plants seem like a reasonable past-time: 1.55/km2 in the case of Finnmark. Opposite the border in Northern Russia sits the Russia Northern Fleet, responsible for an important part of the Russian nuclear deterrent – and in particular for the majority of the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) responsible for the second-strike capability – as well as air defences stretching out over the Arctic which are to try and stop US strategic bombers and cruise missiles in case of all-out (nuclear) war. The notion by some is that in case of war, Russia would want to push NATO forces further away from the border either through use of long-range fires or by invasion, that the Norwegian forces would be unable to stop the Russians from doing this without dying, and that the solution is to attrit the forces before stopping them, and counterattacking when NATO reinforcements have arrived.

Keen readers of the blog know that I do find the idea of Russia trying to push the front westwards in the region a reasonable one. However, the Russian juggernaut is somewhat questionable, as the amount of Russian forces in the area relatively limited, sporting two motorised brigades (200th and 80th) as well as a marine infantry brigade, and Russia can’t risk overly large losses as that would open up the region to counterattacks. Of course, the Russians have shown the ability to mass forces in prioritised operational directions, but the north isn’t an easy place to fight in in the best of times, and in winter (which is long and really dark) it will become directly hostile unless you have trained and equipped for it.

Which two Finnish, a Swedish, and a Norwegian brigades has done (notable here that the Finnish brigades are peacetime training units, and there’s no telling how many and what kind of wartime units they are tasked to mobilise in case of war).

As such, an important thing here to begin with is that Norway is not going to fight alone. This is not something new, but the new part is that from day one Norway isn’t going to fight alone, but rather alongside Finnish and Swedish soldiers. This means that force levels can be expected to be more or less equal on both sides of the border – as long as Norway contribute the heavy brigade NATO has asked for. And while a strategic surprise might catch the Norwegian brigades in Troms (the country next-door to the west), any Russian advance would see angry Finns and Swedes charging down their flank.

Interlude: If Russia shifts troops north they can obviously outmatch the locals, but in that case NATO is also freed up to concentrate more of their forces in the region.

However, I have not seen the Norwegian debate reflect upon what it means to wait for reinforcements. The USMC is going tank-less (which might be an idea for a dedicated amphibious force, but not for a ground force), and the number of heavy armoured units available in NATO are in fact rather limited and can be expected to have their hands full further south. There simply aren’t many available. But perhaps even more questionable, the plan to rely on long-range fires and having someone else spearhead the counterattack in effect means that someone else will have to take the largest share of losses in the battle for Finnmark.

It is difficult to see this leading to anything but the it being Finnish and Swedish sons and daughters in the first line dying to protect the civilians of Vardø. And that raises the question which I have not seen in the Norwegian debate.

Can Norway morally choose to go to war in the high north without tanks? In particular if it is allied with Finland and Sweden?

And it must be said, if the Norwegian politicians and soldiers would be ready to simply let the population of eastern Finnmark suffer under occupation until someone else comes to their aid – and as we have seen that means torture, rape, and killings in the same vein of the Red Army of old – that decision is odd in the extreme.

A Norwegian Leopard 2A4 during exercises in Alta, the largest town by population in Finnmark. Source: Norwegian Army Twitter

The call for cancelling the tank program has so far been met with mixed responses from the politicians. The Norwegian minority government has stated that they indeed to continue with the process, while from the opposition there has been calls for more information.

Which is somewhat strange, as it isn’t like the idea to invest millions in new tanks is a whim by the minister of defence, but rather based on years of studies and recommendations. The basis for the process is the white paper Landmaktsutredningen from 2017-2018 on the future of the ground forces, and in the latest Fagmilitært råd of 2019 the then-Chief of Defence provided four different ambition levels with additional directions for land- or sea-emphasised recommendations for the future of the Norwegian forces, he did explicitly write that the addition of new tanks is seen as crucial regardless of which level of ambition and funding the politicians agree upon. While a new edition of Fagmilitært råd is in the works, it’s difficult to see which changes would have affected the tank-part of things to the extent that new information would suddenly appear.

Norway needs modern tanks, and the only thing waiting for more information or cancelling the deal would mean is higher cost, a more uncertain deterrence situation in the high north, and a spot on Norway’s reputation among allies.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

As mentioned in the last post, a big part of the reason behind the Polish decision to go for the K2 Black Panther was the industrial package. Now, it should be emphasised that there really are no bad tanks on the (western) export market today. The competition and continued development of the main platforms has made sure of that, and which tank would come out on top depends heavily on your terrain, doctrine, and a host of other aspects. The differences in combat capability between individual variants of the same tank – such as Leopard 2A4 and 2A7V – are also vastly larger than between different tanks of corresponding vintage – such as M1A2SEPv3, Leopard 2A7V, and K2NO.

K2 Black Panther tanks from the South Korean 11th Mechanised “Hwarang” Division during a combined arms exercise back in January. It seems likely that in addition to getting the WKM-B the eventual K2PL-standard would feature a remote-weapon station for the weapon as opposed to the pintle-mount seen here, as is the case of the K2NO. Source: ROK Army FB/Jung Seung Ik

Obviously, even if Hyundai Rotem would strike gold and bag the Norwegian order, the K2 would be an outlier in Europe. So is it worth the issues that will cause? There was a particularly sour comment made by KMW advisor Nicholas Drummond to CNN, in which he described the tank as “overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture” compared to the Leopard 2, leading the news outlet to sum it up as “essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2”. What exactly he based that comment on is unclear to me, as most open sources seems to agree on the K2 being on par with the most modern versions of the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 when it comes to these things. He eventually took to Twitter to give a more nuanced critique, but even there he repeated the claim that the K2 Black Panther is based on the Leopard 2, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Now, if getting the same powerpack and sporting a 120 mm smoothbore gun is using the “Leopard 2 as a model”, the whole argument is spun out of a rather thin thread. In particular when you realise that the plan all along was to move away from the German powerpack to a local replacement. My understanding is that the tanks currently rolling off the production line indeed has a Korean Doosan DV27K engine (interestingly enough a long-stroke design rather than the MTU883 short-stroke), though the transmission still is German after the local replacement experienced issues (the transmission is in many ways the more complex and specialised part of the powerpack).

Still, he has a few valid points – such as the Leopard 2 thanks to its age being a more mature system, and that the 2A7-family of versions sporting many of the key systems that are selling points of the K2 (active protection, integrated BMS/C4I-solutions, and so forth) – and it is true that the huge success of the Leopard 2 on the export market is a significant advantage when it comes to pooling spares and resources, as well as sharing in the R&D costs. However, the situation is not quite as rosy as he would have you believe. While a number of European countries back in the day did set up domestic production lines, many of those have since closed or gone cold, with production of Leopards in recent years becoming a significantly more German affair. He is also overlooking the sheer scope of the Polish framework agreement.

There are currently roughly 1900 Leopard 2 tanks in service in Europe once you remove the 280 or so Norwegian and Polish tanks that are to be retired in the near-future. This is a ball-park figure based on Wikipedia, but should give the correct order of magnitude. You can add another 82 Canadian ones, as well as approximately 550-600 in service or on order from other non-European customers (the question mark being the total number in Singaporean service). With the exception of Austria, the European tanks are operated by NATO-members, so there will indeed be the opportunity to share logistics. At the same time, the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the Leopard, as the total NATO-fleet of Leopards is somewhere in the order of magnitude of twice the Polish order – significant, but not the 9:1 Drummond’s thread might give the impression of. Also notable is that with R&D-cost sharing usually being done on a per system-basis, and with ROK sporting a couple of hundred K2s themselves, the situation isn’t looking overly detrimental to what it would have if Poland would have gotten a thousand Leopards and made up a third of NATO’s Leopard-fleet.

A family picture taken at ADEX21 of the Omani-test vehicle, an operational-standard K2, and the K2NO sporting the Kongsberg Protector RWS and Trophy active defence system. Source: Hyundai Rotem

Now, the supply base will be narrower, and Korea as a source for spares and potentially crucial upgrades does raise more questions than a European country would. Any Polish factory will also be within range of more Russian long-range systems than German factories would be, and the work involved in getting spares from South Korea to Poland is bound to be a more complex logistical process than simply driving trucks over the border from Germany.

However, as mentioned there is deep mistrust towards the German arms industry following years of issues with the Leopards (there is room for glancing in the mirror on the side of the Polish authorities, armed forces, and industry as well, that is for sure – however, right or wrong, that does not change the overreaching sentiment in Warsaw). In addition, the inability to find common ground on Ukraine is cementing the split further. Drummond argues that it would be “ridiculous” to suggest that Germany would not support its NATO-ally Poland, and by extent argues that anything relating to arms deliveries to Ukraine is a different beast and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.

This might indeed be a correct reading of how Berlin thinks, but unfortunately for Drummond it just underscores the rift between how the strategic picture looks in Warsaw and Berlin respectively. Because while Poles without doubt are nice people who help Ukraine out of their kind hearts, there is also a strong strain of strategic self-interests that goes into arms deliveries to Ukraine (as indeed is the case for a number of countries along NATO’s eastern front). Ukraine’s fight will in many ways determine the security environment Poland will live in for decades to come, and a big part of why Poland is shipping their tanks to Ukraine is because Ukrainians fights not just for their own survival, but for the safety of millions of Poles, Finns, Estonians, and a host of other NATO- and EU-citizens. Berlin’s inability to grasp the Polish sense of urgency and how important they see the deliveries to Ukraine means that the discussions about e.g. the delivery of just 44 used Leopards does raise questions about Germany. And these questions are not just about Berlin’s willingness to aid Ukraine, but as the transfer would bolster Polish security, the questions raised are tied directly to Germany’s willingness to stand by its allies – at least that is how the question is formulated in Warsaw (and in a number of other capitals). Not necessarily because Berlin would make a conscious decision to abandon their allies, but because the strategic picture in Berlin is so remarkably different from that seen further east. And seriously, if me noting this rift makes me a Putin apologist, then that’s a really curious definition of the term (with that said, there certainly are Putinists who try to increase the rift among Western countries by using these talking points for their own purposes. That, however, should not take away from valid criticism).

It also in many ways is a two-way street. The fact that South Korea is still in a state of war with the North and have uneasy feelings about China (and to some extent doesn’t trust Japan, although a direct ROK-Japanese conflict is extremely unlikely) does indeed raise questions about what happens with promised deliveries in case of a renewal of fighting along the 38th parallel? However, at the same time the unease about a massive nuclear-armed adversary on the other side of the border is something Poland and South Korea have in common – and apparently something Germany for all its talk is lacking – and this is were security of supply suddenly is turned on its head. When Warsaw call Seoul and tells them “We need this now, because we worry for our national security”, they speak a language Seoul understands. And while they most likely won’t risk their own national security to meet the Polish needs, short of that one can expect them to show a greater interest than Berlin would. Because Poland isn’t a user among 18, but the largest customer and the bridgehead on the European market. And because the Koreans know themselves what it means to feel like you are living under threat, and understand that sense of urgency and the can-do attitude needed to meet that threat.

Is the risk of a Korean War 2.0 in the next five to ten years or so (after which the local Polish production lines should be up and running) big enough that the whole deal deserve to be questioned? Personally I don’t think so. The challenges in this deal are found elsewhere, and we’ll get to those, but it is good to realise that it is not just about performance of the tanks, but about how the fleet will be kept supplied as well.

So yes, Poland won’t be able to share spares with their NATO-allies (to say they won’t have “interoperability”, as Drummond does, is a stretch), which is a minus. At the same time, as a Finn I certainly understand the feel that one wants to be able to handle production and management of spares in-country. These things are always balanced against each other, and which one will take precedent depends on national needs and industrial policy. Drummond also goes on about the possibility of Poland not being able to support its K2 fleet, and possibly also the K9, overlooking the fact that with Poland a total of five NATO countries will be operating the SPG – all of them in Europe (compared to seven for the PzH 2000).

Clip from the Norwegian tests, starting with the K2 Black Panther showing off the hydropneumatic suspension

From a wider European perspective, while the Leopard 2 is an excellent platform for years to come, and while MGCS looks promising, having another serious contender (or two, with the M1 Abrams finally finding a European customer) and a  new production line in Europe is certainly a net positive in my opinion – even for us Leopard 2-users. Competition will drive the prices down, will force the large European defence companies to stay innovative and efficient, and if the worst comes to play, you certainly can’t have too many tank factories on the continent. Already now Norway is benefitting from this effect, as the Norwegian decision later this year will certainly be made with a better offer from Germany than would have been the case if the K2 wasn’t on the table. If that means one Leopard-user less with whom to share the R&D and spare part costs, I believe we not only can live with that, but that we might even be better off at the end of the day.

With that said, the level of ambition shown by the Poles and the challenges therein should not be underestimated. Just getting license production rolling will pose a challenge, as starting up a production line can easily run into cultural issues with the developer, differences with the supply chains, and teething troubles, all of which tends to increase both delays and costs. That is not to mention bringing along the K2PL-upgrade which so far is only a paper-product (if even that). Once we start looking at the K3PL next-generation tank, we are slowly approaching territory which if not exactly fantasy-land then at least belongs to its neighbour, rather-unlikely-land. Let’s remember that even countries with decades of unbroken production and development of main battle tanks have faced issues once they have started looking at the next generation of things. The challenges inherent in the complete program should not be underestimated!

One of the things supporting a successful joint Polish-Korean endeavour is the history of ROK with the successful K1-project and the proven ability to both design, produce, and maintain the tanks in operational service. Here a K1 is undergoing maintenance at an Army depot. Source: ROK Army/Lt. Kim Bitchan

However, before we start mourning failures that haven’t happened, let’s remember a few details that increase the probability of success. One is the know-how of the Koreans, and this being their best shot at entering the extremely competitive and conservative European market, and at a time when it is bound to grow. Success with the K2PL – and potentially the K3PL – would offer a unique opportunity to court countries that are vary of overreliance on German (and to a lesser extent, French) arms suppliers, and as such might be open to buying from unconventional sources – especially if the product is good. This is a serious driver for the Koreans to go above and beyond when it comes to helping their partners – and crucially, customers – in this endeavour. Similarly, the Polish industry is staffed by people motivated by the national security crisis brought on by Russia, and eager to show the world what they can achieve. A will to perform won’t get you the whole way, but it is a crucial ingredient. In this case it is also backed up by a solid knowledge base acquired over the years through producing, maintaining, and modernising a number of different vehicles. The most notable projects are without doubt the Rosomak and the older PT-91, but also work on other military vehicles have taken place in Poland in recent years. The step-by-step approach with deliveries of ROK-standard vehicles, production of K2PL, and only then a new design, gives significantly more credibility than what would have been the case if Warsaw would just have tried to build a MGCS-competitor on their own.

Still, it is a long way that stretches ahead for the Polish-tank program(s), and caution is a good companion. But as Poland is increasingly becoming the most important European ground power in NATO – and as such a key ally for both Finland and the other allied states around the Baltic Sea – I sincerely hope for the best.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 1 – Mr. Creighton’s Tank

Poland has been a regular feature on the blog, largely due to it being one of the few European and the sole western country bordering the Baltic Sea to actually count the strength of its ground forces in divisions and not brigades (or battalions…). Poland is also a country that has extremely bad memories of Russia during the last few centuries, and as such has taken a prominent role in the response to the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this include the transfer of quite a few tanks and self-propelled guns to Ukraine, leading to a renewed hurry to rearm the Polish Army with modern equipment.

A very busy-looking M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) v2 Abrams exercises in Poland in 2016. The SEPv2 is a step below the v3 Poland is acquiring, but externally the vehicles are rather similarly looking, including the significant amount of turret-mounted stuff compared to the original clean M1 of the Cold War. Source: US Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Marble/Wikimedia Commons

A brief summary for those who don’t have keeping track of Polish tanks on the top of their to-do-list. The Polish Army sport four divisions, one of which is the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division, with the other three being the three mechanized ones: the 18th  ‘Żelazna‘,  12th ‘Szczecińska‘, and 16th ‘Pomorska‘. There has been quite a bit of cut and paste and general moving around of units and equipment in recent years, so with the caveat that I certainly might have missed something, the 11th and 18th operate mixes of Leopard 2 and older tanks (T-72 for 11th, PT-91 for 18th), while the 16th uses a mix of T-72 and PT-91. Despite the name, the 12th is a motorised unit based around the Rosomak (local version of the Patria AMV) rather than a true mechanised division. The PT-91 is a locally upgraded T-72, while the ‘real’ T-72 that are in use are made up of a combination of T-72M1 and the lightly upgraded T-72M1R. For IFV, the BWP-1 (BMP-1) soldier on, while the Rosomak is in use alongside tracked vehicles in the 11th and as mentioned a key vehicle for the 12th. For artillery, the venerable 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPG is slowly on the way out, while the Krab is on the way in. This is a unique Polish hybrid sporting the chassis of the South Korean K9 Thunder but with a British AS-90M Braveheart turret. The Braveheart traces its roots to a cancelled upgrade-program for the British standard AS-90 SPG, crucially fitted with a modern 52-calibre gun instead of the 39-calibre one used by the UK.

Edit: Turns out the 12th also is a mechanized division, and I was just fooled by their homepage which prefer to show off the modern wheeled brigade and not the old Soviet-designed iron. Funny that. Thanks to Piekarski for pointing that out!

Now, Poland and Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years (mild understatement), and the Polish Army and political leadership has not been happy with their recent dealings with the German defence industry (another mild understatement). This is to the extent that the planned Leopard 2PL upgrade program has been cancelled, and instead all Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 are to be withdrawn from service. Edit: I was under the impression that the severely delayed 2PL-program had been cancelled with the decision to withdraw the Leopards from service, but apparently it (at least) for now continues, with the goal of converting another 20+ tanks this year. Good catch by nonameplease!  At the same time, you do not need to be a genius to realise that the T-72M1 and PT-91 really ought to have preceded the Leopard 2 into the greener pastures beyond, meaning that the Polish Armed Forces are looking at replacing all tanks in the current inventory, an inventory which as mentioned is one of the largest in Europe.

The most positive thing that can be said about the T-72M1 on the modern battlefield is that it is no more outdated than many of the Russian tanks it could be expected to meet, and that having an old tank usually is better than not having any tank at all. Here a T-72M1 of the 18th division’s 19th brigade is basking in the Polish sun. Source: 19th brigade FB

What has made the situation even more urgent for both generations of tanks is the war in Ukraine, which for the Leopard 2 has seen the faith in Germany as an arms supplier take a serious hit, while for the T-72/PT-91 an undisclosed but significant number – it could eventually be possibly 240 T-72M1 and all 230 PT-91 – have suddenly found themselves on a train heading east. Add the 140+ Leopard 2A4 (perhaps two companies of which are converted to 2PL-standard) and 105 Leopard 2A5 which are all to head out, and Poland is looking at replacing something in the order of 700 tanks in total. One possibility has been to temporarily increase the number of Leopards in service, and Poland has been in discussion with Germany about getting another Leopard battalion (44 tanks), but German officials have stated there simply isn’t that amount of tanks available and has instead offered 20. The whole thing is something of a mess, and while it is unlikely that this is (just) about German reluctance to meaningfully help Ukraine in a serious – if indirect – way, it has certainly further widened the gap between Warsaw and Berlin (interlude: go read this excellent piece on the background to the German mindset. It doesn’t help Ukraine that we know why the system is broken, but it offers a refreshing take from the inside).

So the Polish Leopard is dead – as much from industrial issues and politics as from anything else. What to do instead?

Back in April Poland received approval for the purchase of up to 250 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from US authorities. Not 700, but still a sizeable number. However, building 250 tanks will take time, and time is obviously something Warsaw feel they are a bit tight on at the moment. As such, this was followed up by the announcement that they will procure an additional 116 M1A1 SA tanks, which thanks to being used US tanks are available for if not immediate then at least rapid delivery. The M1A1 SA is an upgrade program from 2006, which saw older vehicles equipped with newer sensors, improvements to the engine and armour, as well as generally overhauling the old vehicles to give them longer life. It might not be the newest and greatest, but it is certainly a huge step above any of the Soviet designs rolling around. The M1A2 SEPv3 is on the other hand currently the latest and greatest of US tank designs, sporting things such as improved armour, the CROWS-LP remote-weapon station, and an under-armour auxiliary power unit which allows the vehicle to produce power without using the notoriously thirsty gas turbine. It has been stated that the M1A1 SA vehicles will also be upgraded to M1A2 SEPv3 standard once things are starting to fall into place.

The signing ceremony for the Polish M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks took place at the base of the 18th divisions’s 1st armoured brigade outside of Warsaw, and sported a number of US tanks painted in Polish colours. Source: kpr. Wojciech Król/CO MON

An interesting detail is that Poland has indicated that all 366 Abrams tanks will go to the 18th, which alert readers will remember is a mechanised and not an armoured division (at least for the time being). However, the OOB is somewhat non-standard, with the single armoured brigade operating the Leopard 2A4/2A5, and with the 21st infantry brigade and the 19th mechanised brigade both operating a single battalion of ex-Soviet tanks – despite one supposedly being mountain infantry and the other a mechanised unit.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this number – because 366 tanks deserve to be put into perspective.

A US Army armoured brigade combat team sports 87 M1A2 tanks, with three battalions of 29 tanks each (a total of six 14-tank companies and a single tank attached to each battalion headquarter company). This means that a traditional US armoured division with three armoured brigades would put a grand total of 261 tanks in the field. That’s just over 100 tanks less than the 18th division would field, but perhaps more striking is the fact that it’s significantly more than twice the 148 tanks the whole of the British Army will be able to muster. ‘Żelazna’ means ‘iron’, and the division will certainly field plenty of that. In essence the division will either sport three very heavy (122 tank) armoured brigades, which each have 40% more tanks than a US ABCT, or there will be four 90 tank brigades. The Poles have earlier experience of four-brigade divisions, as the 16th used to have control of the 1st armoured brigade before the 18th was stood up as a new division, so it is not impossible to imagine that being the plan. However, as we will get to eventually, there is also talk about 60-tank battalions in the Polish Army, which would mean that 366 tanks would give a nice even six battalions Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, so that leaves about a dozen in reserve. In that case, the division would likely be built around three brigades with two armoured battalions each.

But that still leaves at least one armoured and one – or possibly two – mechanised divisions without replacement tanks for outgoing ones (even if it is a low-stakes bet that in the short-term the Leopards of the 18th will replace the T-72M1 of the 34rd brigade in the 11th division, bringing the unit back into an all-Leopard division until the withdrawal of the Leopard). The solution for this was found in a somewhat less likely direction.

Panthers and other Beasts

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 reworked EMBT technology demonstrator, showing the completely new(?) turret. Source: KNDS

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 KF51 looks somewhat disproportionate with the turret being on the larger side to be able to house the 130 mm FGS. Source: Rheinmetall

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”.

The powerpack of the Leopard 2 and Panther KF51, with the MB8 73 engine and HSWL-354 transmission combined into one compact package. Source: Sonaz/Wikimedia Commons

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).

The size-difference of APFSDS in 130 mm (left) and 120 mm (right). Source: Rheinmetall/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Despite the size of the gun, the Panther turret allows for -9° – 20° elevation for it, same as the current Leopard 2, just a bit worse than the Abrams and a bit better than the Leclerc. The ability to lower the gun is a key capability when it comes to fighting from hull-down positions. Source: still from Rheinmetall video

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).

The 130 mm FGS of the Panther talking. Source: still from Rheinmetall video

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).

A Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards together with a few standard Shermans sporting the shorter 75 mm gun during the early stages of Operation Market-Garden. Source: Carpenter (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/IWM Collections/Wikimedia Commons

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.