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 (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tank gun of the west and fitted to a host of different tanks, it is by now (as are rifled 105 mm guns in general) outdated for tank killing.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 However, on the positive side, while the L7 is outdated, so are a lot of the potential targets on the battlefield in Ukraine.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.
For the Leopard 1 in particular, the best widely used round for the Leopard 1A5 is the DM63, a German license produced version of the Israeli M426. You might/probably/perhaps/will bag a T-72B with it, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to try. There are Swedish trials which have seen DM63 (locally called Slpprj 90, a wonderfully impossible to pronounce abbreviation from the words SpårLjus PansarPRoJektil) pass “straight through” the turret of a T-72M1, though it is notable that the M1 is a relatively weakly armoured export-version of the tank. A Finnish armoured officer in turn makes the comparison to the older 120 mm DM33, so most older versions of T-72 and T-80 (and T-62/T-64) should be vulnerable.
Yes I did analysis 10 months ago on the same issue. 105mm DM63 is roughly same in terms of capability as 120mm DM33 that was main ammo for Leopard 2A4 that time. So adequate to T-72/T-80's. Let's face it, Kontakt-5 ERA effect on APFSDS-T is controversial.https://t.co/QKrublGEiS
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.
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.
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.
The following proposal is madness. I’ve been told so in no uncertain terms by people knowledgeable of the matter who’s opinions I highly respect. It runs against both the common discourse as well as what the authorities and officials with detailed classified knowledge about the issues at hand has said in their communiques. It also comes with a hefty price tag, and I have no proposal what should be cut in order to make it fit in under an already unhealthy Finnish budget. But with all that said, isn’t it for these kinds of out-of-the-box craziness that non-aligned defence analysts are valued?
As I think most serious defence analysts are in agreement on, the War in Ukraine has shown the value of armoured protection in general and tanks in particular on an increasingly lethal battlefield. As such, it only makes sense that a very valuable kind of support for Ukraine would be tanks. Tanks, like other high-tech systems such as fighters or warships, age, and while older equipment can be both useful and effective, modern equipment is usually significantly more so. Modern tanks also benefit from more readily available spares and munitions. As such, handing Ukraine modern tanks instead of trying to buy up every available T-72 makes sense.
Of the modern tanks available in Western forces today (M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, Ariete, Challenger 2, Leclerc, and K2 Black Panther), most are either high-maintenance and supply intensive (M1 Abrams), available in very limited numbers (Ariete, Challenger 2, K2 Black Panther, Leclerc), or using non-standard munitions (Challenger 2). As such, the Leopard 2 is the obvious choice (the Leopard 1 is a Cold War-relic that isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion on modern tanks, though the Leopard 1 in later versions certainly can take down a T-62 in a fight).
Finland has the Leopard 2 in two different (MBT) versions, the older Leopard 2A4 and the newer Leopard 2A6. As opposed to what some has reported, both are very much in use and occupy a key role in the Finnish wartime forces as the main armoured spearhead (again, a key capability when it comes to throwing out an attacker that has gotten over the border). The exact numbers are somewhat uncertain for the 2A4, as a number of older hulls have been bought for the express purpose of being cannibalized for spares, and a number has been converted to specialised roles such as bridge-layers, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, engineering vehicles, and so forth. However, it is safe to say that the number of operational Leopards in Finnish service sits at roughly 80 Leopard 2A4 and 100 Leopard 2A6.
If European countries start sending Leopards to Ukraine – and by now it is starting to be evident that as with most German red lines, this one will become void at some point – the talk in Finland is that Finland would participate, but that the number of tanks would be very limited and that the support would likely focus on training, spares, and similar support missions. Because Finland “can’t send many tanks“.
And here is where I call a foul. Finland can send a significant number of tanks, but it would be expensive and we would take a national security risk.
The short version is that we could send all Leopard 2A4, which would mean the tank part of an under-strength armoured brigade (your order of battle will vary, in Poland 58 tanks is a battalion, in the US 87 tanks is a brigade). The Leopard 2A4-force was slated for a mid-life upgrade already a decade ago, but that was eventually scrapped due to cost and the opportunity to buy second-hand 2A6NL from the Netherlands at throwaway cost. The word then was that they would replace the 2A4 which we couldn’t afford to upgrade, but as it turns out the Finnish Defence Forces decided to instead double the armoured force.
Here we run into a particular quirk of the Finnish Defence Forces: The Army doesn’t like to talk. This isn’t just restricted to tanks, but in general they don’t discuss their wartime formations, and as such they don’t talk about their plans for the future as that would lead to people getting ideas about the current situation. While I can understand that from an OPSEC-perspective, it also leads to situations of serious questions about civilian and budgetary oversight, and for the Army it is significantly harder to “sell” their needs compared to the Navy or the Air Force who rather clearly communicate their equipment needs (which granted are more straightforward, as the number of platforms and their capabilities are to a certain extent simpler). The Army has a hard time saying “Trust us, anything less than 180 main battle tanks and we’re open for invasion” when we apparently were okay with 100 for quite some time after the T-72s all went to scrapheap and the 2A4 was the sole tank in the fleet.
However, I will go out and say that I agree with the current discourse that a single brigade’s worth of tanks is significantly too few for a country the size of Finland, and even two brigades is a questionable minimum. However, defence budgets are tough, so let’s say we are at the rough equilibrium where we can balance the costs of operating 200 tanks with the combat capability needed. Until someone open up the calculations and capabilities a bit more, that sounds like a reasonable equation. If we send the Leopard 2A4s somewhere else, they would obviously need to be replaced, and for once we have something approaching a reasonable cost-estimate. The Norwegian project to acquire new tanks sport a budget of approximately 1.8 billion Euros (19.3 Bn NOK) for 72 new tanks. Say an even 2 Bn EUR for 80 tanks and a solid replacement on a one-to-one basis for Finland. The original plan for the Norwegian deal was deliveries from 2025, but that would have included contract signing last year, and it is safe to assume delivery times might have gone up a bit. As such, shipping away the Leopards now and at the same time ordering a replacement would leave our tank force cut by ~45% for 5-8 years.
So why would Finland send tanks to Ukraine? Why can’t anyone else do so? The whole point was that the Leopard 2 is in widespread use, right?
Numbers are deceiving, and not all Leopard 2s are the same. The 2A4 is the oldest current version, and is in relatively widespread use, while the 2A6 represent a new standard with among other things a more modern gun. The 2A5 sit in-between the 2A4 and the 2A6, while the 2A7 is significantly more modern and only now really starting to roll off the production lines in any serious numbers. However, not all 2A4s are the same either, as most countries do a certain amount of local changes. This can range from mounting your favourite 7.62 mm machine gun to developing national standards calling for their own designations (looking at you, Swedish Strv 122). The Finnish 2A4 is rather close to the German baseline, sporting new and enlarged storage compartments, modified side skirts, and a number of minor detail changes.
As such, while you can certainly mix and match – in particular as long as you stay with the same version – maintenance and spares will obviously be easier the closer you stick to a single national variant. In other words, taking ten vehicles here and ten vehicles there isn’t necessarily the most efficient way (although vastly better than getting ten Challenger 2 and ten Leopards).
And then the numbers aren’t as overwhelming as some would like to make them out to be. There are twenty countries operating the Leopard 2 (21 if you count UAE and their four Wisent 2 AEVs). If we look at the 2A4, in addition to Finland, Spain, Norway, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Chile, Singapore, Canada, and Indonesia operate the tank in any sizeable numbers. Scratch the countries in Asia and South America, because so far the Ukraine aid has been a decidedly North American and European affair. Then you can remove Greece and Turkey, since neither will part with any armour before it literally is falling into pieces. This leaves Norway, Spain, Poland, Canada, and Finland. Poland and Norway are as much of frontline states as Finland, and while Poland already has shipped serious amounts of tanks to Ukraine the roughly 50 2A4s are the only tanks in Norwegian service. Spain indeed has been interested in sending the tanks, but found them to be in too poor condition to be of use. Canada has 42 used in a training role, so these might be of use.
Going to the 2A5 and related versions (including modernised 2A4s), we are looking at Switzerland (strictly “neutral”), Sweden (120 tanks of the unique Strv 122 version, sole tank in use), Poland (frontline state), Singapore (in Asia), Canada (just twenty 2A4M), Indonesia (in Asia). For 2A6, we have Germany, Spain, Finland, Greece, Portugal (just 37 tanks), Canada (just twenty tanks), of which Spain has a serious number (219) of their Leopard 2E-version which could provide a serious number. Germany obviously would be the big player, but they are in fact situated at less than 150 tanks currently, and can hardly be expected to be the leader for this project (or generally when it comes to hard security in Europe).
As such, Finland is – while not completely unique – one of the few countries that could send a sizeable number (more than a battalion) of tanks in good condition, of a single configuration, without giving up most or all of our most modern tanks.
The counter-argument is obviously that we aren’t a NATO-member (yet), which makes things tricky. I agree on that, and that is indeed the key question which only the top-diplomats can currently answer – how safe does the current status as applicants make us feel? How much of a risk would we take by halving our tank force for half a decade?
At the same time, there is a number of other issues affecting Finnish security that would support the decision to send tanks. Ukraine’s success on the battlefield has measurably increased Finnish security in that the forces on the other side of the border are getting shot to pieces somewhere else. Similarly, the war dragging on would in itself be destabilising for the region, as a more desperate Russian political leadership might lash out in unexpected actions, or groups or parts of society inside Russia might start acting in ways counter to Finnish interests and security. On the opposite, further Ukrainian success on the battlefield would likely cause yet more Russian forces to leave their garrisons for a battlefield away from our borders. I believe that most of my readers would agree that a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield in the near-future would be the most preferable outcome for Finnish security (and that is from a strictly realist point of view, there certainly is a moral aspect here as well, but that is a more complex question which would require too much space for me to open up in detail in this post).
A key issue for the FDF would be the question of personnel where we suddenly would train half the number of wartime tank battalions for a few years. This would need careful planning to ensure that there are available officers and NCOs with experience once the new tanks are brought into service. But considering the high tempo of operations during recent years and the fact that the 2A4 and 2A6 gun tanks are only one part of an armoured force that include a number of platforms (at the same time, I realise that going from the 2A4 to a MT-LB might not be a career development to everyone’s liking…) it might be possible to work out a reasonable solution to this issue as well.
As mentioned, the Leopard 2A4 are by now approaching a decade since the planned MLU was cancelled, meaning that they will need either a serious upgrade or a replacement within the next five to ten years in either case. As such, the option of shipping them off to secure Finnish interests in another country is not as outrageously expensive compared to what the eventual budget for them will be in either case (2 Bn EUR is still a huge amount). However, there is the issue with the new replacement tank being several years away. Here, it is notable that Finland has likely never been safer since before the Bolsheviks managed to secure power after the Russian civil war, meaning that we possibly have been offered a unique window that allow for the risk-taking required (if indeed the risk of sending them is seen as greater than the risk of Ukraine not getting a brigade worth of Leopards and how that would benefit Finnish security). It is also notable that even if the war ended tomorrow and Russia started rebuilding their forces, missing the officers and NCOs who have been killed or wounded on the battlefield will cause issues for any rebuilding program.
What could be the next steps if those with access to the folders with red stamps on would decide that the risk of sending Leopards would be smaller than the risk of not doing so? The government and leading opposition parties would have to get together (we are close to a parliamentary election, and this kind of radical decision would need broad parliamentary support to survive), and take the decision to prepare the shipment of the Finnish Leopard 2A4 fleet to Ukraine, publicly announcing it to put pressure on Germany to allow for the export, and decide on additional funding outside of the ordinary defence budget to fund the 2 Bn EUR replacement program. Next step would be to call Norway and the suppliers for their program (Hyundai Rotem and KMW), and ask to be let in on the program. In the best of words, we would be able to just rip off the Norwegian evaluation and ask if everyone would be happy to include an option for an additional 80 or so tanks to Finland according to the same terms and conditions of the Norwegian contract in the same way Estonia has tagged along on Finnish buys of radars and artillery (if we talk really nice to the Norwegians, we might even reach some compromises when it comes to delivery slots despite that causing some delays for them. After all, a strong Finnish Defence Force is a good thing for Norwegian security as well). If there is something with the Norwegian requirements we can’t agree to, we might have to run our own procurement competition, but in either case it should offer plenty of valuable experiences from both bidder and buyer points of view to start the discussion with them – ensuring we hit the ground running in a procurement program where speed would be of the essence.
As such, it’s not that Finland can’t deliver a serious number of tanks to Ukraine – it’s that we aren’t prepared to pay the costs and take the risks such a decision would include. And I for one does not know for certain if that is the correct decision or not.
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.
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.
I'm not sure about 2). It seems to me that he argues they would push their A2/AD capabilities into Finmark. This would require some land forces.
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.
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.
The Republic of Korea has obviously a long history of being on more or less permanent war-footing, but it was somewhat more recently that they really fired up their own arms industry. For the MBT-side of things, this kicked off with the K1, which entered service in the late-80’s. This was a tank related to the M1 Abrams, although sporting enough differences – most visibly the integration of a combined torsion bar/hydrodynamic suspension as well as a more traditional diesel engine, but also a somewhat different approach when it came to sensors and sights – to ensure it was a new tank a not just a local copy of the M1. The K1 has moved through a number of versions, including following the path of the Abrams of going from a 105 mm rifled main gun to a 120 mm smoothbore one, and by all accounts have provided good service to the ROK Army even if never quite grabbing the headlines. Interestingly, one of the few export attempts was to Malaysia, where it was beaten by the PT-91. It’s a small world…
But there was still room for more tanks to replace old M48 Pattons. One of the solutions was to accept a battalion of T-80U from Russia – apparently as payment for debts owed by the Soviet government. A large-scale order for Russian steel was not, however, in the cards. Instead, development of a new tank started.
There is obviously no proof that the ROK would have used that inside knowledge of what was then one of the most modern non-Western tanks of the battlefield when designing what would become the K2. But I guess it didn’t hurt. Neither probably did the fact that ROK also operate a limited number of (ex-IDF) T-62 and T-72M1 in the aggressor role.
If the K1 had borrowed from the Abrams, the K2 would borrow from the Leclerc. Exactly how much is somewhat open for discussion – one anecdote gives that the autoloader is copied based on ‘YouTube-videos‘, though it should be noted that development work of the K2 was quite far along by the time YouTube was launched, leaving open the option that the term should not be taken literally but rather in general for video-clips on the internet, that a video clip helped iron out the final design at a rather late stage, or that the whole anecdote is fake. In any case, like the Leclerc, the tank is relatively light and sport a three-man crew tanks to the autoloader removing the need for a dedicated loader.
The K2 Black Panther entered service in 2014 – two years after the Japanese Type 10 and as such laying claim to being the newest tank in operational service. This newness has to some extent been exaggerated, as while the tank might be decades newer than much of the competition, the continuous development of the current generation of western tanks means that the latest and greatest version of the Leopard 2 and Abrams are more or less sporting the same level of protection, firepower, and combat management systems as the K2 does. There is without doubt a benefit to being able to integrate 21st century systems from day one of the design instead of bolting them on afterwards, which is seen in e.g. the growth in weight and lower mobility of the latest versions of the Leopard and Abrams, but this is more along the lines of bonus points in the margin than evaluation winners. All in all, it is a good and very modern tank, but it is still a competitor to the current generation of M1A2 SEP-series and Leopard 2A7, rather than to the next generation such as MGCS.
South Korea had faced issues with entering the European market for quite a while, the most successful defence export being the world’s greatest Les Misérables parody – Les Militaribles, set at the ROKAF’s 22nd Fighter Wing. However, in the last decade, sales of the K9 Thunder has picked up pace, as has interest in a number of other systems, such as the K21 IFV. The K2 has also showed up in Norway, where the tailored K2NO-variant is competing against the Leopard 2A7NO for the contract as Norway’s next MBT. While the Leopard arguably is the favourite, the K2 is reported to have outperformed the Leopard in recent winter testing, thanks to the advanced suspension and low weight allowing for good mobility (it should be remembered that the Korean peninsula is no stranger to snow).
It deserves to be emphasised that the market for a supplier of a modern tank is really limited, in particular if you aren’t interested in Russian (or rather, Soviet) or Chinese designs. The Leclerc scored a single export order to UAE, who eventually donated a number of tanks to Jordan. The Challenger 2 saw a small order from Oman, while the Ariete never left Italy. As such, all three are more or less out of the game at this stage. Just how dominant the Leopard 2 has been on the export markets is evident when one remember that the M1 Abrams has scored a whooping six export deals before the Polish one – all except Australia being to the Middle East or North Africa. So if you have burned your bridges over the Oder-Neisse line, have been politely declined to come aboard the MGCS in the earlier phases of the project, and still want to get your own tank production line with transfer of technology and the potential of a future tank design, where do you go? To Seoul.
The South Koreans were ready to supply not only tanks to Poland, but to participate in setting up a complete associated infrastructure including technology transfer, license production, development of an improved local version known as K2PL, local production of spare parts, and joint development of a future tank tentatively described as the K3PL. This all weighed heavily in the Polish decision, with some Polish analysts going as far as calling the K2 inferior to the M1A2 SEPv3, but the overall deal making a K2-buy interesting.
M1A2SEPv3 is considered by Polish Army as a superior tank, however Republic of Korea offers much more than just tanks. Besides K2PL which will be produced in Poland, there is also proposed cooperation on new tank, let's call it K3/K3PL. And there is more.
After years of rumoured interest, the outbreak of the war ensured that Polish authorities saw the K2 being the preferable way forward, and earlier this week signed a huge framework agreement covering buys and local production of not just the K2, but also K9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighters. In addition there are discussions regarding the IFV-side of things – in practice a further developed version of the K21-version known as AS21 Redback which is currently on offer to Australia – as well as about the K239 Chunmoo multiple-rocket launch system to complement the HIMARS ordered by Poland.
The scope of the framework agreement is huge. For the K2, it starts with 180 tanks of the current K2-version delivered starting this year and stretching out to 2025. As said, these would cover three battalions of 60 tanks each. Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, this changes a few numbers down the line, but nothing drastic. This batch would be followed by an additional 820 tanks built locally to an upgraded K2PL-standard, with deliveries starting in 2026. All in all, that makes it a nice even 1,000 K2 in Polish service, which would fill a total of 17 tank battalions. Looking back at the OOB, that would mean converting all three remaining divisions into more or less the same pattern as the 18th with its six tank battalions, leaving Poland with a full four divisions of around 360 tanks each (one of them being a battalion short).
The cost of the tanks, according to the framework agreement, would come in at approximately 12.86 MEUR per vehicle, which is a lot but not overly expensive. In fact, it ties in rather nicely with the 11.2 MEUR per vehicle that Slovakia reportedly is paying for their CV90 IFVs, as well as with the reported 2009 unit cost of 8.5 MUSD for the Korean production run which inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars (CPI. Yes, not ideal for military systems) and converted to Euros sits at 11.6 MEUR (and which at the time earned the K2 a Guinness World Record as “Most Expensive Tank”). Now, comparing vehicle costs are always complex and usually sits somewhere between “As relevant as the price of fish in Goa” and “Moderately useful” on the scale of relevancy to the discussion, but it does not feel like the Poles are paying a lot considering the reported scope – if the 12.86 Bn EUR really cover the whole acquisition program.
Approximately here we ought to stop and acknowledge the fact that Polish defence procurement has a history of not being straightforward, and with the politicians and armed forces having a tendency of being better at presenting plans and concepts rather than actually seeing them through. A framework agreement, even if a signed document and certainly of value, is not and should not be confused with an acquisition contract proper. However, several of the programs now kicked off are not new, but rather ones that have been in the pipeline for years without anyone actually pulling the figurative trigger. The war next-door certainly has given them a renewed importance, and as such it certainly is possible that the framework agreement will lead to serious orders – and fast, if the scheduled first deliveries in 2022 are to be met.
Still, it is difficult to overstate how ambitious the current framework agreement is. One thing that almost certainly will suffer is the ambitious K2PL-variant proposed during the last few years, which would have been a radical redesign that also included a lengthened hull with an additional roadwheel. It does seem unlikely that the currently described K2PL which will be ready for local production in four years would feature all the envisioned improvements, and as such that particular concept is likely dead. More likely, the K2PL is an iterative design on the current chassis, as the variant is said to feature improvements to the armour and observation system, a new active soft-kill/hard-kill protection system (the Elbit ASOP/IFLD), as well as integration of new types of programmable ammunition and the locally built 12.7 mm WKM-B heavy machine gun as the secondary weapon of choice (this is a Polish NSV chambered in .50 BMG).
However, the really interesting side is the industrial aspect, and here we have a true ‘glass half full/empty’-situation.
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 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!
Just one thing about Rosomak and 12th division has one (12th MechBde) wheeled brigade the other ones are tracked (BMP-1). 2th Mech Bde is typical heavy brigade (one tank Bn, two mechanized) and the third brigade (7th Coastal Defence Bde) has only BMPs, no tanks 1/n
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.
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.
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 twicethe 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.