Leopard 2, Leclerc, Merkava: What are modern battle tanks worth? (1/3)

Since its first appearance on the battlefields during the First World War, the battle tank has been the subject of both extreme fascination for some, and total denial for others. Over the course of the conflicts, and the appearance of new weapon systems, such as the anti-tank missile or more recently the wandering ammunition, the end of the supremacy of the tank in land combat has many times been prophesied, following the example other major armaments such as aircraft carriers or combat aircraft.

However, it is clear today, while geopolitical tensions continue to grow, that the tank market is doing well, with more than 4000 heavy tanks sold for export in the last three years alone, in Egypt, India, Pakistan, Poland, Hungary or Taiwan to name only the main contracts.

At the same time, a new generation of these heavy armored vehicles has emerged, most of the time based on models from the end of the Cold War with new detection systems, protection and increased firepower, making these vehicles the essential tool for any medium- to high-intensity large-scale land action.

In this three-part summary article, we will present the most emblematic of modern combat tanks, the very ones that could potentially support the bulk of the clashes in the next 15 years on the planet, in order to understand their advantages. , but also the weaknesses, and the decisive role they are called upon to play during this period.

Germany: Leopard 2A7+

Le Leopard 2, developed in the 70s by the German firm Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, is in many areas the tank of all records in this panel. Not only was it the first to enter service in 1979, but it is also the most exported model and one of the heaviest ever built, with, for the A7 version, a combat mass exceeding 65 tonnes.

It is also one of the tanks that has known how to evolve best and most efficiently through no less than 16 versions, going from the initial version of 1979 equipped with a 105 mm gun and succinct analog electronics , to the ultimate A7+ version equipped with Rheinmetall's L/55 smoothbore cannon, and latest-generation on-board electronics and Vetronics, as well as an FLW200 automated turret in place of the original antique MG3 machine gun.

Nearly 11 meters long, 3 meters high and 3,70 m wide, the Leopard 2A7+ is powered by a 12 hp MTU MB 873 Ka-501 twin turbo-diesel V1480 engine, giving it a power/weight ratio of 22,8 hp per tonne.

The tank can thus reach the maximum speed of 68 km/h on the road, and cross vertical obstacles of more than 1,1 m. Her cannon L/55 is, meanwhile, considered one of the most effective at the moment, capable of penetrating 540 mm of steel at 1000 meters with an M829 depleted uranium arrow shell and even 560 mm with the French-French tungsten penetrator shell. German DM43.

Leopard 2 A7 KMW 001 MBT battle tanks | Germany | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts
Beyond its undeniable operational qualities, the success of Leopard 2 German can be largely explained by the joint efforts of KMW and Rheinmetall to constantly evolve the armored vehicle, which has seen no less than 16 different versions over its 40 years of service.

Le Leopard 2 is also very well protected, with composite armor combining micro-ceramic, titanium and tungsten, on which reactive armor bricks are placed, giving it an armor equivalent of 620 mm of steel in the frontal sector, and even 1000 mm for the turret. This explains why, despite its 40 years, it continues to be exported on the international scene, Hungary having announced the acquisition of 44 Leopard 2A7+ and 12 Leopard Used 2A4 in December 2018.

However, the Leopard 2 is not free from certain weaknesses. Firstly, its combat effectiveness has never been demonstrated until now, since the sole use of Leopard 2A4 recorded, during the Turkish offensive against the Kurdish forces in December 2016, resulted in the destruction of several of them by Russian-made anti-tank missiles Fagot and Kornet, and in the capture of two examples by the Islamic State. However, many specialists blamed poor Turkish tactics in this operation, and in particular the lack of infantry support, to explain these losses.

Secondly, moving such a mass requires a significant quantity of fuel, and despite the 1.160 liters of its tanks, the Leopard 2 struggles to exceed 200 km off-road (and in a straight line…). In fact, the tank is primarily intended for heavy, but short offensives, and for well-prepared defensive postures, also the preferred doctrine of the Bundeswehr.

Finally, despite, and certainly because of the numerous evolutions that the armored vehicle has undergone, the tank is now reaching its limits, particularly in terms of mobility, additions, for example the Trophy active protection system, inevitably being to the detriment of the latter.

It remains that the Leopard 2A7+ is undoubtedly one of the best battle tanks ever designed, and proves to be a formidable opponent in defensive postures or for intense offensives. The announcement of its upcoming arrival in Ukraine, while around ten Western countries supported the German decision to provide 14 Leopard 2A6 in Kyiv, will undoubtedly mark a closely watched baptism of fire for this tank, which has been considered a benchmark for several decades.

China: Type 99A

When we talk about the progress made by the Chinese defense industry in recent years, attention is naturally drawn to the aeronautical field with aircraft such as the J-20 or the Y-20, the naval field with Type cruisers 055 or Type 075 helicopter carriers, or in the field of missiles such as the DF41 or the DF26.

However, the production of armored vehicles is one of the most dynamic fields of this industry and innovations do not cease to be presented, such as the Type 15 light tank specially designed to evolve on the Tibetan highlands.

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