What the Leopard 2 tank could mean for Ukraine’s fight against Russia

Following intense pressure from its allies, Germany appears to be inching toward approving deliveries of high-tech Leopard 2 main battle tanks that Ukraine and its biggest Western backers hope will boost Kyiv’s fight against Russian invaders.

Over the weekend, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Berlin would not get in the way if Poland — arguably Ukraine’s most vocal supporter among European Union neighbours — wants to ship Leopard 2 tanks from its arsenal across the border into Ukraine. And Germany is not ruling out supplying such tanks to Ukraine itself, cautioning however that the implications of such a step need to be carefully weighed.

Here’s a look at what those tanks might mean for Ukraine’s defence against Russian forces.

What is the Leopard 2?

Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the manufacturer of the Leopard 2, touts it as “the world’s leading battle tank,” that for nearly a half-century has combined aspects of firepower, defence, speed and manoeuvrability, making it adaptable to many types of combat situations.

The 50-tonne tank requires a crew of four and has a range of about 500 kilometres, with top speeds of about 68 kilometres per hour. Its earliest version first came into service in 1979 and there are now four main variants. Its main weapon is a 120-mm smooth bore gun, and it has a fully-digital fire-control system.

Two tanks after firing (flames are seen)
NATO enhanced Forward Presence troops in Leopard 2 tanks fire during a military drill in Latvia on Sept. 29, 2022. Experts say such tanks could allow Ukraine to go on the offensive in the 11-month-old conflict with Russia. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

How many could be sent to Ukraine?

One big appeal of the German-made tanks is their sheer number: More than 2,000 have been deployed in over a dozen European countries and Canada. Overall, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann says more than 3,500 units have been supplied to 19 countries.

According to a recent analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based global think tank, some 350 Leopard 2s — in different versions — have been sent to Greece, and Poland has about 250 of varying types. Finland has 200 in operation or in storage.

For Ukraine’s war against Russia, “it is believed that for the Leopard 2 tanks to have any significant effect on the fighting, around 100 tanks would be required,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies analysts wrote.

Ukraine’s defence minister wants 300 tanks, and some European Union leaders support him on that.

“We need a fleet of 300 tanks,” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Monday in Brussels, alluding to the wide deployment of Leopards across Europe and the need for “synchronous” weaponry — that can operate smoothly together.

WATCH | Why Germany has hesitated to send the Leopard 2 tanks: 

Land warfare expert weighs in on Ukraine’s need for battle tank

Ukraine has been fighting a defensive battle so far and will need tanks from Western allies to recapture ground lost during the Russian invasion, says Nicholas Drummond, U.K. defence analyst specializing in land warfare.

How soon could Ukraine use them? 

Getting Leopards into Ukrainian hands isn’t as easy as rolling them across the border from friends farther West in Europe. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that three to six weeks of training would be needed for operating crews and support staff to reach basic proficiency.

Ralf Raths, director of the Panzer Museum in Munster, Germany, said experienced Ukrainian tank crews would likely be able to learn to use the Leopard 2 fairly quickly, and training could be shortened to focus on essential knowledge.

“Do you really have to exploit 100 per cent of the potential or is it enough to utilize 80 per cent in half the time? Ukrainians will certainly vote for option B,” he said.

What difference would the tanks make to war effort?

Yohann Michel, a research analyst for defence and military affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said such tanks could allow Ukraine to go on the offensive in the 11-month-old conflict that has been stalemated for months following two key Ukrainian counteroffensives that recaptured areas occupied by Russian forces for months in the northeast and south.

“In this type of conflict, it’s just not possible to carry out large-scale offensives without the full variety of armoured combat equipment and armoured vehicles, and tanks are a part of that,” he said. In addition to Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) like the Leopard 2, others include infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.

Western deliveries of Leopard 2s could help equip Ukraine with needed high-calibre munitions to replace its own dwindling Soviet-era stockpiles, opening a new avenue for supplies of Western firepower to get to Ukraine, he said.

Raths noted that the Leopard 2 and similar Western tanks are more agile than T-models used by Russia, which can’t reverse at speed, for example.

“Imagine a boxer who cannot move freely in the ring, but only in one direction,” he said. “The other boxer, who can move in all directions, has a big advantage and that it is the case with the Leopards.”

Still, even Western MBTs are vulnerable to aerial attacks, or anti-tank infantry while in forests and urban areas, highlighting the importance of anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support, said Raths.

With similar numbers of tanks on both sides, Leopards 2 and similar tanks could give Ukraine the upper hand, especially given the poor tactical performance of Russian troops during the war, he said.

“The Ukrainians shine through creative, dynamic and often very clean warfare,” Raths said. “So it could well be that if Ukraine’s operational offensive were to begin, the Russians would have real problems countering it.”

Niklas Masuhr, a researcher at the Center for Security Studies at Switzerland’s federal polytechnic university ETHZ, based in Zurich, cautioned that the addition of Leopards to the battlefield alone wouldn’t be “a game changer or a war-winning technology, anything like that.”

“You can’t just deploy a bunch of main battle tanks and assume they will win,” he said. “They’re very valuable, but you still need to use them in the correct way and integrate them with all the other military tools that you have at your disposal,” such as infantry, artillery, air defence, combat engineers and helicopters.

Why has Germany been reluctant to send the tanks?

Germany has final say about whether Leopard 2s can be delivered — even from other countries’ arsenals — and has been reticent about anyone shipping them to Ukraine.

“Obviously, Germany is reluctant to trigger any kind of escalation,” U.K. defence industry analyst Nicholas Drummond told CBC News. 

Even though Germany has already sent a huge amount of other military equipment to Ukraine, Drummond says, tanks are the sticking point — and Germany would prefer not to lead in this area.

“And really, when you think about its history and its desire not again to become a militaristic state, you can kind of sort of understand this approach,” he said, referring to the country’s general reluctance to supply tanks following the events of the Second World War. 

More-hawkish Western allies have been stepping up pressure on Germany, but the U.S. has also refused to send its powerful M1 Abrams tanks.

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Peter MacKay calls on Trudeau government to send tanks to Ukraine

Former minister of national defence Peter MacKay tells Power & Politics he thinks Canada could deliver 14 Leopard 2 tanks in a matter of weeks to Ukraine: “It all depends on how quickly the government and the Department of National Defence want to move.”

What have other countries provided? 

The U.S. announced an upcoming new package of military aid that is expected to include nearly 100 Stryker combat vehicles and at least 50 Bradley armoured vehicles — but not the Abrams tanks, which U.S. officials say have complex maintenance needs and may not be the best fit.

Allies and military analysts say the Leopard 2 is diesel-powered — not driven by jet fuel that powers the M1 Abrams — and is easier to operate than the big U.S. tanks, and thus has shorter training times.

Britain this month announced it will send Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the Czech Republic and Poland have provided Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukrainian forces. French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that he had asked his defence minister to “work on” the idea of sending some of France’s Leclerc battle tanks to Ukraine.

Even if modern western MBTs are superior to their Russian counterparts, donor countries supplying them need to prepare for losses, Raths said.

The Leopard 2 “is an offensive weapon that will be thrown into high-intensity battles,” he said. “Vehicles will be destroyed, and people will die in these tanks.”

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