Germany’s Leopard tanks prove vulnerable in Islamic State fight
By SLOBODAN LEKIC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 17, 2017
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The reputation of Germany’s vaunted Leopard 2 tank, which forms the mainstay of NATO’s armored forces, has taken a pounding in battles with Islamic State militants in Syria.
At least 10 of the 60-ton main battle tanks have been destroyed during a Turkish attempt to recapture the strategically important northern town of al-Bab, located just 15 miles south of the Turkish border, media reports have said.
The Turks have deployed several thousand soldiers in the operation, which began in September. But despite airstrikes by Russian warplanes in support of the advancing troops, they have been unable to take the town in the face of determined opposition.
Several dozen Turkish soldiers and local allies have died in the combat. Germany’s Die Welt newspaper said at least 10 Leopard 2s were destroyed and many others damaged in street fighting on the outskirts of al-Bab. The rebels are said to have used both U.S.-made TOW and Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles in attacks on the tanks.
Turkey’s leaders have criticized the Obama administration last month for not providing strike support to their units engaged in the al-Bab operation.
The 60-ton Leopard 2, built by Bavaria’s Krauss-Maffei, has been in service since the 1980s. A total of 2,100 were bought by the German army. But after the Cold War, defense cuts caused a sharp reduction in numbers, and only 325 of a modernized version currently remain in the inventory of the country’s panzer units. About 20 of these are the heavily redesigned and modernized A7 model, but many are earlier A4 models — the same as used by the Turkish army.
Leopard 2s were widely exported over the years. A number of countries — including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Turkey, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland — have equipped their armies with the model. After the end of the Cold War, the German army started selling off surplus armored vehicles, and many other allies, such as Poland, took advantage of discounts to equip their armored fleets with the German panzers.
The tank gained a reputation as “indestructible” in 2003, when a Canadian Leopard 2 famously survived without casualties and only minor damage a massive Taliban land mine explosion.
But critics have said the tanks, which were specifically designed to counter a Soviet armored thrust through the north German plains, are not suitable for combat in an urban environment.
The frontal armor on the hull and turret on the Leopard 2 is much thicker than on the sides and rear of the tracked vehicle.
The tank’s designers, who sought to achieve an optimal combination of protection, agility, and fire power, have always stressed the need for maneuverability on the battlefield, making the armor on its flanks and back lighter than on other other Western tanks such as the U.S. M1A2 Abrams or the British Challenger 2.
Also, the Turkish Leopards don’t have explosive reactive armor or active protection systems to block incoming rounds. Active protection systems deal with threats such as rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank guided missiles by combining electronic detection of hostile fire with jammers, smoke screens and interceptors intended to destroy the threats.
The Islamic State militants appear to have seized on this vulnerability to attack the Leopards when they entered al-Bab, targeting its flanks and rear in attacks that forced the Turkish army to abandon its thrust into the city.
Ralf Rath, head of the Panzermuseum in Munster, said the photos and videos on the internet that showed the destruction of Leopard tanks in Syria made it clear that the tanks were vulnerable.
“Contrary to common perceptions, tanks are no individual fighters,” he said. Referring to videos that showed the Leopards moving alone into al-Bab, he said that on urban battlefields “tanks always need infantry alongside that can protect their vulnerable flanks.”
Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this story.