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Leopard II main battle tank


By Sakhal

The great tension accumulated between the western and eastern defensive blocks in the 1950s and 1960s led the German strategists to undertake the development of a very advanced tank, designed to stop an hypothetical invasion from the East. With such perspective in mind the German engineers conceived and developed the Leopard 2 main battle tank which, thirty years after the beginning of the project, was considered by many the best on its class. The development of the new German tank was started with a project conceived during the 1960s. In that time Germans and Americans still worked together in the MBT-70 program, which put in a second plane the Leopard 2 project. The MBT-70 was a 50-ton tank armed with a 152-millimeter cannon/missile launcher - similar to that of the M-60A2 main battle tank and the Sheridan light tank - and fitted with hydropneumatic suspension, which allowed to lower the height of the tank at will.

When the development of the MBT-70 was cancelled in January 1970 the Germans decided to impulse the development of the Leopard 2. The project was contracted with Krauss-Maffei of Munich, which had created the preceding Leopard 1 and had the collaboration of many other German companies. The works gave the first tangible results in 1972 with the presentation of the first prototype, to which another fifteen would follow until 1974. In that group, which comprised an additional turret for diverse trials, were included exemplars which were similar regarding their external appearance but different regarding their propulsion plants, suspension systems, configuration of armament, fire control devices and other aspects. The Leopard 2, weighing 55 tonnes, was much heavier than the Leopard 1, but not much larger. This was because the protection level had been greatly enhanced, being in line with that of the Chieftain, which could clearly be the main competitor of the Leopard 2 in the exportation market.

Leopard II main battle tank

One of the prototypes of the Leopard 2 created in 1973-74, armed with a Rheinmetall 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon.

Leopard II main battle tank

One of the prototypes of the Leopard 2, fitted with a turret similar to that of the series version.

During the process of validation of configurations, in 1974, it was signed an agreement through which Germany and United States would join their efforts for the conception of a new model. As a result the Leopard 2 AV (Austere Version) made apparition, which was armed with the L7 105-millimeter rifled cannon and incorporated a Hughes fire control system with laser rangefinder and a different suspension, among other modifications. Four different turrets were made, two of them armed with the Rheinmetall 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon. The German model was destined to compete against the American prototypes Chrysler XM-1 and General Motors XM-2, and was brought to Aberdeen, in Maryland, for taking part on the diverse trials. The German tank was not accepted by the United States Army, which selected the Chrysler XM-1 prototype in November 1976. However, the American tank would be armed from 1985 with the German 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon instead of the L7 105-millimeter rifled cannon that equipped the first 3000 exemplars produced.

Leopard II main battle tank

The Leopard 2 AV (Austere Version) was created in 1976 to take part in the contest opened by the United States Army for a new main battle tank.

However, this rejection did not discourage the German Army (Bundesheer), which in 1977 selected this model and signed the construction of 1800 exemplars, of which 910 were manufactured by Krauss- Maffei and the rest by MaK. The first pre-production exemplars, which were used for the initial training and presentation in the academies, were received in the late 1978, and the first series exemplar was delivered to Munich in October 1979, year during which another five were delivered. The production plants achieved the expected pace and in 1982 twenty-five exemplars were delivered each month, to be incorporated to the first line units. Additional lots were continually ordered so that until 1992, when the last production exemplar was delivered, eight orders succeeded each other for a total of 2125 exemplars, of which 380 corresponded to the basic model (later upgraded to the A2 version), 750 to the A1 version, 300 to the A3 version and 695 to the A4 version. At the beginning of the 21st century 175 exemplars of the A5 version had been newly produced, while 285 older exemplars were in process of being upgraded to the new version. In June 1998 it was presented in EuroSatory one of the new tanks of the A6 version, which armed with the new L55 cannon represented the tendency of the near future.

Undoubtedly, the Leopard 2 is one of the most perfected tanks in the world and the Germans were succesful when designing a tank which satisfactorily complied the three requisites for which a main battle tank is valued: mobility, firepower and protection. For a large number of military topic writers, the Leopard 2 was back then in the 1980s - and is nowadays - the best main battle tank in service. It was not a unanimous opinion, in a moment in which it had competitors as prominent as the American M1, the Soviet T-72, the Israeli Merkava and the British Challenger. But it is a fact that points up the exceptional characteristics of this tank. At the same time it was consolidating as the European model after being adopted not only by Germany but also by Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. However, the exportation to Saudi Arabia was not authorized by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

The reliability and possibilities of the model, proven by tankers from Germany and other nations that praised its prestations, helped its exportation to diverse countries, being Netherlands the first foreign nation that adopted it, signing in 1979 an order of 445 exemplars, of which the first four were delivered in 1981. In August 1983 Switzerland ordered 380 exemplars, the largest part of which, designated Pz 87, were produced under licence by Contraves between 1987 and 1993. In June 1994 Sweden ordered 120 exemplars, which began to be delivered in 1997; meanwhile, the country rented a lot of 160 exemplars to put into service while the ordered exemplars were in production. In November 1994 Spain signed an agreement which involved the cession under leasing, for a term of five years, of 108 exemplars which back then were in service with the German Army. To this cession followed in February 1998 an agreement that approved the construction of 219 Leopard 2E (Spanish version of the Leopard 2A5) and sixteen Leopard 2ER (armored recovery vehicles) by the national industry, to be delivered between 2001 and 2006.

Leopard II main battle tank

Spain acquired in regime of leasing 108 exemplars of the Leopard 2A4 which equipped two armored battalions of the Brunete I Mechanized Division.

Characteristics of the Leopard II

The layout of the Leopard 2 is conventional, with the driver located forward, the turret - where the commander, the gunner and the loader are accommodated - in the center, and the engine and transmission behind. The 1500-horsepower MTU MB 873 Ka-501 flex-fuel Diesel engine, originally developed for the MBT-70, allows the Leopard 2 to overcome obstacles where other tanks would get stuck. The powerful and robust engine is associated to a Renk HSWL 354 hydrokinetic transmission, with four speeds forward and two backward, and is capable of moving with agility the almost sixty tonnes of the A5 version in any type of terrain, in part thanks to the design of the chassis, with a maximum speed of 72 kilometers/hour when moving forward and 31 kilometers/hour when moving backward. The suspension system is one of torsion bar type with shock absorbers, and the wheel ensemble, identical to that of the Leopard 1, includes seven road wheels, a rear drive sprocket, a fore idler and four return rollers. The whole propulsion plant can be removed within fifteen minutes for being repaired or replaced. The fuel capacity is 1200 liters and allows a maximum operational range of 550 kilometers. The Leopard 2 can ford streams of up to one meter in depth without preparation, up to 2.35 meters with preparation and up to four meters with snorkel.

Leopard II main battle tank

Due to its design and prestations, the Leopard 2A5 is considered one of the most capable main battle tanks, which features the maximum level in the three basic aspects that are required in every armored vehicle: firepower, mobility and protection.

Initially it was thought that the armor of the Leopard 2 was one of spaced type, but in the late 1976 it was revealed that it was an armor of Chobham type (British patent) which would provide a superior protection against any type of projectile known. This is a laminated armor comprising parallel steel and ceramic plates, applied to a steel frame on the hull and the turret. The manufacturer claimed that such armor would resist impacts from piercing, shaped-charge and high-explosive squash-head projectiles, because the intermediate ceramic plate could disperse the piercing power or the shockwave associated to an impact. The A5 version increased the protection on the frontal arc, which was redesigned and optimized for facing future threats ranging from HEAT projectiles to anti-tank missiles. The Leopard 2 incorporates a NBC (Nuclear-Biological-Chemical) protection system of collective type (unlike that of the American M1 Abrams, which is of individual type) and a heating system for the driving and combat compartments.

The first prototypes were armed with a Rheinmetall 105-millimeter smoothbore cannon, but the last prototypes incorporated the 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon which later equipped the series vehicles. The cannon had a length of 5.28 meters, equivalent to 44 calibers, and a bore evacuator in the middle of the tube. It had a vertical arc ranging between +20 and -9 degrees and an elevation speed of 9.5 degrees per second, which means three seconds for covering the whole vertical arc. The turret, operated through an electro-hydraulic system, could rotate 48 degrees per second, which means less than eight seconds for a 360-degree turn. The cannon is stabilized in both azimuth and elevation and is fitted with a thermal sleeve to minimize the effect of temperature variation in the straightness of the tube. The L44 cannon can be replaced by the L55, which is 1.32 meters longer and achieves a higher muzzle velocity.

The cannon fires two basic types of fin-stabilized projectiles, which thanks to their fins can be fired with accuracy from the smoothbore cannon. The small fins are deployed on the rear part of projectiles immediately after leaving the bore, which allows to hit the target with a projectile that does not rotate. This is important for using with effectiveness shaped-charge projectiles, whose effect is significantly dispersed if the projectile rotates, as well as subcaliber piercing projectiles. The anti-tank projectile is one of piercing type and detachable base, which has an effective range beyond 2200 meters, distance at which it could perforate the triple heavy target of the NATO. The second type is the shaped-charge projectile, designed for being used against fortifications and other targets, and which has a semicombustible case. After firing the projectile only the brass base remains, which falls inside the combat compartment releasing a very limited amount of fumes. The workload of the loader is eased by an hydraulic loading mechanism.

An MG-3 7.62-millimeter machine gun is installed co-axially to the cannon. Some prototypes had a 40-millimeter grenade launcher on the top of the turret, to fire anti-personnel grenades, but the series vehicle had instead another 7.62-millimeter machine gun installed on a conventional mounting, which could be used against aircraft. The tank carries 42 projectiles for the cannon and 3000 for the machine guns. The largest part of the 120-millimeter projectiles are stored in an armored magazine located in the rear part of the turret, which is designed to explode upward when hit by a projectile, to prevent harm to the crew members. At each side of the turret there are eight smoke launchers, arranged in two rows, which can also fire anti-personnel grenades.

The very advanced fire control system included in the early models a laser/stereoscopic rangefinder, which along with the two-axis stabilization allowed to fire while in movement with a high possibility of hitting the target. Standard equipment included passive night vision systems and stabilized sights. The gunner has a x12 magnification sight (EMES-12 or EMES-15), with a field of view of 86 thousandths of degree, and the commander has a x8 magnification periscope (PERI-R12 or PERI-R17). A ballistic computer automatically determines the parameters which affect the precision of each shot. There is also a TCCS (Tank Command and Control System) system which links diverse subsystems that provide battlefield awareness, orientation in the terrain and diverse indications, and manage tactical information, commands, messages and alarms through radio communication.

Leopard II main battle tank


Since its introduction in 1979, the Leopard 2 series has been continuously updated until reaching a very high degree of sophistication. The following images show an exemplar of the A6 version armed with the L55 cannon which was presented in June 1998 in the EuroSatory exhibition of Paris. In the demonstration it was seen how the 1500-horsepower propulsion plant confers a great agility and the capability to overcome the largest part of obstacles that the tank can find during its advance, granting superior possibilities when moving on rough terrain.

Leopard II main battle tank


Leopard II main battle tank


Leopard II main battle tank


Leopard II main battle tank


Leopard II main battle tank


Reduced space: Despite its notable size, the space that the three crew members have inside the turret is minimal, and the process of loading the main weapon demands great effort from the loader, who has to move ammunitions that reach a weight of 24 kilograms.

Fire control system: In the right side of the turret are located some of the elements that constitute the fire control system, among which are the PERI-R17 stabilized panoramic periscope and the EMES-15 stabilized sight which combines a thermal channel and a laser rangefinder.

Wegman launchers: In each of the sides of the tank are located two quadruple launchers which can fire smoke canisters, for its own concealment, or anti-personnel grenades with which to hit enemy infantrymen.

Upper hatches: In the upper part of the turret are located the hatches for the commander and the radio operator. They can be seen also diverse elements used for observation and firing, all of them of German origin and having very advanced prestations for the time in which they were designed.

Propulsion plant: Under two large circular vent grates is located the excellent MTU MB 873 Ka-501 turbocharged Diesel engine of twelve cylinders, which reaches its maximum power, calculated on 1500 horsepower, at 2600 revolutions per minute.

Advanced protection: The front of the turret and the hull have been manufactured with a spaced armor which combines steel plates, ceramic elements, advanced fibers and plastics, a combination capable of stopping the explosion of projectiles and anti-tank missiles.

Wheel ensemble: Constituted by seven road wheels on each side, associated to torsion bars and shock absorbers, the wheel ensemble moves two Diehl tracks which confer a great tactical mobility in any type of terrain.

Main cannon: On its L44 configuration, this 120-millimeter cannon is capable of hitting, during daytime and nighttime, targets on a radius of three kilometers and which move at high speed.

Modernization of the Leopard II

The Leopard 2, like the Leopard 1, was submitted to successive actualizations as more sophisticated systems were developed. In 1995 a certain number of improvements were available, among them a new longer barrel for the cannon, additional armor and an improved fire control system. But in that time a more important revision could be made: a 140-millimeter smoothbore cannon fitted with an automatic loader, novelty which would allow to reduce the crew to three members as well as the size of the turret, and to increase the capacity for ammunition. Such a remodelation could greatly benefit the firepower of the tank and thus an enhancement program was started to incorporate such modifications. The first vehicles so equipped should have appeared circa 2010, but the project was cancelled, at least for the time being, as it is possible that it were left in the background for a future development.

An even more radical proposal took into account the replacement of the traditional turret by one that were fully independent from the crew, remotely controlled by the commander and the gunner, who would be accommodated inside the hull next to the driver. Albeit already in 1995 existed the technology to do this (in fact, naval cannon mountings are very similar to tank turrets and have been remotely controlled for decades), this would be an excessively radical change to be put into practice before 2010, even in the form of prototype. As 2018 goes by, this technology has been introduced in a few foreign models but it is still unclear whether or when it will impose itself onto the battlefield.

Specifications for early Leopard II

Crew: 4

Armament: One Rheinmetall 120-millimeter 44-caliber cannon; one MG-3 7.62-millimeter co-axial machine gun; one MG-3 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the top of the turret; eight smoke launchers in each side of the turret

Ammunitions: 42 x 120-millimeter cannon; 3000 x 7.62-millimeter machine gun

Armor: Chobham type of parallel plates

Lenght (with cannon forward): 9.66 meters

Lenght (with cannon backward): 8.49 meters

Lenght (hull): 7.72 meters

Width: 3.70 meters

Height (to the top of the commander's cupola): 2.79 meters

Weight (in order of combat): 55.2 tonnes

Ground pressure: 0.85 kilograms/square centimeter

Engine: MTU MB 873 Ka-501 Diesel with 12 cylinders, water cooled, and developing 1500 horsepower at 2600 revolutions per minute

Power/weight ratio: 27.17 horsepower/tonne

Maximum speed (in road): 72 kilometers/hour

Maximum speed (in countryside): 55 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 550 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 3 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 1.10 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum sideward slope: 30 percent

Maximum fording (without preparation): 1 meter

Maximum fording (with preparation): 2.35 meters

Maximum fording (with schnorkel): 4 meters



Specifications for Leopard 2A5

Price: 8 millions of dollars

Crew: 4

Armament: One Rheinmetall 120-millimeter 44-caliber cannon; one MG-3 7.62-millimeter co-axial machine gun; one MG-3 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the top of the turret; eight smoke launchers in each side of the turret

Armor: Laminated and spaced

Lenght (total): 9.97 meters

Lenght (hull): 7.72 meters

Width: 3.74 meters

Height (to the top of the periscope): 3 meters

Weight (in order of combat): 59.7 tonnes

Ground pressure: 0.92 kilograms/square centimeter

Engine: MTU MB 873 Ka-501 turbocharged Diesel with 12 cylinders, developing 1500 horsepower at 2600 revolutions per minute

Power/weight ratio: 25.12 horsepower/tonne

Maximum speed (in road): 72 kilometers/hour

Maximum speed (in countryside): 55 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 500 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 3 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 1.10 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum fording (without preparation): 1 meter





Article updated: 2018-03-19

Categories: Tanks - 20th Century - 21st Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2018-03-12


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