Amin Papperger, CEO of the German military company Rheinmetall, stated that the KF51 “Panther” main combat tank could be supplied to the Ukrainian armed forces after Germany agreed to provide Ukraine with new tanks. In June 2022, the tank debuted at the European International Defense Exhibition. If the German government approves the delivery, production of the new tank will begin within 15 to 18 months.
Chinks in KF51 armour
This tank can be considered new with certain caveats. The KF51 is based on the German “Leopard 2” tank’s shell, engine, and transmission. The tank’s turret, 130mm L52 smoothbore gun, and instruments are all new. Panther’s combat weight is just 59 tons compared to Leopard 2A6 M’s 62.5 tons. Panther belongs to the third generation with fourth-generation technology.
Panther, unlike Leopard 2, is crewed by three people. Within the chassis are two crew stations, one of which houses the driver. One extra station is available for the company commander, a drone operator, or a wingman pilot. Sensor and weapon control assignments can be rapidly passed between crew members. Each workstation can take over tasks and roles from the others with no loss of capability. The turret and weapon control systems are integrated into the chassis-based workstations; future improvements could include unmanned turrets and remotely operated Panthers.
The Israeli Hero-120 loitering missile launcher and a proprietary quadrotor reconnaissance aircraft are both novel components.
The tank was most likely built as a radical upgrade to the existing Leopard 2 tank, of which 3,563 were produced. The old “Leopard 2” was dismantled at the factory, and new engines, gearboxes, turrets, and equipment were put in the hull – and the KF-51 was born.
German designers attempted to improve tank combat performance. If the “Leopard 2” has a range of 3000-3500 metres, the new 130mm cannon has a range of 6000-7000 metres.
The Russian T-90 “Breakthrough” tank, by comparison, can fire at a range of 5,000 metres. As a result, existing German tanks are vastly inferior to new Russian tanks and must be updated. As a result, calling the KF-51 an enhanced version of “Leopard 2” is more appropriate.
In brochures, the performance of modern European tanks was frequently overstated. The KF-51 is also referred to as the best and most protected tank.
Combat experience indicates that any tank may be hit and destroyed. The Leopard 2 has armour similar to the KF-51 and has fought in Afghanistan and Syria against opponents who do not have modern tanks or anti-tank weapons. As a result, the Taliban destroyed 6 Danish tanks and 3 Canadian tanks in Afghanistan, while 10 Turkish tanks were destroyed or severely damaged at the battle of al-Bab in Syria, out of 30 tanks involved in the battle. Half of them were hit by anti-tank-guided missiles from the Soviet era.
There’s no reason to believe the KF-51 would perform any better against more sophisticated tanks and anti-tank missiles than it did in Afghanistan and Syria.
The KF-51 also has a flaw: a gap between the frontal hull and the turret that takes up around 20% of the frontal surface. This is also a vulnerability of the M1A1 Abrams. After being hit by a high-explosive fragmentation bullet, this gap would generate an explosive force between the tank body and the turret, causing the rotating structure to shatter, the turret to jam, or the turret to explode.
Can it make a difference in Ukraine?
As mentioned above, Rheinmetall has stated that production will begin 15 to 18 months after the German government’s decision, or approximately a year and a half later. Following that, the first batches will take at least six months to manufacture. Then there’s the training of Ukrainian tank crews, the delivery of tanks to Ukraine, the deployment of tank units, and the attainment of combat readiness.
Even if the German government supports the company’s request today, it will take around three years for the Ukrainian army’s first KF-51 units to reach combat readiness. As a result, this new German tank may have yet to make it to the battlefield.
From 1979 through 2015, the “Leopard 2” tank was produced at an average pace of 98 units per year. If the KF-51 is built from the hull of an old Leopard 2 tank, with the engine, gearbox, and a new turret and equipment installed, Rheinmetall could create 120-150 new tanks every year or 60-70 tanks every six months. It is insufficient for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to have any realistic chance of success.