When Leopard 2 Tank knocked out M1 Abrams in the Swiss Tank Tender

Switzerland sought a new tank in the 1980s, testing American M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

German or US tanks? This was the question before the Swiss Federal Council in the early 1980s. At the time, the choice was to purchase a new main combat tank for the Swiss Army to replace the obsolete Panzer 68, which had been used from the 1960s until the early 2000s.

As a reminder, Switzerland initially explored the possibility of domestically developing a new main battle tank (Neuer Kampfpanzer (NKPz) project) called the Panzer 2000 to replace its aging fleet of Panzer 68s. However, Switzerland eventually canceled the Panzer 2000 program before it could enter production. The primary reasons for scrapping the domestic replacement plan were the prohibitively high development and acquisition costs involved and concerns about the limited export market potential for the Panzer 2000 outside of Switzerland itself. 

In 1979, the Swiss National Council decided that the successor would no longer be a Swiss development because it was too expensive. The Panzer 68’s shortcomings, such as missing the target because the cannon slipped, most certainly influenced the decision. 

Two modern Western tanks were available for selection. The Abrams M1 from the USA and the Leopard 2 from Germany entered the evaluation process. Two Leopard 2s (chassis numbers 10047 and 10048) were taken from Bundeswehr stocks. They had already been modified with new radios and a 71mm Lyran launcher on the left side of the turret.

From August 1981 to June 1982, the Swiss Army subjected the two tank models to numerous tests. This included their cannons’ strength and accuracy, agility, and mobility on the terrain. The shooting tests took place at the Panzer shooting range in Hinterrhein, in the canton of Graubünden. 

The Swiss Army also reviewed other technical information about the two 1980s tank candidates. For example, despite having heavier armor, the American candidate was slightly lighter in battle. The German candidate’s was 55 tons, while this one was 54.3 tons.

Both engines had 1500 horsepower, which is the same as 1150 kW. But the M1 is powered by a diesel-powered gas engine, while a twelve-cylinder turbo diesel powers the Leopard 2. The M1 can go faster than its German rival—72 km/h vs. 68 km/h. However, the Leopard 2 uses a lot less gas than the M1. It uses about 200 liters of diesel every 100 kilometers, while the M1 uses 400 liters. Both of them cost about five million Swiss francs each back then.

They even took part in an acceleration race with a VW Golf as part of the test. The tanks could keep up with the car for the first 70 meters. The M1 needed less than six seconds to dash to 30 km/h.

Why did the Leopard 2 win the Swiss tender?

During the tests in Switzerland, the probability of hitting the target with the first shot for the Leopard 2 using APFSDS ammunition (targets sized 2.3 × 2.3 and 4.6 × 2.3 m at a distance of 1500 m) both on the move and from a stationary position ranged from 83.4% to 86.3%. For HEAT-MP ammunition, the probability of hitting with the first shot was 58.6% to 63.1%.

Compared to the M1 Abrams (with a 105mm gun), the Leopard 2 had a 10% higher probability of hitting with the first shot, allowing for faster target detection. According to calculations, in a possible duel between the M1 and the Leopard 2 tank, the latter would win by 2.6-3.8.

Regarding mobility, the Leopard 2 was considered easier to handle and consumed only 5.2 liters (compared to 10.1 liters) per kilometer traveled.

The Leopard 2 required 55 repairs during the tests, totaling 43 hours. The Abrams required 179 repairs, totaling 229 hours in total. It was considered that the Abrams required higher crew training.

The Leopard 2 emerged victorious from the duel. This was partly because a large part of the 380 tanks ordered could be built under license by the Swiss company Contraves (now Ruag). On March 27, 1987, the first “Panzer 87 Leopard,” as the official designation goes, was delivered to the Swiss Army.

The Swiss Army overhauled 134 tanks from 2008 to 2011. These are still in use by the Swiss Army. The Swiss Army converted twelve others into engineer or mine-clearing tanks. The Army currently keeps some Leopard 2 tanks as reserves, while the remaining tanks have been sold or decommissioned.

The Army’s plans for further development include using the Leopard 2 for as long as possible, probably until around 2035. The Swiss Army expects no disadvantages, as modern tanks still function the same way as the Leopard currently in service. However, a successor is questionable, as the requirements have also changed. The Swiss Army plans to procure modular tanks. Depending on the intended use, they would equip their base vehicle differently. The possibilities range from troop transporters to reconnaissance vehicles to light tanks.


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