EU tank arsenal with Leopard 2: A realizable and useful defence project for Europe?

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

An Austrian Leopard 2 A4 during the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2017 at Grafenwoehr, Germany (Photo: U.S. Army by Spc. Nathanael Mercado).

An Austrian Leopard 2 A4 during the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2017 at Grafenwoehr, Germany (Photo: U.S. Army by Spc. Nathanael Mercado).

Since Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, its common sense within EU member states that the use of military force is back in politics and serious land forces are important again. Main battle tanks (MBT) are regarded as their backbone. However, especially on heavy tanks the Europeans are weakly positioned – 17 types exist within their armies. In the event of war, differential technologies, crew complement and operational doctrines will severely hamper joint operations. Furthermore, especially the bordering EU member states to Russia in eastern Europe have at best outdated Soviet MBTs or none at all. Other EU states such as Germany were heavily reducing their tank fleet or have ceased them, as in the case of the Netherlands. The European Defence Agency (EDA) tries to target this weakness with the project of an “EU tank arsenal”, which should enhance the readiness of EU member states’ tank forces.

Founded in 2004, EDA’s mission is to promote and to facilitate the integration between the member states within the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and in this regard to develop projects, which should advance a common EU defence. Concerning the weakness in the area of the MBTs in the EU member states, the EDA came up with the idea that states with Leopard 2 tanks, the most frequent tank model in the EU, should modernize their older versions to the newest standard A7. These would include Germany, Finland, Greece, Austria, Poland, Sweden and Spain. After the completed modernization, these states should rent them to EU member states, which do not have modern MBTs. The detailed funding concept has been still to be determined, but it seems that the tank lessors should take over the investments for the modernization of the Leopard 2 tanks and could recoup these costs with the rents of the leaseholders over a time of ten years. The leaseholders would integrate the modernized tanks into their land forces and operate them, but servicing and crew training would be centralized in a virtual “EU tank arsenal”, organized as a grouping of European defence companies. This concept should create a win-win situation for lessor and leaseholder states. The former would be getting a steady inflow of money into its defence budget, the later modern MBTs for its forces. The EDA project based on this idea is called “Optimisation of the Main Battle Tank Capability in Europe with initial focus on Leopard 2 (OMBT-Leo2)” and its main goal is to equip eastern EU member states with modern Leopard 2 tanks. Automatically, this would boost the interoperability among the different armed forces within the EU. According to the estimation of Griephan, more than 300 Leopard 2 tanks could be allotted on this way.

The concept of a German defence company
The lead of such an “EU tank arsenal” would be readily undertaken by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), the producer of the Leopard 2 and the company behind the concept, which later was borrowed by the EDA. KMW pursues with it two business goals:

  • Firstly, bundled with maintenance, the EDA project would further distribute the Leopard 2 technology EU-wide. Furthermore, the “EU tank arsenal” would create a perfect base to establish the planned German-French MBT as an EU standard tank. KMW and its French partner Nexter (manufacturer of the French MBT Leclerc) are expected to be the producer of the future “Leoclerc” (known under the “KANT project“).
  • Secondly, modernizing and servicing older Leopard 2 variants would help KMW to survive the lean period until the next generation tank. This lean period could pose a major problem for KMW, because its first of all producing the main parts of the Leopard such as the glacis plate.

Currently, states are rarely buying new tanks, but upgrade their MBTs, for example, with a better fire control system. Such upgrades are in KMWs portfolio, but the company Rheinmetall, which supplies important parts of the Leopard (such as the cannon), is often better placed in this market segment. Rheinmetall, which KMW likes to speak about as a “subcontractor”, has won lucrative orders in the last years such as the ones from Poland and Indonesia. Both countries opted for KMW’s competitor to modernize their Leopard 2s on own concepts. KMW would certainly benefit from an overhaul to the version A7 as envisaged with “OMBT-Leo2”, an upgrade level which was developed under KMW guidance.

Benefits of an “EU tank arsenal”
The concept of an “EU tank arsenal” has more potential than only feeding the defence industry. It could offer benefits for a better territorial defence. Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated that “[s]uch a union arsenal would be like a garage with numerous service lifts instead of one in a single nation workshop. As a result, there would be a much better availability of tanks.”

The availability of tanks is a notable problem within the armies of the EU member states, which — as in the case of the German armed forces — are only in name prepared for substantial national defence. The German armed forces have huge difficulties maintaining their MBTs: less than half of all 244 Leopard 2s are operational. The spare parts depots are so badly filled that already the increased training of the German troops for the NATO presence in eastern Europe overcharged them. The maintenance of smaller national tank contingents would be more effective in a European-wide arsenal structure, where the industry provides services for a huger pooled tank fleet.

Mölling sees further advantages: The common use of one tank model would expedite the creation of a unite doctrine within European armies regarding the use of MBTs in operations. That would lead to well-matched tank units between national contingents, to much higher combat power and would favour the ability to sustain in fighting situations. The fallen tank crews of one state could be easily replaced by another. Regarding the territorial defence of European territories, this would improve the deterrence against potential adversaries with strong mechanized troops, such as Russia.

Little interest among potential participants
The advantages of an “EU tank arsenal” with Leopard 2 tanks in it are obvious. Nevertheless, the parliamentary commissioner for the German Armed Forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, is skeptical: “The industry does not have the servicing capacities for such a project. KMW already needs seven years to modernize 104 Leopard 2 for the German armed forces in our national program. For an EU arsenal, the industry or the states must advance huge payments. I don’t see the willingness for such a move.”

The number of MBTs in Member States of the EU has been constantly decreasing, from 15,000 in the year 2000 to just 5,000 today. — “Optimizing Europe’s Main Battle Tank Capabilities”, European Defence Matters, Issue 14, 2017, p.39.

In fact, there is little interest among countries labelled as potential Leopard 2 lessors by the original KMW concept. The ministry of defence in Finland (100 Leopard 2 A4) and Austria (40 Leopard 2 A4) stated on request that they don’t want to join the EDA project. Also Spain, one of the biggest holders of old Leopard 2 tanks (108 Leopard 2 A4), has other priorities, according to Esteban Villarejo, defence editor of Madrid’s daily newspaper ABC: “The defence ministry told me in the context of ‘OMBT-Leo2’ that investments in other projects such as new helicopters and frigates are considered much more important.”

The main problem of the KMW/EDA concept is that after ten years, either the lessor state takes back the Leopard 2 from the leaseholder state or these tanks would build the core of an EU tank fleet. If an EU tank fleet will ever be implemented cannot be foreseen, yet. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of the lessor the spent money for the modernization of the old Leopard 2 version to the newest standard does not represent a defence investment for the future. Strictly speaking, the Leopard 2 is a weapon system at its zenith and its development potential is exhausted. The industry is already designing the Leopard 2 successor. To ramp up the fighting power of old versions to the A7 level would cost at least seven million Euro apiece according to the estimation of experts.

Because the defence budgets in Europe only slightly increase and because the presence of other important new fields of armament such as drones and cyber technology, the upgrade of tanks takes place in a competitive environment. For now, only the German Armed Forces (from A4 to A7) and Poland (from A4 to A5/A6 equivalent) started a Leopard 2 modernization program. Apart from that, European armies with Leopard 2 tanks are using them as spare parts donors or to close other gaps in military equipment for the territorial defence; for example: Germany and Spain are planning to convert Leopard 2 A4s to armoured vehicle-launched bridges.

Despite their proximity to Russia, the potential leaseholder states in eastern Europe are not very keen to get MBTs from the EDA project. Hilmar Linnenkamp, former deputy chief executive of the EDA, assess that “[t]he smaller countries nowadays constrain themselves to maintain lighter armed troops which are not so expensive. They prefer a specialized defence concept within NATO and EU where huger players like Germany should bring in the heavy material.” For example, the defence concepts of the Baltic states only envisaged infantry fighting vehicles, but no MBTs. The ministries of defence of Lithuania and Estonia stated to the author that they don’t want to join the EDA project.

Czechia is a fan – Germany hesitates
Germany and the Czech Republic show their interest in the project. The ministry of defence in Prague signifies on request that its main interest lies in the benefits of country’s defence industry. Czech companies could deliver products in the field of optoelectronics, CBRN protection, cable harnessing and medical modifications of the Leopard tanks. The tone in the German ministry of defence on the “OMBT-Leo2” is more reserved: “We are tracing the development of the project with particular interest.” That surely means that Berlin is undecided if it should join or not.

There are pros and cons from a German perspective. The project could be a favourable platform to offer the planned German-French MBT to participants of the “EU tank arsenal” and could promote the implementation of the upcoming technology as an “EU standard”. That would serve Germany’s general interest to place itself as a main coordinator of a European-wide defence network. However, the concept does not fit to Germany’s military strategy for Europe, which is based on the approach that small, specialized armies should lean on frame forces with a broader range of capabilities, such as Germany. The idea behind this approach is the better long-term allocation of the shrunken, only slowly recovering, military resources of European states. In fact, the EDA-project offers exactly the opposite: the shrunken tank stocks in Europe would be spread among more users – an idea in which a lot of EU partner armies obviously don’t see any need. In other words: the concept of an “EU tank arsenal” with modernized Leopard 2 tanks could bring clear benefits for Europe’s territorial defence, but its implementation is unrealistic.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, International, Security Policy.

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