EU tank arsenal with Leopard-2: An useful and realizable defense project for Europe?

Since Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014 its common sense within EU states: the use of miliary force is back in politics, serious land forces are important again. Main battle tanks are regarded as their backbone. But especially on heavy tanks the Europeans are weakly positioned – 17 types exist within their armies. In the event of war differences in technology, crew numbers and operational doctrines will hamper massively joint operations. Furthermore, especially the bordering EU states to Russia do not have any MBTs or first of all outdated Sowjet fabricates. Others like Germany heavily reduced their tank fleet only a short while ago or ceased them like the Netherlands. These weaknesses the European Defence Agency (EDA) is targeting with the project of an EU tank arsenal which should enhance the readiness of EU member states tank forces. 

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

The EU-Agency, founded in 2004, has the commission of the union states to develop projects which advance a common EU defense. The idea of the EDA projection: Owner states of Leopard-2 tanks, the most frequent tank pattern in the EU, should modernize their older versions to the newest standard A7. That could be potenially: Germany, Finland, Greece, Italy, Austria, Poland, Sweden and Spain. Afterwards they rent them to EU members without modern MBTs. The exact funding concept has been still to be determined. Its probably envisaged that the tank lessors take over the investments for the modernisation and recoup them with the rents over a time period of ten years. This should create a win-win situation for tank providers and purchasers. Some are getting some steady inflows to their defence budget, the others modern heavy tanks. Its the main goal of the EDA project – official name ‘Optimisation of the Main Battle Tank Capability in Europe with initial focus on Leopard 2 (OMBT-Leo2)‘ – to equip the East European member states with modern Leopard-2 and thereby boosting the interoperability with EU armies from Western Europe. More than 300 Leopard tanks could be alloted on this way so the estimation of the defence news service Griephan. The purchasers of the tanks integrate and operate them in their landforces but the servicing and crew training for those tanks would be centralized over a virtual ‚EU tank arsenal‘ – organized as a grouping of European defense companies.

A German defence company developed the concept

The lead of such an arsenal would be readily undertaken by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), the producer of the Leopard-2. The concept of an EU tank arsenal was originally developed by this German defense company, later borrowed from the EDA and is now under elaboration as ‚OMBT-Leo2′. Krauss-Maffei Wegmann pursues two business targets with an EU tank arsenal. Firstly with projection into the future: The EDA project with an maintenance bundled over KMW would be best to further distribute the Leopard-2 technology over the EU. Furthermore the arsenal creates a perfect base to establish the planed German-French MBT as a EU standard tank. KMW and its french partner Nexter (manufacturer of the French MBT Leclerc) are believed for the production of this ‚Leoclerc‘.

The second part of KMWs strategy: Modernizing and servicing the older Leopard-2 variants like A4 could help the company to survive the lean period until the next generation tank. ‚Cause KMW has a problem: Its first of all producing the main parts of the Leopard like the glacis plate. But states are rarely buying new tanks this days, more individual upgradings like better fire control systems. Such upgrades are also in KMWs portfolio but the company Rheinmetall, which supplies important parts of the Leopard like the cannon, ist often better placed in this market segment. Rheinmetall, which KMW likes to speak about as a ‚subcontractor‘, wons lucrative orders in the last years like with Poland and Indonesia. Both countries opted for KMWs adversary to modernize their Leopard-2s on own concepts. Krauss-Maffei Wegmann would certainly benefit from an overhaul to A7 like envisaged with ‚OMBT-Leo2′, an upgrade level which was developed under KMW guidance.

 Benefits of an EU tank arsenal 

But the concept of an EU tank arsenal has more potential than only feeding the defence industry. It could offer benefits for a better territorial EU defence. Christian Mölling, senior military expert at the Berlin based think tank German society for foreign policy: „Such an 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.“

Especially the disposability of tanks is an enormous problem within European armies. They are only in name prepared for substantial national defence, like the German armed forces. The Germans have huge difficulties with the maintenance of their heavy battle tanks. Less than half of all 244 MTBs 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 woul be more effective in an arsenal structure, where the industry provides servicing for a huger pooled tank fleet.

For military expert Christian Mölling there are further advantages. The common use of one tank model would expedite the creation of a unite doctrine within European armies how to use MBTs in operations. That leads to well-machted tank units between the national contingents and so to a much higher combat power. Also the ability to sustain in fighting could increase. Fallen tank crews of one nation can be easily replaced by another. All that would better the detterence for territorial defence of European territories against adversaries with strong mechanized troops like Russia.

Small interest among potential participants

 Advantages of an EU arsenal with Leopard-2 tanks are obvious. But nevertheless the parliamentary commissioner for the German Armed Forces, Hans-Peter Bartes, is sceptical: „The industry do not has 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 payment. I don’t see the willingness for such a move.“ 

In fact, the interest is small among countries which the original arsenal concept of KMW labeled as potential Leopard-2 lessors. The defence ministries of Finland (100 Leopard2 A4) and Austria (40 Leopard-2 A4) stated on request that they don’t want to join the EDA project and provide tanks. Also Spain, one of the biggest holders of old Leopard-2 (108 Leopard-2 A4) has other priorities, according to Esteban Villarejo, defence editor at Madrids daily newspaper ABC: „The defence ministry told me in the context of ‚OMBT-Leo2′ that investments in other projects like new helicopters and frigates are considered as much more important.“

The core problem of the KMW / EDA concept: The lessors should take back the modernized Leopard-2 after ten years or the tanks should be the core of a EU tank fleet if then implemented what’s cannot be foreseen. But from the lessors view, money for Leopard-2 is not a defence investment for the future. Then this tank is a weapon system at its zenith; it’s development potential is exhausted. The industry is allready designing the Leopard-2 successor. To ramp up the fighting power of old versions to the A7 level will cost seven millions plus apiece so the estimation of experts.

Moreover the upgrade of tanks has strong competition. There are new important fields of amarment like drones and cyber. But the defence budgets in Europe are only slightly increasing. Just the German Armed Forces started a Leopard-2 modernization program. Apart from that, European armies with Leopard-2 are using them as spare parts donors or to close other gaps in military equipment fort territorial defence. For example Germany and Spain are planing to convert Leopard-2 A4 to armoured vehicle-launched bridges for their tank troops.

Also tank purchasers according to the concept are not absolute keen to get heavy battle tanks from the EDA-project beside their proximity to Russia. The assessment of Hilmar Linnenkamp, former EDA vice-chief: „The smaller countries nowadays constrain themeselves to maintain lighter armed troops which are not so expensive. They prefer a specialized defence concept within NATO und EU where huger players like Germany should bring in the heavy material.“ The defence concepts of the Baltic states only envisaged infantry fighting vehicles but no MBTs. Towards the author the MoDs of Lithuania and Estonia stated that they don’t want to join the EDA project EU tank arsenal.

Czechia is a fan – Germany hesitates

Interest in the project is shown by Germany and the Czech Republic. The MoD in Prague signifys on request that its main interest lays in benefits or the countrys defence industry. For example Czech companies could deliver prodcuts in the field of optoelectronics, CBRN protection, cable harnessing and medical modifications of the Leopard tanks. The tone in the German MoD on ‚OMBT-Leo2′ is more reserved – „We are tracing the development of the project with particular interest.“ That surely means that Berlin is undiceded if it should join or not.

There are pros and cons from a German perspective. The project could be a favorable plattform to offer the planed German-French MBT to arsenal members and so to implement the upcoming technology as an ‚EU standard‘. That would serve Germanys general interest to place itself as a main coordinator of a European defence network. But the concept does not fit to Germanys cardinal military strategy for Europe. The approach: Small spezialized armies should lean on frame forces like those of Germany with a broader range of capabilities. By doing this the shrunked military ressources of Europe which are only slowly recovering should be better allocated for the future. But the EDA project is offering the contrary. The shrinked tank stocks in Europe should be spread among more users – an idea in which a lot of EU partner armies obviously don’t see any need. So the concept of an EU arsenal with modernized Leopard-2 tanks could bring clear benefits for Europes territorial defense but its implementation is unrealistic.

Thanks for a readers hint:

Denmark, also a Leopard-2 owner, cannot be listed as an potential project participant due to its special ‚EU Defence Opt-Out‘.

3 Gedanken zu “EU tank arsenal with Leopard-2: An useful and realizable defense project for Europe?

  1. Genauso informativ und spannend in der englischen Version zu lesen wie Ihr Podcast auf Deutsch zum gleichen Thema für NDRInfo anzuhören war! Ihre Beiträge sind echt Klasse!

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