by Efthimios Tsiliopoulos
In a recent article, nationalinterest.org attempts to understand why German-made Leopard 2A4 MBTs in Turkish service have faired badly in their deployment in Syria. But, I think, the question is wrong.
In the fall of 2016, Turkish Leopard 2s of the Second Armored Brigade deployed to the Syrian border to support Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s intervention against ISIS. Prior to the Leopard’s arrival, around a dozen Turkish upgraded M-60 Sabra tanks were destroyed by both ISIS and Kurdish missiles. Turkish defense commentators expressed the hope that the tougher Leopard would fare better.
As the article notes, of the 354 used Leopard 2A4 tanks Berlin sold to Ankara, ten were destroyed in the fighting: five reportedly by antitank missiles, two by mines or IEDs, one to rocket or mortar fire, and the others to more ambiguous causes. It appears the vehicles were mostly struck the more lightly protected belly and side armor by IEDs and AT-7 Metis and AT-5 Konkurs antitank missiles.
If I remember correctly, in an article IU had written, way back after the last incursion of the IDF into Lebanon, of the 15, or so, tanks hit (I believe almost exclusively early mark Merkavas), struck with over 2500 AT weapons, guided and unguided, only one was a total write off, after stepping on an IED made from a water heater, containing 50 kg of TNT. Nothing can survive 50 kg of TNT.
It also appears that the tanks were further targetted by Turkish Air force strikes to render them unusable.
The losses were reported by Der Spiegel, while bellingcat.com confirmed eight of the tanks and a number of other vehicles destroyed through photos posted by Jihadists.
It is obvious that the Leopard 2 was designed as an MBT to fight defensive battles against the Warsaw Pact forces involving large scale heavily armored units slugging it out in Europe. The article in nationalinterest.org tries to argue that the US-made Abrams is slightly less vulnerable, due to its use of depleted uranium in its modular armor. However, it does concede that the Abrams has not fared much better in Saudi hands in the war in Yemen. However, the specific author has had a series of articles berating the Leopard 2.
At the same time, Leopard 2s have been used successfully in Afghanistan (Canadian 2A6Ms and Danish 2A5s). Although they received damage they were quickly put back in action, and not one was a write-off.
Germany has been building an upgraded Leopard, the Leopard 2A7V, which is slated to receive the ADATS APS self-defence suite, which supposedly poses a lesser risk of harming friendly troops with its defensive countermeasure missiles, than the Israeli-made Trophy-APS that is being fitted aboard US Abrams tanks, on a trial basis.
Turkey would have liked this upgrade, but German lawmakers have blocked this otherwise lucrative deal for Berlin. In response the Turks had the local firm that built the new Turkish Altay tank, develop and install an upgrade for some Leopard 2A5s for use in Syria or against PKK rebels in Turkey. The upgrade consisted of adding blocks of ERA (explosive reactive armor) on the sides of the tank and around the turret. In addition slat (a metal cage) armor was also installed around the turret. A Turkish designed APS (Active Protection System) was installed that senses and jams incoming ATGMs. The first of these Leopard 2A5s were available in early 2019. None have seen combat in Syria yet.
However, the problem seems to be not in the tanks themselves, but rather in the manner they are employed. Tanks were designed to overcome (figuratively and literally) the impasse created by the advantages for defence that had ensued from new weapons like the machine gun and the rapid firing field gun.
As envisaged by early proponents, like Sir Basil Lidell and Heinz Guderian, the tank would be used as the spearhead of fast-moving columns that would create rifts in the enemy front line, while equally fast-moving infantry would support them and deal with any opposition that the spearhead would bypass, on its race to destroy the given objective. Follow on units would fan out behind the breach to envelop the defenders from behind.
Obviously this is not the case in Syria. The enemy has no fixed front lines, is highly mobile, and unarmored. Tanks may have tremendous mobility and firepower but are not suitable to act as direct infantry support weapons. In urban spaces, their worth is further diminished.
These days there is an array of anti-tank weapons that can engage tanks at ranges equal to that of MBT main guns, and are easily concealable. And they are hard to see, at such ranges.
On the other hand, if blitzkrieg-style campaigns are in order this is almost ideal ground. The Kurds could still use any residential aggregations as anti-tank “festungs” much as NATO planned to use German villages in an effort to blunt the spearhead of Russian armored thrusts.
Northern Syria is mostly arid and devoid of natural hiding places for such massive vehicles. However, you can dig a small hole put an ATGW launcher and the tank won’t possibly see it before the weapon has already been fired at it. The Turks in their endeavors so far have used the tanks either with little infantry support, or that infantry support melted away in the face of determined fire.
The Turkish Leopards have been designed with the idea of facing the enemy head-on with their thickest frontal armor. They have no reactive armor, or additional skirting to detonate shaped charge warheads (HEAT), which are mainstays for infantry fielded AT weapons.
Sitting on top of hills so as to command a view and a wide arc of fire is not their purpose. Unlike concrete blockhouses which are resilient and have no moving parts, or watchtowers that are cheap and replaceable, tanks are very expensive and constructed for other purposes.
In the battle at the hospital in al-Bab the Leopards, obviously led by inexperienced armored corps officers were led into an ambush, in an ill-advised foray to capture the area, which was a task for very experienced infantry, instead.
We saw similar images from the war in Syria, in the early stages, where tanks were trapped in streets and “killed” with shots from above and behind. Since then Syrian armor has had considerably fewer losses, which could also be attributed to an experience-acquired acumen, as well as a reorganization by Russian armor instructors.
Does this mean that the days of the tank are over? This was a question first posed after the first phase of the Yom Kippur War when Egyptian forces used massive amounts of infantry AT guided and unguided weapons to subdue Israeli armor and gain an impressive initiative in the initial phase of the conflict. It is not a question of whether the Leopard 2, the Armata, the Abrams, or whatever else is being fielded or planned to be fielded, is better.
It is a question of what the nature of warfare has become and if it will evolve to a semi-guerilla and at times conventional mode as Syria shows. Defence spending in all major powers shows that “conventional” systems rre not ready to yield the field.
However, so far, this has been a war by proxy, involving, however, powers that retain very large conventional land forces of their own, that in no way reflect their demeanour in operations through mercenaries.
One thing, the upcoming Turkish offensive will show if, at least some lessons have been learned by the Turkish land forces, or not, is whether traditional [i.e. blitzkrieg] methods of warfare hold in the first quarter of the 21st century.. Unfortunately, the outward appearances in the Turkish press are, is, obviously, deceiving.
In this latest offensive Turkish MBTs were only seen firing from afar, and they were all M-60s, not even the upgraded models. Perhaps in a hapless effort to defray a German arms embargo, that in any event emerged.
P.S. This debate is not over.
*This is a reference to something that was often quoted, an obvious jest/reference to the adage “a leopard can’t change its spots”. in Sir Terry Pratchett’s series of Discworld novels. We miss you Sir Terry!