German Leopard 2 vs. American M1A2 Abrams: Which is the Best Choice for the Ukrainian Army?

Following months of mounting pressure on Germany to lift restrictions on the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Britain’s announcement on January 14 that it would donate its own Challenger 2 tanks to the country, and subsequent Polish indications that it could go ahead with transfers regardless of whether or not Berlin offered permission, have furthered the impetus for German action. A visit by U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Berlin on December 19, a primary agenda of which was to “unlock” supplies of new German tanks to Ukraine, was widely expected to press Germany to accept, although the Olaf Scholtz administration had sought to deflect pressure by indicating that it would greenlight tank transfers only if the United States agreed to provide its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as well. Ultimately the classes of Western tanks Ukraine receives will be determined primarily by political factors, as well as by which countries can stand to afford potential losses of their main armoured vehicles in combat. Britain and France, for example, have not produced tanks in well over two decades and failed to widely export their own competitors to the Abrams and Leopard 2, the respective Challenger 2 and Leclerc, meaning even if their tanks take significant losses in Ukraine the repetitional damage will not mean an undercutting of future export prospects. For Germany and the United States, however, which are the only Western producers of main battle tanks, reputational damage from heavy losses in Ukraine could be devastating – particularly for Berlin as tanks hold a very large place in its arms export profile. 

The Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams entered service near simultaneously in 1979 and 1980, and were both closely based on the joint U.S.-German MBT-70 program that was cancelled in 1970. The two serve as NATO’s primary battle tanks and continue to equip NATO aligned armies across the world from Taiwan and Singapore to Australia and Morocco. There are estimated to be over 2000 Leopard 2s fielded by NATO states, a large portion of them in reserve, while Abrams tanks have been produced in even greater numbers albeit with a much greater concentration in the stocks of the producing country the United States. While both tanks have several significant similarities, including lack of autoloaders, use of near identical 120mm smoothbore guns, and weights of around 70 tons, perhaps the greatest difference is in their powerplants. Following the Soviet introduction of the T-80 tanks with a gas turbine engine – the kind of powerplant that powers helicopters and other classes of aircraft – the Abrams followed suit to facilitate much higher speed and mobility. Much like the T-80, however, this made the Abrams not only more costly particularly for the manufacture of its engine, but also far less fuel efficient resulting in a relatively short ranged vehicle. Maintenance requirements were also considerably higher, and while such tanks were seen as valuable for a potential rush over the Iron Curtain that divided Cold War Europe, in most scenarios the costs imposed by their engines were not seen to reap sufficient benefits. The Leopard 2, by contrast, uses a traditional diesel engine which, although sacrificing mobility, is considered more efficient.

Although made popular by the T-80, tanks with gas turbine engines have become less common over time, with Russia itself after 1991 quickly cutting down T-80 numbers and keeping the class in service primarily to facilitate continued operations in the Arctic where traditional engines take considerably longer to start due to the extreme temperatures. The Soviet Union had developed a more fuel efficient and economical T-80 variant shortly before its disintegration, the T-80UD, although its factory’s location outside Russian and on Ukrainian territory meant that production was quickly halted after the USSR’s disintegration. Much like the original T-80, the Abrams has been considered less optimal to equip the Ukrainian Army due to its very high maintenance needs and fuel consumption, which has provided key ground for the U.S. to press Germany to export the Leopard 2 while refraining from exporting its own main battle tank.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Colin Kahl stated accordingly at the Pentagon on January 18, regarding the M1 Abrams, that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin: “has been very focused on…not…providing the Ukrainians a system they can’t repair, they can’t sustain and they, over the long term can’t afford, because it’s not helpful.” “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine, I think it’s about three gallons to the mile of jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain. It may or may not be the right system. But we’ll continue to look at what makes sense,” he further elaborated. While most of the differences between the Abrams and Leopard 2 depend on the variants in question, the difference between the two engines has made for a compelling argument as to why Leopards should be supplied, and thus exposed to the high risk of reputational loss, while Abrams tanks are held back for a much larger war.