Polish Leopards – Do They have to Fight Against the Enemy Tanks?

  • Fot.

A vivid discussion regarding the anti-tank ammunition for the Leopard 2 tanks states questions regarding the capabilities within the scope of penetrating armour of the contemporary tanks by the rounds which are to be acquired. Some of the experts claim that effective combat against the enemy’s tanks on the modern battlefield is of secondary priority. It seems though, that in Poland, having a capability of destroying the enemy’s main battle tanks, is absolutely indispensable for the Polish armoured forces.

Maciej Miłosz, in his article “Niewypał za ćwierć miliarda” [Unexploded Ordinance for Quarter of a Billion], which has been published  in „Dziennik Gazeta Prawna” [Legal Gazette Daily] doubts whether the new Polish anti-tank ammunition procured by MoD for the Leopard 2 tanks will be capable of penetrating the armour of modern tanks. The article claims that penetration capability is far from being enough to penetrate e.g. the armour of the Russian T-90 tanks.

Some of the experts claim that nowadays, achieving a capability to penetrate the front armour is not so important, e.g. due to the fact that precision strike munitions are widely applied and tanks may be rendered useless by destroying their observation equipment. Another reason is that character of the battlefield has been significantly changed. The above views do not seem to be correct in the Polish circumstances, inter alia, due to the character of the hypothetical enemy and structural changes that happened in NATO.

Tanks may still fight against other tanks

It is said that currently, no expansive armoured forces exist, as they did during the Cold War. For example, the Russian Army currently has “just” 4 armoured brigades [1]. At the same time though, smaller units equipped with tanks have become an integral element of mechanized tactical units (mainly as battalions in mechanized brigades) and, with a high degree of probability it may be stated that these will be one of the main elements of the potential enemy forces, which would cooperate with the mechanized infantry.

The commentators also note the fact that on the contemporary battlefield there is a wider array of anti-tank measures, which is not limited solely to tanks – it includes guided anti-tank missiles, artillery and aviation precise guided or cluster munitions. It seems that they do not bear in mind limitations of these measures. Precise-guided munitions may be eliminated by active countermeasures – in case of a kinetic energy penetrator this is not so probable. For instance, using multi-spectrum camouflage, such as the Russian Nadydka, may limit effectiveness of this type of weaponry.

Cost is another disadvantage of the precision guided munitions. During the Libya air operations back in 2011 the RAF did use most of its inventory of the Brimstone missiles, and it had no plan and resources needed to recover its capabilities. [2]. It is also worth to note that potential enemy would use a full spectrum of weaponry (acting against the artillery, aviation etc.) and in case when one of the element of the defence forces is ineffective, he may adjust the tactics in a way that would best fit the capability “gap” of the attacked country.

This does not mean that one should act against development of anti-tank weaponry,  it’s just the opposite – the Polish MoD shall direct its activity at using all the development options available within the scope of developing the striking potential – referring both to the precision guided munitions, as well as to the ammunition in the classic sense of this word. As it has been stated, in the Polish security conditions one should be prepared to act against a wide spectrum of threats (including cluster munition strikes coordinated by the UAV’s, as well as airborne forces using modern anti-tank weaponry, as well as tank-dense unit attacks). Hypothetical enemy would choose such combination of strike measures, which in his eyes would be the most effective. Poland, as the side which, in the quantitative dimension, would have less forces at its disposal, should use as wide array of weaponry as it is possible.

Character of the threat

It should be noted though, that when the Russians modernised their tanks up to the T-72B3 standards, they often tailor them to use sabot rounds with increased armour penetration capabilities. It is thus highly plausible that, in total, more than 600 tanks equipped with heavy reactive armour (T-72B3, T-90), will be used by the Russian front-line units. And this number is likely to be increased, as modernisation up to that standard is defined as one of the priorities for the Russian armed forces[3].

Kontakt-V armour, which, to a large extent, is resistant to anti-tank sabot rounds of older types, is also featured on some of the B-series vehicles in other variants. Due to the threat of this type the Germans decided, more than 20 years ago, to modify the Leopard 2 tanks (these modifications are present in case of the 2A5 variant, which is being delivered for the Polish Army). It is yet unknown what scope of modifications will be present in the 2PL variant of the tanks. However, making a situation possible, in which the Polish tanks, which are the “core” of the armoured forces, are less capable than the 2A5 standard, would be at least difficult to comprehend. The Americans have also noted that introducing ammunition capable to penetrate heavy reactive armour is needed, as the heavy reactive armour is one of the prospective threats taken into account when the new generation M829E4 round has been developed [4]. The initial small batch of this ammunition has been a subject of a contract which has been signed in July this year [5].

R&D works regarding perfecting the armours of the contemporary tanks in the light of the “classic” threats are also constantly going on. It should be expected that the contemporary armour would be more effective in the future. Russian-developed Armata tanks or new generation of reactive armour in a form of the 4S23 Relikt armour, which will probably be used in modernisation of the older tanks, are a prime example of the above mentioned development.

Polish Leopards as a Part of NATO Forces

It should be also noted that after Poland purchases the Leopard 2A4/A5 tanks, it will have more Leopards in the front-line units than Germany does. Number of Leopard 2 tanks in operational units of the Polish Army will also be significantly larger than the number of Leclerc tanks used by the French  (according to the White Paper, the French Army will have 200 such tanks at its disposal). Situation will be probably similar in case of the United Kingdom, referring to the Challenger 2 tanks (the same type of tank which took part in the Black Eagle exercise). MBTs have been completely withdrawn by the Dutch – earlier they were in possession of 445 Leopard 2 tanks.

The listing above shows how significant will be the role of the Polish Leopards in the NATO Allied Forces, and how important it is to equip them with effective ammunition, also within the scope of destroying tanks which are an equipment of the Russian front-line units. At the same time, basing the NATO anti-tank tactics on anti-tank weaponry (such as tandem warhead anti tank missiles, which strike the top armour, widely used by the infantry units, also in Poland) causes a risk, that potential enemies would tailor their equipment and tactics in a way which would to an extent mitigate such threats (from the enemy’s point of view).

What’s next?

When it comes to procurement of the ammo for the Polish Leopards, there are still many questions to be asked, due to the fact that parameters of rounds and armours are still unknown. There is no doubt that in the Polish conditions, the tanks from the front-line unit shall be maximally capable of destroying equipment of the enemy, limiting the anti-tank activity to artillery or anti-tank missiles is not a proper solution here.

Penetration of the armour often makes it possible to eliminate the enemy tank permanently, not temporarily. It is not possible then that the Leopards are equipped with ineffective ammunition – in such case the larger number of the enemy tanks would be hard to compensate (also in a form of other weaponry). Such situation would create a capability gap, which could be easily used to the enemy’s advantage.

At the same time, problem of procuring ammunition for the PT-91 Twardy tanks still remains unsolved. The capabilities of major part of ammunition for Twardys is significantly different from DM-33 ammo which has been received by Poland along with the first batch of the Leopard Tanks. Acquisition of ammunition with penetration capability of 500 mm or more would significantly expand the PT-91 Twardy tanks capability, in comparison with their current status – and that change would be significantly more prominent than in case of Leopards.