The Ukraine crisis is pushing European governments to review the role of the weapon that dominated Cold War defenses as the strength of Russian ground forces stirs political concerns: the battle tank.
The cost and war-fighting benefits of developing common armored vehicles for the region could also spur consolidation beyond the pending merger of Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and France’s Nexter Systems, said Frank Haun, chief executive officer at KMW, maker of the 62-ton Leopard 2.
Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and massing of troops on the Ukraine border has left front-line nations pondering the strength of armored brigades that have shrunk since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Haun said in an interview at KMW’s Munich base. Nordic countries including Finland and former communist states such as Poland are among those reviewing capabilities.
“They are beginning to increase spending because of concern regarding Russia,” Haun said. “We are in closer touch with those countries and getting more visitors from there.”
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Demand for Cold War hulks like the Leopard 2, which fires shells that can penetrate 22 inches of steel from over a mile, faded in Europe as relations with Russia improved, with the focus of tank deployment shifting from the north German plain to the deserts of the Middle East. The most recent new-build Leopard 2 was produced in 2009, after 3,200 were previously sold to 16 armies worldwide.
The last major pitched tank battles took place in the war against Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the M1 Abrams — of which the U.S. Army has received more than 8,000 — saw action alongside Britain’s BAE Challenger 2s. The pair are the Leopard’s main rivals for the mantle of the world’s best performing model. More recently, tanks have proved their versatility in the mountains of Afghanistan, where Canada deployed its Leopard 2s.
While military spending in western and central Europe fell 2.4 percent last year to $312 billion, budgets have begun to revive in states bordering Russia, with increases in Poland, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In contrast, military outlay continued to decline in countries including France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said last week that the Ukraine crisis has shattered the illusion that force no longer has a role in European politics. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization must station troops on its eastern flank and halt cuts after Russia boosted its defense outlay for eight straight years, he said at the Army Day parade in Warsaw attended by military representatives of the U.S. and Canada.
Concern about the need to respond to a more aggressive Russian foreign policy comes as European tank manufacturing undergoes its biggest upheaval for decades, with KMW poised to create a new regional “champion” via the Nexter deal that should enhance interoperability among armies while helping to pare costs and eke out research budgets, Haun said. The 50-50 merger, sealed July 1, will create a business with revenue of almost $2.7 billion and more than 6,000 staff members.
Nexter’s Leclerc tank could be improved with technology from the Leopard and vice versa, Haun said. The French model features an automatic loader and needs a three-man crew versus four in the Abrams, Challenger and Leopard, while the German tank has better camouflage systems and on-the-move firing accuracy.
Britain, which used the world’s first tanks in the Battle of the Somme during World War I, will lose its last assembly line with the shuttering of a historic BAE plant in Newcastle upon Tyne in the second half following final deliveries of Terrier combat-engineer vehicles. That will cast doubt on development of the Challenger 2, a model intended to see service until 2035.