Germany Sending 88 Leopard 1s to Ukraine: Can Obsolete 1960s Tanks Make a Difference?

On February 3 the German government announced an aid package to Ukraine including 88 Leopard 1 tanks, which was valued at €100 million and will see the vehicles drawn from reserve stocks. After Berlin announced in the final week of January that it would deliver more modern Leopard 2s to Ukraine, with tanks from the same class being sent from across multiple European NATO member states, the ability of the much older Leopard 1 to meaningfully bolster the Ukrainian war effort remains in question. The tanks, alongside T-54/55s delivered from Slovenia, will be the oldest and by far the least capable in Ukrainian service, and will further increase the maintenance strain as the country approaches a dozen different tank classes either in service or scheduled for delivery - all of which have very different operational needs. These include the T-54/55, T-62, T-64, T-72/PT-91, T-80, T-80UD/84, T-90, Challenger 2, Leopard 1, Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams. The Leopard 1’s main gun, an old rifled design, not only has a very limited performance compared to modern smoothbore guns, but can only employ 105mm rounds. This ordinance type was totally absent from Ukraine’s pre-war stocks, and is very scarcely available in the West due to the conversion to 120mm tank guns over 40 years ago. Soviet tanks converted to 125mm smoothbore guns from the 1960s.

The Leopard 1 first entered service in 1965, but has never seen combat in peer level tank on tank engagements. Even in its time, however, it was considered far from a top end vehicle particularly compared to the Soviet T-64 - which currently forms the backbone of Ukrainian armoured units. It’s successor there Leopard 2 has proven highly vulnerable in combat, taking heavy losses in Turkish hands again lightly armed Kurdish and Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, leaving the viability of the much older and more vulnerable Leopard 1s in even greater question. Their announced delivery comes as Russia has also pulled 1960s T-62 tanks out of storage for frontline service, albeit in Donbas militia units rather than the Russian Army itself.

Unlike the Leopard 1, the T-62 uses a smoothbore gun making it compatible with modern ammunition types, and those being delivered are being modernised with thermal sights. Russia has also developed a more ambitious modernisation package for its mid-range T-72 tanks, with these first seen being delivered in December, as well significantly increasing production of its top end tank the T-90M. Deliveries of the Leopard 1 reflect the fact that both NATO and Russia are increasingly sending all kinds of armour they have to the Ukrainian front, with the T-62s and Leopard 1s being at the low end, and the T-90Ms and British Challenger 2s at the top end for the respective opposing sides.



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