Mar 10, 2023
- Prominent German defense firm Rheinmetall is offering Ukraine its new Panther Kf51 tank.
- The KF51 would leapfrog the other older Western-made tanks that are being sent to Ukraine.
- While the KF51 has advanced capabilities, its newness may create more headaches for the Ukrainians.
While Ukraine waits on the older Abrams and Leopard tanks that the US and Europe have promised to deliver, it may have the opportunity to buy a cutting-edge German tank.
Acquiring the next-generation Panther KF51 would give Ukraine the chance to leapfrog the older tanks that Western donors are sending — as well as the mostly Cold War-era tanks that Ukraine already uses — but taking on an unproven vehicle could further tax Ukraine’s military as it struggles to incorporate older Western tank models into its armed forces.
Rheinmetall, the prominent German arms firm that developed the KF51, seems confident the idea could work. Its CEO, Armin Papperger, told the German business newspaper Handelsblatt that the Panther could be delivered to Ukraine “in 15 to 18 months.”
“We are talking to Kyiv about exporting the Panther,” Papperger said. Interestingly, Papperger said that Ukraine had also expressed interest in Rheinmetall’s next-generation Lynx infantry fighting vehicle.
Rheinmetall is reportedly negotiating with Ukraine to build a tank factory there, though it’s not clear whether it would produce the Panther or the older Leopard 2 tank.
The KF51 Panther is a new tank with some old features. Its hull is based on the Leopard 2, which debuted in 1979. But the turret contains Rheinmetall’s next-generation Future Gun System, a 130 mm smoothbore cannon that replaces the standard 120mm found on Western tanks such as the M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, and the Challenger 2.
The Panther also has advanced features, including launchers for HERO 120 loitering munitions that give the tank an onboard kamikaze drone capability. Sophisticated networking capabilities allow it to be integrated into detect-and-shoot kill chains and the ability to control “wingman” unmanned-ground vehicles that provide capabilities “such as platoon-level air and drone defense,” according to Rheinmetall, which describes the Panther as a “truly software-defined tank.”
Rheinmetall presented the Panther at a Paris trade fair last summer and “touted it as the strongest battle tank in the world,” according to Handelsblatt.
Two aspects of the Kf51 stand out. One is the autoloader that replaces the crew member who loads shells into the main gun, enabling the tank to have a crew of three rather than the four usually found in Western tanks — Russian tanks also use an autoloader for a crew of three.
Like the next-generation Abrams tank, the Panther’s turret can be unmanned, with its crew operating the vehicle behind the thicker armor of the tank’s hull.
Perhaps not coincidentally, an unmanned turret and onboard drones are also a feature of Russia’s next-generation T-14 Armata tank, which first appeared in 2014. Russia’s army has only bought a few T-14s, possibly because of the high price as well as production and mechanical issues. The Kremlin also appears reluctant to commit T-14s to combat in Ukraine.
It’s also notable that the Panther has a combat weight of just 59 tons. This is lighter than the latest Leopard 2A7, which is 67 tons, and Abrams and Challenger, which weigh 70 to 80 tons, both of which Ukraine is slated to receive. Lighter vehicles can more easily cross bridges or muddy terrain, which are key considerations on Ukrainian battlefields.
But tank design is about tradeoffs, especially when it comes to weight.
One reason the KF51 is slimmer is because — just like the Leopard 2 — it is not as thickly armored as the Abrams and Challenger. Instead of bulky armor plates, the Panther relies more on active and passive-protection systems, such as jammers, smokescreens, and projectiles to destroy incoming anti-tank rockets.
There is no doubt that Ukraine needs more tanks. Russia has lost almost 2,000 tanks since the war began a year ago, according to a tally by the open-source website Oryx, but Ukraine has lost almost 500 tanks.
While Ukraine has been able to replenish some losses by putting more than 500 captured Russian tanks into service, it is still going to need foreign vehicles as the Soviet-era designs it had before the war are destroyed or worn out.
Nonetheless, one consideration for Ukraine — and any foreign donors who would subsidize its purchase — is that no military has yet bought the Kf51.
Even the best new weapons have teething problems. If Ukraine becomes the first to field the Panther, then it will become the first to deal with the inevitable bugs. With all the challenges that Ukraine already faces, that’s a gamble.
Although the offer is almost nice, it would be a bad idea.
First, why sell it to Ukraine? Giving Ukraine a number of Panthers would be better. After all, no one knows just how good – or bad – this tank really is.
Then, there is the added burden of maintenance and training for this tank, despite the hull being a Leo 2.
The biggest issue I have with this tank is the main gun. It’s not a good idea to have yet another tank caliber to add to all the others – the old soviet ones, the Challenger 2, and Abrams/Leo 2.
The delivery date is much too late, and this is the worst part of it all.
I would be open to the idea if Rheinmetall would give Ukraine a number of Panthers and train the crews. This way, it could be operated under grueling conditions. What better advertisement than watching them demolishing mafia tanks en masse?
Building this tank in Ukraine is a grand idea.
A lot of good points Sir OFP.
And why not? There is obviously a demand, good steel and labor would probably be half what it is in Germany. Those wearing panties hiding under their desks may not like it though because they prefer to be eaten last…
I’m also sure that Ukraine could do a good job building these tanks. And, I’m also sure that they can integrate their own ideas in these new tanks after learning the hard way in this war.