Main Battle Tank Show Down: T-90 vs Leopard 2

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The Leopard 2 and T-90 will soon be facing off in the fields of Ukraine. On the BLUE Side, is the best tank ever produced by the Western world and on the RED Side is the post-Cold War supposed main stay of the Russian forces and its allies. One was developed originally to counter the then brand new T-62s and its much better 115mm gun and the upcoming 125mm guns on T-64s. The other was developed based on years of late Soviet development lost due to post-Cold War economic troubles. The results were two tanks that are very different in ever measurable metric but serve as the spearhead of their countries’ armored formations.

Origins of the Leopard 2

European tanks (western ones) relied on the very potent and deadly British L7 105 mm rifled guns for a long time or some local design but still firing 105mm rounds. The British Centurion, American M60 Patton and the French AMX-30 all used 105mm guns. The Soviets started fielding the T-62 from the early 1960s while the West Germans and Americans were at loggerheads with their MBT-70 program, but the Soviets were busy developing the T-64. While early T-64s were 115mm gun designs, a new 125mm gun was reportedly in development as well and would enter mass production in the late 1960s.

As always, new intelligence started ringing alarm bells and the need for a new tank was felt. As the MBT-70 was becoming more and more of a money pit with no timeline for deliveries, Porsche started working on the future of the Leopard 1 program. The first program on the way to the Leopard 2 was called the Gilded Leopard. It studied a lot of new tech like an autoloader, independent commander sight and an addition of a 20mm cannon.

Pic 1: Experimentalentwicklund

Pic 2: Gilded Leopard


This was follwed by Experimentalentwicklung, which brought in the now cancelled MBT-70 program’s technology and 2 vehicles were built just for tech demonstration and with no intention of ever turning them into a production variant. The learnings of this program were incorporated into the follow on Keiler program where 16 prototypes were built with the following variations.

  1. 105mm or 120mm guns
  2. Upgraded hull design
  3. Some had pneumatic suspensions with 7 or 6 roadwheels from the MBT-70 program, others had the vanilla torsion bar suspension and 7 road wheels.
  4. Some carried the AA autocannon and some didnt.
  5. All sported an upgraded Fire Control System but with different aiming sights and night vision systems.
  6. Some had a 1,500 bhp engine 830 bhp engine one was tested with a Gas Turbine.
  7. Some had auto-loaders, others didnt.

Keiler Prototypes

To test different weather conditions, some tanks were sent to Canada and some to the US so as to cover desert to freezing cold temperatures, some of which are not seen in Germany. The findings of this massive 16 prototype study shaped how the bench mark of MBTs would turn out.

  1. Hydro-pneumatic suspension from the MBT-70 was deemed too finnicky and costly for mass use.
  2. The AA cannon mounted on top was deemed excessive.
  3. The 120mm gun, also developed by Rheinmetall (which would go on to arm M1 Abrams, Challenger 3 and so on) offered better lethality compared to the 105mm gun on the Leopard 1.
  4. Their local designs of auto-loaders were not deemed worth the hassle due to lower rate of fire they could manage.
  5. The 1,500 bhp engine offered superior performance over the 800 bhp engine.

Yom Kippur was of the early 1970s reinforced the idea that current gen tanks need upgrades to survive in battles of the future and fighting against the massive Soviet Red Army was much more difficult anyways than limited conflicts between smaller countries. This helped kill the refurbished / upgraded Leopard 1 program that intended to bring developments of the Keiler program to the baseline Leopard 1 in service. These prototypes and learnings lead into the Leopard 2AV program, a follow on to the MBT-70 minus the hassle. The idea was to help the US build a new tanks as well with the tech from the MBT-70 and Leopard Keiler programs and reduce costs all round. The US however wanted a competition between the Leopard 2 prototype and XM-1 prototypes.

The Leopard 2AV Prototypes, pic 1 with 105mm gun during US trials and pic 2 with 120mm gun.

Thus in 1973 we saw the competition between an upgraded Leopard 2 prototype designated Leopard 2AV which now sported the characteristic flat boxy design of early Leopard 2s and were pitted against XM-1 prototypes in Aberdeen. The 2AV featured spaced armor inspired from the British Chobham, something the Americans also derived from for their XM-1s. The Americans also insisted on a 105mm gun and hence thats what the 2AV was equipped with. Sadly for the Leopard, the US decided to go ahead with the Chrysler XM-1 which entered service as the M-1 Abrams. The 2AV however did win at home, back with a 120mm gun, it was approved for mass production and entered service as the Leopard 2A0.

Origins of the T-90

For more info about the T-90MS, click HERE

T-72B and T-80U, Soviet Mainstays

After collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian Federation inherited most of the tanks operated by the Soviet forces, the economic condition of the country wasnt good. They couldn’t continue with a variety of tanks in their inventories and thus the Russian army requested for a singly type of tank, designated standard tank to be developed until a proper replacement for the Soviet era tanks was developed. T-80 and T-72 were pitted against each other as they were the primary new generation of tanks being produced, they had their advantages and disadvantages. Lets have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both the tanks.

Advantages of T-72

  1. Higher reliability,
  2. Was powered by a diesel engine,
  3. Cheaper production and maintenance,
  4. Its design bureau was inside the Russian territory ie in Nizhny Tagil,
  5. Large numbers were in service, hence no spare issues,
  6. Production facility for the tank was well maintained due to international orders.

Disadvantages of T-72

  1. Inferior FCS (Fire Control System),
  2. Inferior sights,
  3. Inferior armor.

Advantages of T-80

  1. The turbine engine provided better mobility,
  2. Better FCS,
  3. Superior sights,
  4. Superior armor.

Disadvantages of T-80

  1. Only the turbine powered variant ie T-80U was produced in the newly formed Russia,
  2. Turbine engine had reliability issues,
  3. The engine was gas guzzling,
  4. Omsk production unit could only do minor design changes, as it was designed by the bureau in Kharkov and hence major upgrades were not possible,
  5. Omsk plant was about to shut down production due to lack of orders.
t-84 (2)

The above points, tipped the decision in T-72’s favor, but a major redesign was ordered to improve protection and performance of the new variant before it entered production. Ukraine on the other hand continued developing the T-80UD (diesel engine powered variant), their latest variant being the T-84M.

Interestingly T-72’s parent design bureau was testing a new variant under the company name of Object 187 just before the cold war ended. It sported T-80U’s sights and FCS along with a modified hull. The new hull had a flatter profile with a steeper frontal edge, similar to western MBTs incorporated to improve frontal hull protection. They developed 6 prototypes incorporating various power packs, a different main gun and armor configurations to test their feasibility.  Four prototypes were extensively tested near the end of Cold War. After tests, all of the findings were incorporated in the 5th and 6th prototypes off which the 6th was said to be ready for mass production, as a new variant of the T-72. It sported the new hull, new power pack and a more powerful gun (2A66 instead of 2A46M) along with the latest Kontakt 5 armor. The USSR collapsed and budget cuts meant that this programme was scuttled. However the findings didnt go waste as they were used on the follow on Object 188.

Pic 1: 3rd Object 187 prototype showcasing the modified front section of the hull.

Pic 2: 6th Object 187 prototype underway, the shape of the hull and the gun are clearly different from standard T-72B and T-90.

Pic 3: Another picture of 3rd Object 187 prototype, showcasing one of the new armor configurations tested, along with the turbine engine.

When a variation of T-72 was selected as the standard MBT for the Russian army, it was developed under the company name Object 188. Due to lack of funds, hull and powerpack was kept the same as existing T-72B whereas the turret was taken from the Object 187. Hence the new tank became a low cost variant of the Object 187. Since the turret was taken from the Object 187, Shtora 1 dazzlers, configuration of Kontakt 5 armor, FCS and sights were the same, but the designers stuck with the old 2A46 main gun. This tank was ordered into production in early 1990s, under the original name of T-72BU but was later renamed as the T-90. It was the perfect combination of T-72’s reliability and T-80’s advanced technology. There are several international operators for this tank, some who have ordered more tanks than the Russians themselves along with local production. The entire T-72 family is supposed to be replaced by the MBT being developed as part of the Armata unified chassis platform. This new MBT will be unveiled on 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory in what they call as the Great Patriotic war, more commonly known as World War 2.

Object 188

Here is the T-90 mod 1992, one can clearly see the similarities of its turret and that of 6th prototype of Object 187, however the hull is the same as T-72B.

Which one is better?

Here is what you are here for! The Leopard is obviously a superior design while being a better tank! It has bustle ammo storage with blow out panels that divert any ammo explosions away from the crew. The armor is thicker, especially with the latest Leopard 2A7+ models bringing in advanced Non Explosive Reactive Armor and the wedge shaped spaced armor ontop of the already excellent base armor. The 2A7+ brings in enhanced side protection, independent commander’s sight and an RWS to bear.

Does this mean that the T-90A is a slouch? No! The 125mm gun is excellent and the smaller form factor plus the auto-loader makes it a great platform to lay waiting for the enemy to show up. Newest T-90M variants have side ERA which also cover part of the wheels and important running gear. The T-90M is also cheaper means it takes less to buy and field these than the Leopard 2 allowing a country to cover a larger area or field more tanks on an average than just a few Leopard 2A7+s.

To summarize, protection wise Leopard 2A7+ ensures crew survivability but costs almost 1.5x the T-90M which is not as safe but is no slouch in hitting anything with its 125mm gun.




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