Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams are two of the best tanks in service. It’s a common debate amongst military aficionados: which is the better high-end tank, the Leopard 2 or the Abrams? This guide offers an unbiased comparison of these two powerful tanks and all the features they have in common to help you make an informed decision.
Origins of M1 Abrams
Basic layout of a M1 Abrams
(Pic taken from M1 vs T-72 by Steven Zaloga)
M1 was developed as a result of the XM1 competition held between Chrysler and General Motors to produce a next generation tank to replace M60 and M48 tanks which were descendants of the mid 1940s era M26 Pershings. Americans couldnt match the production potential of the Soviet tank industry as over 100,000 T-54/55, over 22,000 T-62s and 12,000 T-64s had been produced till the late 1970s. Off this massive number around 60,000 T-54/55, close to 13,000 T-62 along with thousands of T-64 were standing against only 12,000 M60s and few thousand M48s with tanks of other allied nations. The Americans thus decided to counter numbers with technology and develop a next generation MBT to counter the Soviet threat. Interestingly this was a move away from the policy of developing a reliable, user friendly, maintainable tank developed during the 2nd World War which defeated the superior tech presented by the Germans with numbers.
The US and Germany tried to develop the next big thing with their MBT-70 program where they tried to cram so much new tech onto the tank they it became a white elephant made of steel. Its unique features include.
- You had a crew of three in the turret with the driver cupola rotating to point them in the right direction.
- A 152mm gun capable of firing both rounds and missiles which was awesome for its time.
- A ~1,500 bhp engine to go along with the heavy tank
- A new auto-loader
- A 20mm AA cannon
The mid to late 1960s brought in a realization that this is not going to work. Half a billion dollars later, the US and Germany which had been doing some tank studies on the side decided to dump the MBT-70 and go on their own path, but not without a little reconciliation.
Pic 1: Here is what GM submitted for the XM1 competition
Pic 2: And the design submitted by Chrysler
The two parties got together again for the Leopard 2AV program which you can read about below. There were two American designs as well which are above this paragraph. The German design was found to be superior to the US prototypes but was rejected on the basis of cost. The design submitted by Chrysler was selected by the US army as the turbine engine was better than the comparable diesel, albeit was a bit more maintenance intensive. Americans from the onset designed this tank with the capability of using either of 105mm or 120mm guns. Thus when the intelligence came in that Soviets were churning out new 125mm gun equipped MBTs, the Americans quickly adopted a variant of German 120mm gun and upgunned the Abrams. Thanks to its superb stabilization system, FCS and sights, Abrams is an excellent gun platform and one of the best MBTs in service today.
Pic 1: M1 Abrams with a 105mm gun
Pic 2: And the present day beast with its 120mm gun
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.
- 105mm or 120mm guns
- Upgraded hull design
- 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.
- Some carried the AA autocannon and some didnt.
- All sported an upgraded Fire Control System but with different aiming sights and night vision systems.
- Some had a 1,500 bhp engine 830 bhp engine one was tested with a Gas Turbine.
- Some had auto-loaders, others didnt.
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.
- Hydro-pneumatic suspension from the MBT-70 was deemed too finnicky and costly for mass use.
- The AA cannon mounted on top was deemed excessive.
- 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.
- Their local designs of auto-loaders were not deemed worth the hassle due to lower rate of fire they could manage.
- 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.
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