How One Of World’s Most Powerful Main Battle Tanks ‘Leopard 2’ Was Decimated By ISIS In Syria

German Leopard-2 Tanks are often considered one of the most powerful main battle tanks in the world. But how did Leopard-2 Tanks operated by Turkey fare against ISIS in Syria?

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Turkey has been forced to turn to domestic defense companies for upgrades to the Soviet-era tanks. On 24 August 2016, the Turkish military began the operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ (ES) to clear the northern Syrian territory of the ISIS presence.

The cross-border military operation was carried along with Syrian rebel factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The joint force flushed out the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish forces who had taken control of the territory. Turkish military campaign carried on successfully until it reached the city of al-Bab, around 40 kilometers east of Aleppo, in December 2016, where the armored vehicles faced a barrage of Daesh and Kurdish missiles.

Turkey had bought one of the best tanks to the battleground – the German Leopard 2A4 – which it had hoped would confront ISIS anti-tank missiles and improvised explosives which had previously destroyed many of the country’s M-60 Patton tanks.

To their surprise, the tanks were unable to stand the adversary firepower with multiple Leopard tanks damaged in the counterfire.

File Image: LEOPARD 2 A4 – KMW

In total, some eleven tanks, three infantry (mobility) fighting vehicles, and an armored personnel carrier were reported damaged during the al-Bab fighting.

The Islamic State later released a document online showing photographic evidence of the destruction of 10 Leopard tanks, five of which were damaged by anti-tank missiles, another two by mines or IEDs, one by rocket or mortar fire, and the others to more ambiguous causes.

The development left Turkey furious which demanded that Germany immediately upgrade the Cold War-era main battle tanks with new belly armor and missile protection measures. It demanded the addition of an Active Protection System (APS), which is capable of detecting an incoming projectile and initiating countermeasures.

Turkey soon realized that their tanks were no good against a guerrilla army on a rampage and their technological edge had faded.

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The country’s efforts to convince Germany to offer the new upgrades proved unsuccessful after the latter imposed an arms embargo after reports that Turkey was using the Leopard 2s to kill Kurdish fighters in the Syrian enclaves of Afrin and Manbij.

The upgrades demanded by Turkey had already been performed into the newer variants of the Leopard 2A4 tanks, which includes the installation of a thick floor plate by Rheinmetall.

However, according to experts, the 2A4 model was designed to fight in a completely different battle environment, in which the armored brigades are accompanied by infantry ground forces and other support vehicles moving in highly mobile concentrated units.

Being the invention of the Cold War era, Leopard 2s were not meant to confront IEDs and missiles fired by ambushing insurgents in long-term counterinsurgency campaigns where every single loss was a political issue, writes Sebastien Roblin for National Interest.

“The 2A4 retains an older boxy turret configuration which affords less protection from modern antitank missiles, especially to the generally more vulnerable rear and side armor, which is a bigger problem in a counterinsurgency environment, where an attack may come from any direction,” Roblin adds.

The defense analysts say that Turkey is partly responsible for the tank losses, considering the Leopard 2s were deployed in an exposed environment without any infantry support leaving them vulnerable to ambush.

The tanks did quite well in Afghanistan while fighting the Taliban and were praised by the field commanders for their mobility and potent fire support to the military campaign in the South of the country.

Turkey had procured 354 Leopard 2A4 tanks from Germany in the early 2000s when the political relations between the two countries were good, with both being NATO members. The acquisition had given Turkey a significant capability over its Patton M-60 tanks that constitute a bulk of the nation’s armored brigades.

Another contemporary of the Leopard 2A4 tank is the American M1 Abrams which serves as the main battle tank of the US army, although in upgraded variants.

The two tanks – considered the best in the world – have both been used in major wars and helped deliver decisive victories for their users. It was in the 1991 Iraq war the M1 saw its first action, destroying over 2,000 Iraqi tanks and not one Abram tank was damaged.

Both tanks have the capability of defeating most Russian-built tanks at medium and long ranges, where the chassis is strong enough to withstand fire from standard 125-millimeter guns. Both the heavyweights boast of superior sights with improvised thermal imagers and magnification to launch pre-emptive strikes against the adversary.

Like the Leopard 2, M1 has received many upgrades and variants, making it battle-ready for modern combat. M1 is bulkier than its counterpart at 62.6 tons with a maximum speed of 30mph. In overall performance, Leopard 2 is ranked superior to Abrams in the basics, such as armor, weight, and speed.

With Berlin refusing Ankara’s requests to install upgrades on its Leopard 2 tanks, it has been forced to turn to domestic defense companies to integrate key technologies to the Soviet-era tank. Roketsan Ballistic Protection Center has reportedly been testing the T1 additional armor on the German tank and the anti-tank capability has been enhanced.

The new armor integrated into Leopard makes it resistant to most of the anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in possession of insurgent groups in the regions where it is supposed to operate.

Leopard 2A4 tanks are being modernized to the standard NG (Next Generation) by Turkish company Aselsan. The upgrades include a new armor package including heavy track skirts, gun mantlet, turret, front armor protection, armor protection against improvised explosive devices, underbelly protection, turret protection, and slat armor mounted at the rear side of the hull. Optics and fire control system has also been upgraded by Aselsan.

The mass production of the new tank armor package for integration onto the Leopards was announced this month by Ismail Demir, head of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries.

Following an arms embargo by most Western allies, Turkey has embarked on an aggressive indigenization drive in the defense sector which has driven down its imports in the sector significantly in the last five years.

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