The Leopard 1s just keep coming.
In the nine months since a German-Danish-Dutch consortium announced it would donate to Ukraine’s war effort an initial batch of 100 German-made Leopard 1A5 tanks, the consortium—as well as Denmark acting alone—have added 95 Leopard 1s to the total.
The most recent pledge, by Germany last week, includes an extra 25 tanks. The first 20 or so Leopard 1A5s already have arrived in Ukraine, where they apparently equip a company within the new 44th Mechanized Brigade.
Ukraine now is set to receive no fewer than 195 of the lightweight, 1980s-vintage Leopard 1A5s. They by far will be Ukraine’s most numerous Western-style tanks, and will be outnumbered in the Ukrainian inventory only by Ukraine’s homemade T-64s and by various T-72 models that Ukraine either inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991 or recently has acquired from its European allies.
All those Leopard 1A5s represent an opportunity, albeit a risky one. Five months into its widely-anticipated counteroffensive, Ukraine has lost at least 13 of its best Leopard 2 tanks out of just 85 of the heavy tanks its allies have pledged, and 71 that they’ve delivered.
Something must replace those tanks. There are no indications any of NATO’s allies are willing to part with any more of their Leopard 2s; nor are there are any signs the United Kingdom will add to the 14 Challenger 2 tanks it has donated to Ukraine—one of which the Ukrainians already have lost.
Yes, the United States easily could double, triple or multiply by 10 the 31 M-1 tanks it has pledged, but Republicans in the U.S. Congress—increasingly apologists for the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin—could slow or even block additional U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
Unless and until Ukraine can resume construction of its own tanks—an unlikely prospect given the massive investment that would be necessary—German Leopard 1s, Czech T-72s and various Soviet-style tanks from Poland are the only tanks Ukraine can count on receiving in large numbers.
Which means Kyiv must figure out how best to use these tanks: mitigating their weaknesses and leveraging their strengths. For the nearly 200 Leopard 1A5s, enough for three battalions, that means deploying the tanks where they can move quickly, stay behind cover and shoot at range.
“The advantage of the Leopard over, for example, the T-64 is in accuracy, range and speed,” a Ukrainian tank gunner named Oleksiy told ArmyInform.
It’s true: the 40-ton, four-person Leopard 1A5 is a fast and accurate shooter. It’s not for no reason that one Danish tank instructor advised his Ukrainian trainees to fight while on the move. The Leopard 1 “is made for driving and shooting,” the instructor said.
German tank-maker Krauss-Maffei Wegmann gave the Leopard 1A5 what was, at the time, one of the world’s leading tank guns: the rifled 105-millimeter L7 from Royal Ordnance in the United Kingdom. Forty years later, the L7 still is an effective weapon, if a bit less powerful than the latest 120-millimeter guns are.
But it’s not the gun itself that makes the Leopard 1A5 such an excellent shooter. It’s the tank’s whole integrated combat system, which includes the gun and its stabilizers, the gunner’s optics and the tank’s computerized fire-control system.
On ex-German and ex-Danish Leopard 1A5s, the FCS is the EMES-18, which also equips the much heavier Leopard 2. Ex-Belgian Leopard 1A5s, which account for 30 of Ukraine’s pledged Leopard 1s, have unique SABCA fire-controls.
The EMES-18 after all these years still is one of the best tank fire-controls. It combines a laser rangefinder with a ballistic computer. To aim the gun while stationary, the gunner—peering through his optics—uses a joystick to lay his crosshairs on the target, fires the laser to help the computer calculate range and then fires the gun.
The FCS assists by automatically adjusting the gun’s elevation based on the range data the computer gets from the laser. No need for the gunner manually to calculate the right angle. And the computer is fast, requiring just a second after reading the laser reflection to adjust the gun.
The fire-controls must work a little harder while the tank or its target—or both—is moving. After all, the gunner must lead the shot. Again, the EMES-18 automatically leads the gun by calculating the wind, the air-pressure and—most critically—the target’s motion relative to the tank.
What’s special about the EMES-18 is that it can achieve the latter without data from the laser. Instead, it measures the rotation of the Leopard 1’s turret over a second or two as the gunner holds the crosshairs on the moving target and presses a button.
All the gunner has to do is keep his crosshairs on the enemy long enough for the EMES-18 to crunch the numbers. After that, he fires the laser for elevation and then shoots. Track, laze, blaze—all in quick succession. If the lead is off, he can shoot again without taking the time first to fire the laser.
The EMES-18’s ease-of-use—and thus the Leopard 1A5’s shooting speed—is legendary. While by now all of the latest tanks have fire-controls that automatically adjust elevation and lead, most of them need data from the laser for both adjustments.
And many of them are slower than the EMES-18 is. A T-64 typically shoots no faster than eight rounds a minute despite having an automatic loader. A Leopard 1A5 with its human loader, and fast fire-controls, should manage 10 rounds a minute.
The biggest weakness of the Leopard 1A5 is that it’s thinly armored by modern standards. Additional armor protection, along with a bigger main gun, was the main requirement that drove the development of the 70-ton Leopard 2.
The Leopard 1A5 is light—weighing just over half what a Leopard 2 weighs—and that lightness mostly comes from armor that’s just 70 millimeters thick at its thickest. That’s a tenth the protection that the best Leopard 2 enjoys.
It’s a problem the Brazilian army, which also operates Leopard 1A5s, has addressed with tactics. “Work with what you have,” Brazilian tank officer Adriano Santiago Garcia wrote in a 2020 issue of Armor, the U.S. Army’s official tank journal.
When it comes to the Leopard 1A5, that means putting the tank in a position to snipe at enemy forces with its highly accurate gun while also making every possible effort to protect the tank from return fire. “Seize the high ground,” Garcia stressed. “Use camouflage.”
“Tank commanders must study how to maneuver their own vehicles,” Garcia wrote. “Approach enemy positions while protected at points that permit shooting, and disappear with steady and synchronized maneuver to gain terrain or just create damage.”
What the Ukrainians should not do is what it frequently has done with its Leopard 2s: drive them in small groups, without much infantry support, directly toward Russian positions—often across minefields and artillery and drone kill-zones.
Two hundred Leopard 1A5s is a lot of Leopard 1A5s. But even they will disappear quickly if the Ukrainians don’t deploy them the right way.