Has the Leopard Changed its Spots? The Real Reason Turkey is Bogged Down in Syria

When I was a young soldier in the US Army in West Germany, I attended an armored unit’s organization day.  Marder infantry fighting vehicles and Leopard 2 tanks roared along the demonstration field. At that time, the Leopard was rated as one of the best tanks in NATO.  This showpiece, parade ground exercise I saw was the classic, combined arms deployment scenario of the Cold War, that is, close packed Leopards supported by infantry in a fight against Warsaw Pact tanks and motorized rifle divisions.  Turkey’s deployment of the armored vehicle to Syria to fight the Kurdish YPG may have changed that.

On paper, the Leopard 2 packs more than 60 tons of advanced composite armor.  It’s 1,500 horsepower engines allows speeds at over 40 miles per hour and a 120-millimeter Rheinmetall main gun that can destroy most Russian tanks at medium and long ranges.  The Leopard is unlikely to be penetrated by return fire from standard Russian 125-millimeter guns.  It also has better sights, thermal imagers and magnification. This makes it more likely to detect and hit the enemy first.  However, the vaunted Leopard 2 has been hit numerous times in the combat in the past two months in Syria.

Many of the later models of the Leopard 2A6 mount a higher-velocity gun to make up the difference in penetrating power.  The 2A5 Leopard has an extra wedge of Chobham armor on the turret to absorb enemy fire better.  For all of their problems, the Leopard 2’s still represent a major upgrade over the less protected M-60 tanks and old M-48 making up the bulk of Turkey’s armor of some 2000 tanks, one of the largest among the European NATO allies.

This is not the first time the German-made tanks have fallen in battle in Syria.  This also occurred in fall 2016 when Leopard 2A4s of Turkey’s Second Armored Brigade deployed to Syria to support Operation Euphrates Shield, Erdogan’s intervention against Islamic State. Previously, about a dozen Turkish M-60s were destroyed by both ISIS/Kurdish missiles. Turkish defense commentators expressed the hope that the tougher Leopard would fare better.

The 2A4 model was the last of the Cold War – era Leopard 2s.  It is not designed to survive improvised explosive devices and missiles fired by ambushing insurgents in long-term counter-insurgency campaigns where every single loss was a political issue.

The 2A4 retains an older boxy turret configurations which affords less protection from modern anti-tank missiles, especially to the generally more vulnerable rear and side armor, which is a bigger problem in a counter-insurgency environment, where an attack may come from any direction.

Rather than using them in a combined arms force alongside mutually supporting infantry, they were deployed to the rear as long-range fire-support weapons while Turkish-allied Syrian militias stiffened with Turkish special forces that led the assaults. Isolated on exposed firing positions without adequate nearby infantry to form a good defensive perimeter, the Turkish Leopards were vulnerable to ambushes.  This has be a common experience from the World War II Eastern Front environment to the present day when tanks outrun the infantry.

Political problems between Ankara and Berlin preclude the upgrade of the Leopard A2s.

The Turkish military not only wants additional belly armor to protect against IEDs, but the addition of an Active Protection System, or APS, that can detect incoming missiles and their point of origin, and jam or even shoot them down. The U.S. Army recently authorized the installation of Israeli Trophy APS on a brigade of M-1 Abrams tanks, a type that has proven effective in combat.  Turkey does not have this advantage.

Meanwhile, Leopard 2 manufacturer Rheinmetall has unveiled its own ADATS APS, which supposedly poses a lesser risk of harming friendly troops with its defensive countermeasure missiles.  The Turks crave this, but Germans will not give it to them for the political reasons already mentioned.

On Jan. 21, the Kurdish YPG published a YouTube video showing a Konkurs (NATO name Faggot) anti-tank missile striking a Turkish Leopard 2.  A number of these videos have shown up on social media outlets.  It is impossible to tell if the Leopard was knocked out.  The ATGM may have struck the Leopard 2’s front armor.  This is rated as equivalent to 590 to 690 millimeters of rolled homogenous armor.  The two types of Konkurs missiles can penetrate 600 or 800 millimeters of RHA.  The upgrades are badly needed for Turkey since the Konkurs dates from the 1970s, before the Leopard 2 came into production.  Bad Turkish Army tactics have compromised both their Leopard 2A4s and M60-Ts (Israeli upgraded Pattons) in operations in the Syrian theater.

Ankara views the upgrade deal as merely postponed.  Cagey rhetoric from Berlin suggests it may return to the deal at a more politically opportune time.  It is hard to imagine the Germans not doing this.  They are the fifth largest arms exporter in the world and the Turks know that once the furor dies down, the buyers market will return to their advantage.

What about tactics?  Since the same problems keep coming up over and over again, this is a fair question.  The lack of effective combined arms tactics is the fault of the Turkish generals who frankly seem to have the learning curve of a cliff.  Good tactics can extend the life of older equipment, even in counterinsurgency environments.

Political and demographic factors within Turkey itself provide better clues.  First of all, Erdogan purged the Turkish military across the board after the failed 2016 coup attempt.  Like Stalin’s purge of the 1930s, much of the experienced officers’ heads rolled.  No doubt many of them were experienced and had been educated in German and NATO military schools in the effective use of the Leopard in a combined arms environment.  Turkey’s army is the second largest force in NATO with its 750,000-strong military contingent.  However, the Syrian situation shows that it may be a paper tiger.

About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college adjunct, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.