Ukraine Is Getting A Small Number Of Leopard 2A6 Tanks With Uniquely Powerful Guns

The longer the barrel in a tank or artillery gun, the more pressure the gun can build up before it ejects its shell. The greater the pressure, the greater the shell’s peak velocity—and the greater its range and penetrative power.

Put simply: longer barrels mean more firepower. Which is why it matters that Germany, Poland and Norway are donating to Ukraine different versions of the iconic Leopard 2 tank.

The German models—newer Leopard 2A6s—have 55-caliber, 120-millimeter main guns. The Polish and Norwegian models—older Leopard 2A4s—have 44-caliber guns of the same diameter. The Rheinmetall L/55 gun is nearly five feet longer than the Rheinmetall L/44 is.

The L/55’s extra length boosts its shells’ peak velocity from 5,400 feet per second to 5,700 feet per second, with a commensurate boost to their penetrating power. Calculations are complex, but it’s possible an L/55 can penetrate a third as much armor as an L/44 can, making the former a much more fearsome anti-tank weapon.

The Ukrainians obviously would prefer to receive from their foreign allies the best possible tanks with the most possible firepower. The problem, for the Ukrainians, is that tanks packing L/55s are in much shorter supply than are tanks with L/44s.

Rheinmetall starting in 1979 built thousands of L/44-armed Leopard 2s before switching to L/55 models in 2007. Today the most common Leopard 2 is the A4 version, 1,400 of which are in service or in storage with no fewer than 13 countries.

The A6s with their longer L/55s are much rarer. There are around 500 A6s and similar A7s in service with five countries, including Germany.

All that is to say, as NATO countries open up their warehouses and ship to Ukraine every Leopard 2 they can spare, most of the secondhand tanks will be A4s.

It’s already happening. Germany as of Wednesday had pledged to Ukraine a company of around 14 Leopard 2A6s. Poland for its part had offered a company of 14 or so Leopard 2A4s. Norway had identified eight A4s it could spare.

Several other NATO countries including Finland, Spain, The Netherlands and Denmark signaled they might donate Leopard 2s. Most of their available tanks pack L/44s.

It’s clear the A6s will be a fleet within a wider Ukrainian Leopard 2 fleet mostly made up of A4 models. It’s even possible the Ukrainian army will end up operating just one battalion of Leopard 2A6s alongside a brigade of a hundred or so older Leopard 2s.

The A6s will pose a logistical challenge, of course. The L/55 requires unique support. But that extra effort will sustain a “silver-bullet” sub-fleet of super-powerful, tank-killing tanks.

Ukrainian commanders might want to deploy their Leopard 2A6s to sectors where Russian commanders have deployed their own best T-90 tanks. In other words, the Leopard 2A6s with their powerful L/55 guns could head east—to Bakhmut or Svatove, where the T-90s are thickest on the ground.

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