David Axe


Sep 12, 2023

Ukraine’s German-made Leopard 2A6s—arguably its best tanks—operate at night and dawn, striking at long range while on the move. “Like a cat,” one Leopard 2A6 loader named Yurii said in an interview for the Ukrainian defense ministry.

The interview, the latest in a series of them that the defense ministry in Kyiv has produced featuring Ukrainian tankers, confirms what observers already had gleaned from earlier footage of the 69-ton, four-person Leopard 2A6s in action.

And it adds a new detail. The up-gunned Leopard 2A6s, presumably all 21 copies that Ukraine got from Germany and Portugal, belong to the Ukrainian army’s 47th Mechanized Brigade—not the 33rd Mechanized Brigade, as Ukrainian planners originally intended.

The 47th Brigade at first operated ex-Slovenian M-55S tanks: super-upgraded Soviet T-55s from the 1950s. The brigade at some point this spring swapped the M-55Ss for the Leopard 2A6s and sent the older tanks to northeastern Ukraine to fight a defensive campaign alongside the 21st and 67th Mechanized Brigades.

Early in Ukraine’s long-anticipated southern counteroffensive, which kicked off along several axes in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts in early June, the Leopard 2A6’s reassignment represented a distinction without much of a difference.

At the time, the 33rd and 47th Brigades fought side by side as they first tried forcing their way through Russian minefields south of Mala Tokmachka, then eventually found a way around.

The distinction was more salient in recent weeks as the 33rd Brigade with its large consignment of around three dozen older Leopard 2A4 tanks apparently pulled back a few miles in order to give technicians time and space to install explosive reactive armor on the brigade’s tanks.

The 1980s-vintage Leopard 2A4 is less well-protected than the 2000s-vintage Leopard 2A6 is, so the Ukrainian army has prioritized the former for add-on armor.

The refit program, which transformed Leopard 2A4s into what observers call “Leopard 2A4Vs,” seemingly left the smaller contingent of Leopard 2A6s to shoulder the main burden of supporting Ukrainian infantry attacking south from Mala Tokmachka through Robotyne, a key strongpoint on the road to Russian-occupied Tokmak, and, 50 miles farther south, Melitopol.

The infantry probed Russian defenses around Robotyne, often in their American-made M-2 fighting vehicles—and often under the cover of darkness.

The M-2, which equips the 47th Brigade’s three infantry battalions, has high-end day-night optics that make the vehicle a good match for the Leopard 2A6, whose own optics are some of the best on the Ukraine battlefield. “I can see perfectly at four to five kilometers, and even more,” a Leopard 2A6 gunner named Vladyslav said in the interview.

The tank’s high speed also “is very important,” the gunner added, nodding toward the Leopard 2A6’s powerful 1,500-horsepower diesel engine and robust transmission. “We can drive at high speeds of 50 to 60 kilometers per hour.”

And thanks to the multi-axis stabilization of the main gun, a Leopard 2A6 crew can track a target smoothly even while moving over rough terrain, Vladyslav said.

Combine the Leopard 2A6’s best attributes—precise day-night optics, high speed and excellent stabilization—and you get a nimble night-hunter. A “nocturnal predator,” according to loader Yurii. “We mainly operate at night and at dawn.”

Fighting at night heightens the Leopard 2A6’s strengths and, owing to the Russians’ own struggles to fight in darkness, also protects the small Leopard 2A6 force from enemy fire.

The Ukrainians already have lost three of their 21 Leopard 2A6s to mines, mostly, although explosives-laden drones are a major threat, too. And while that’s pretty impressive in light of how hard the 47th Brigade’s tankers have been fighting these past three months, it also should serve as a reminder that no more Leopard 2A6s are coming.

No, the only Western-made tanks the Ukrainians are getting in the coming months are 31 American-made M-1s plus 150 or so 40-year-old Leopard 1A5s that, while also excellent night-shooters, are thinly-armored compared to more modern tanks.

All that is to say, the Ukrainians should make good use of their slowly-shrinking fleet of fast, accurate, far-firing Leopard 2A6s, while they still can.