For much of the Cold War, it fell upon NATO and the West to match wits against the latest Soviet combat tank / Main Battle Tank (MBT) offering. At the end of the 1960s, the US Army had in its stable the capable M60 "Patton" MBT while the West Germans made use of their first post-World War 2 tank design - the excellent "Leopard 1" MBT. However, it became apparent that, within time, upcoming Soviet tank designs would wield ever-greater power to counter any interim Western proposal current available. The Soviet T-62 and its 115mm smoothbore main gun prompted the original M60 and Leopard 1 developments and, if the Cold War were ever to go "hot", the land war would surely be run through West Germany and involve all of NATOs major players intent on stopping Soviet armor (the Soviets managing East Germany at this time).
Almost as soon as the M60 established a foothold in the US Army inventory in the early-to-mid 1960s, the US Army began looking at prospects for a "next generation" MBT, joining forces with the like-minded West Germans in developing such a new vehicle to meet the future demands of each respective army. It was expected that the new endeavor would produce a viable end-product in 1970. The resulting joint program, therefore, became the "MBT70" - a fiscally sound, technologically-advanced combat tank with excellent performance, mobility, protection and firepower.
As the program proved highly ambitious from the beginning, the endeavor was quickly fractured. There were already early disagreements on the selection of a main gun. The Americans favored the British L7 105mm system as used on the M60 Patton while the West Germans were eager to field a new Rheimetall L44 120mm gun to counter the expected Soviet 125mm guns. A consensus was then reached on an unproven but powerful 152mm main gun system that could also fire a short-ranged anti-tank missile (as in the M551 Sheridan tank). Program costs then ballooned, largely owed to the high degree of untested technology being applied to the new design. This prompted the Germans to leave the program in 1969 while also drawing the ire of the American congress who were already dealing with a costly war in Vietnam. With the Germans gone, the Americans attempted to go at it alone though, after a financial review of the program, the MBT70 was officially cancelled outright by the overseeing US Department of Defense, this occurring in January of 1970. In response, the US Army attempted to sell congress on a simplified version - the MBT70AV "Austere Version" - but this initiative lasted all but one year until its own cancellation in December of 1971.
The US Army then went to work on a "lower-risk" program which eventually became the excellent "M1 Abrams" Main Battle Tank. At the same time, West Germany was already at work on a new indigenous design all their own to improve upon the aging Leopard 1 series. Design of this new tank was charged to Krauss-Maffei of West Germany - designers and builders of the original "Leopard 1". The project grew from the "Kampfpanzer 2" to the "Keiler" ("Wild Boar") and, finally, to the rather unimaginative name of "Leopard 2" assigned in 1971.
Military analysts and engineers were not blind to events of the world. The Yom Kippur War was closely being watch as war raged between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Prior to the conflict, many predicted the extinction of the Main Battle Tank as a primary battlefield component but this Middle East conflict proved just the opposite while new battlefield dangers emerged such as guided-missile threats. As such, Krauss-Maffei modified their prototypes with the experience garnered in Yom Kippur War and the end-result became a formidable 55-ton vehicle with improved armor protection. Prototypes were constructed featuring both the British L7 105mm main gun (as in the Leopard 1) and the new German Rheinmetall 120mm main gun and these were completed between 1972 and 1974.
With the Americans still in need for an MBT to compliment their outmoded M60s, there continued an internal effort to formulate an indigenous solution leading to the XM1 prototype. However, during its development, there was "forced" consideration given to the Leopard 2 dating back to an agreement signed between West Germany and the United States in December of 1974 in which the countries would jointly manufacture a new combat tank. For the time, this would have made fiscal and logistical sense, particularly in the realm of the NATO inventory where ammunition, parts and training could all be shared. However, it was almost a moot point from the beginning for a foreign-designed and developed main battle tank would never realistically stock the inventory of the US Army.
Regardless, the US Army acquiesced and West Germany delivered a modified Leopard 2 fitting the L7 105mm main gun - the same gun as selected for the XM1 prototype. This tank was further known as the Leopard 2 "Austere Version" (AV). Despite a favorable (and sometimes superior) showing in tests when facing off with the XM1, the Americans still naturally favored their homegrown design citing its lower operating weight and less expensive long-term operating costs. In fact, the XM1 was already slated for serial production as the finalized M1 even before the US Army was forced to test the modified Leopard 2 tank. As such, the Germans formally withdrew hope of their Leopard 2s from ever stocking the US Army inventory in January of 1977 and the XM1 eventually became the M1 Abrams of 1980.The US Army did agree, however, that cross-utilization of components should be used where possible in their new tank.
Back in September of 1977, satisfied with the prototype development and subsequent evaluations, the West German Army ordered their first serial production batch of Leopard 2 tanks to number 1,800 examples over five batches. The first vehicles began deliveries to West German units in 1979 and several other interested European parties soon joined in its purchase - this to include the Netherlands and Switzerland. The Dutch Army became the first foreign customer of the excellent Leopard 2 and placed an order of 445-strong in 1979. This was followed by the Swiss with an order for 380, 345 of these to be locally-produced under license and the rest coming from West Germany. The Dutch order was fulfilled in its entirety by the end of 1986.
Tight Cold War budgets initially placed procurement of the Leopard 2 out of reach of most interested parties but the arrival of new upgraded variants led to many "second hand units" becoming available. Many, therefore, came straight from West German Army and Royal Netherlands Army stocks. At its peak usage, the Royal Netherlands Army themselves managed some 445 Leopard 2 tanks before budget constraints forced their sell-off. To this end, the tank ended up seeing operational service with Austria, Canada, Chile, Finland, Greece, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and Turkey during its still-going operational tenure. Possible future operators (as of this writing - 2012) may one day include both Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
By any regard, the Leopard 2 followed conventional tank wisdom and learned values for the most part. It utilized a traditional design with a crew of four managing various positions about the vehicle. The driver sat front-right in the forward hull with the remaining crew in the turret. This consisted of the gunner, tank commander and loader. The gunner was situated front-right in the turret with the commander directly behind. The loader was set to the left side of the turret and managed the reloading functions. Ammunition was stored in the turret bustle as well as in the hull. Outwardly, the Leopard 2 exhibited modern clean lines and a low profile. Early production forms sported a turret with slab sides while later versions operated with the sleeker "sharper" design which improved ballistics protection (2A5 and later). The turret was set at the middle of the hull roof with a noticeable overhang of the bustle . The 120mm main gun, in turn, overhung the front of the hull. Smoke grenade dischargers were present along the turret sides in banks numbering eight to each turret side (total of sixteen grenades). The hull was largely flat with slab sides. The glacis plate was well-sloped while the upper portions of the tracks were protected in thin skirt armor plates. The engine and transmission was set to a rear compartment in a traditional fitting. Each track consisted of seven double-tired road wheels to a side with the drive sprocket at the rear and the track idler at the front. NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection was standard as was night vision equipment - passive for the commander, gunner and driver positions. A fire control computer and laser range-finder were standard from the first production model on.
The initial production Leopard 2 was simply known as "Leopard 2" with no model designator assigned. Production of this mark began in October of 1979 and continued into March of 1982 resulting in 380 first-batch vehicles manufactured (production was split between Krauss-Maffei and Krupp MaK with 209 and 171 units respectively). A pair of hulls was set aside for driver training variants - these forms sans the turret assemblies of their combat brethren, instead fitted with a windowed driver station. The Leopard 2A1 became the next notable production mark and this appeared in March of 1982. Key additions included a thermal sight at the gunner's station, a refined fuel filter for increased efficiency and redesigned ammunition racks to mimic those as found on the American M1 Abrams (the Abrams having entered service with the US Army in 1980). The Leopard 2A2 were Leopard 2 and Leopard 2A1 production forms brought up to a new standard while subtle changes were also enacted. The Leopard 2A3 appeared in December of 1984 with production spanning into December of 1985. The same digital radio sets being fitted to existing Leopard 1s were also fitted to new Leopard 2s, in essence this small change creating the "Leopard 2A3" mark. Beyond this, the production mark changed little from pervious Leopard 2 offerings. The Leopard 2A4 - appearing from 1985 to 1992 - brought about an automatic fire suppression system to help increase crew survivability in the event of a direct hit. A digital fire control system (FCS) was also introduced which broadened the ammunition type available to the crew, in turn broadening the tactical effectiveness of the Leopard 2 on the battlefield as a whole. The turret was revised to include a tungsten/titanium armor mix for improved ballistics protection. These changes made the Leopard 2A4 the standard Leopard 2 to which previous marks were upgraded to. Of note during this time was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, leading to the reunification of the German land and its peoples in October of 1990, reestablishing the German Army itself as a single, unified unit with the Leopard 2 as its primary Main Battle Tank. Most Soviet-era equipment was dropped in favor of NATO-friendly designs.
The newer Leopard 2A5 production variant more drastically changed the Leopard 2 line than any other variant before it for it brought about a new, well-sloped turret "arrowhead" design that has since become the identifiable hallmark of the Leopard 2 family. This adds basic protection against kinetic- and chemical-based rounds. Add-on armor (also introduced) only added to the crews' protection, particularly on the side "skirt" facings. The turret was now all-electrically driven which has made it more responsive and efficient in the heat of battle while the gun breech region was reworked to accept heftier projectile types. A newer laser range-finding system has increased first-hit probability. A rear-mounted camera has improved rearward driving for the driver while the commander's station welcomed a thermal imaging sight. The Leopard 2A5 appeared in 1998 while, that same year, Krauss-Maffei became "Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH & Co. KG".
Sometime later, the new Leopard 2A6 was brought online and this version saw its main gun armament upgraded to the more potent Rheinmetall L55 120mm smoothbore system. Several minor variations models then emerged from this mark and included the Leopard 2A6M with hull mine protection and the Leopard 2 PSO ("Peace Support Operations") intended for support in "peacekeeping" operations. The latter forms are noted for their shorter main guns dozer blade at the front hull.
The pinnacle Leopard 2 development may well be the latest offering in the Leopard 2A7 as unveiled in 2010. This version has been seen with improved RPG/Mine protection as well as modular armor support. Included in this version is a remote-controlled weapons station which allows for firing of the turret roof machine gun without exposing the crew to battlefield dangers. The German Army has already moved to upgrade their existing Leopard 2A6 fleet to the newer Leopard 2A7 standard and these have also been offered to Saudi Arabia in a deal currently blocked by political wrangling at home (in Germany).
All of the latest Leopard 2 tanks (2A4, 2A5 and 2A6) utilized the same MTU MB 873-ka 501 series 12-cylinder diesel twin-turbocharged engine of 1,479 horsepower. This is tied to a Renk HSWL 354 series hydro-mechanical transmission system featuring 4 forward and 2 reverse speeds. The automatic transmission helps combat driver fatigue over long distances, particularly when going cross-country. The vehicles are suspended upon a torsion bar spring suspension system utilizing hydraulic dampeners. While the Leopard 2A4 yields an operational weight of 55 tons, the Leopard 2A6 tops 60 tons. Top road speed is 45 miles per hour with an operational range equal to 340 miles making her one of the fastest MBTs in the world today.
Main armament is the exceptional 120mm Rheinmetall L55 series smoothbore main gun to which 42 projectiles of 120mm ammunition are stored aboard. The main gun is fully-stabilized along both axis and can fire HEAT (general purpose) and APFSDS-T (armor-defeating) projectiles as needed. The APFSDS-T projectile features a dense tungsten allow core and, fired at 5,413 feet per second, can defeat heavy-class tank armor at range. Being stabilized, the main gun can engage and fire on targets at range while on the move, even over uneven terrain. Reloading of the main gun is accomplished by the loader crewmember but assisted by a semi-automatic mechanism. The Leopard's use of a smoothbore 120mm main gun made her the first Western tank to field an unrifled barrel - the smoothbore was, in fact, pioneered in the Soviet T-62 series, though with much research.
Secondary armament is supplied by a coaxial 7.62mm MG3A1 machine gun and a turret roof-mounted 7.62mm MG3A1 machine gun (at the loader's hatch). Approximately 4,750 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition can be carried. The machine guns are used when the target does not require the "overkill", anti-armor penetration properties of the main gun.
Defensively, the Leopard 2 has grown to include a bevy of situational awareness features that have increased crew survivability over the decades. Beyond this, the crew can rely on the smoke grenade dischargers (if the wind is right) to cover an advance or retreat. The machine guns also come into play defensively where the coaxial machine gun can be used to attack infantry at range while the turret-roof mounted machine gun can combat enemy infantry attempting to rush the vehicle. Similarly, the roof-mounted machine gun can engage low-flying enemy aircraft as needed.
As with the Leopard 1 before it, the Leopard 2 chassis and hull have gone on to see service in various other dedicated battlefield guises including an armored recovery vehicle (BPz3 "Buffel" ARV), an AVLB "bridgelayer" (Leopard 2L), a combat engineering vehicle ("Kodiak" CEV), mine-clearing vehicle (Leopard 2R) and a driver trainer (Fahrschulpanzer). The latter version sees its turret removed, replaced by a windowed observation cab for the accompanying instructor.
The Leopard 2 was operationally fielded for the first time in the Kosovo War as part of the peacekeeping force. Similarly, it has been utilized in the War in Afghanistan following the US invasion of the country after 9/11. While not as combat tested as some of her contemporaries, the Leopard 2 combines a perfect blend of mobility, firepower and protection to see her crew through. The Leopard 2 joined the American M1 Abrams and British Challenger 2 as some of the finest examples of Western tanks anywhere in the world.