Armor: The Pure Polish Leopard

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March 20, 2016: In February 2016 Poland signed off on a $144 million deal to obtain technology and support for the construction of a new Leopard tank maintenance and upgrade facility in Poland. This is part of a larger ($500 million) effort to upgrade the 128 Polish Army Leopard 2A4s to the new Leopard 2PL standard. Half the new components will come from German suppliers and the other half from Polish firms.

The 2PL will contain numerous upgrades to mechanical and electronic components as well increase protection and improved weapons performance. The first Leopard 2PL prototype is being built in Germany and will be delivered in 2018 for evaluation. That will be followed by eleven more prototypes from Germany. After that all the adjustments to the 2PL resulting from the tests will lead to the remaining Polish Leopards being upgraded in the new Polish facility. Poland also plans to expand its Leopard force to at least 144 tanks.

All this actually began in late 2013 when Poland bought 119 more German Leopard 2 tanks for about $2 million each and the deal includes lots of spare parts and support equipment. Most of these are 2A5s although 14 are older 2A4s. Back in 2003 Poland obtained 128 of these tanks from Germany for the bargain basement price of $21.6 million along with 23 MiG-29 fighters for only $30 million. The tanks were selected by Polish tank experts from among the three hundred Leopard 2s recently placed in storage after being taken out of service by the downsized German Army. The original 128 Leopards still had at least 75 percent of their operational life remaining. That deal includes 8 Buffel armored recovery vehicles, four Biber bridgelayers, four Keiler mine-clearing tanks, and ten M577 command post vehicles.

Most 2A models have a stabilizer (for firing on the move) and a thermal imager (for seeing through night, mist and sand storms.) Germany has been selling refurbed 2A4s since the 1990s because after the Cold War ended in 1991 the German army was much reduced in size. This enabled many nations to inexpensively upgrade their aging armored forces.

The German Leopard 2 tank continues to be a hot item in the second hand market, often to replace U.S. M-60 tanks (a 1960s design.) Already nearly 2,000 have been sold to Austria, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Portugal, Greece, Chile, Turkey and Spain. Originally, West Germany bought 2,125 new Leopard 2 tanks, the Netherlands 445, Switzerland 370, Sweden 120, Spain 219 and Greece 170.

Until the 1980s, the Leopard I was considered one of the best tanks available. Entering service in the late 1960s, it was the first post-World War II German tank design. Although a contemporary of the American M-60A3, the German tank was considered superior. For this reason, Germany was able to export Leopards to many nations. Most of the 4,744 produced (plus 1,741 Leopard chassis adapted to other uses, like recovery and anti-aircraft) have since been retired (in storage) or scrapped. Many owners may have to melt down theirs Leopard Is, for there's not much of a market left for 44 ton tanks, even those equipped with a lot of nifty upgrades. The original buyers of Leopard I have already flooded the market but now only Leopard 2s are wanted.

Poland obtained the Leopards as part of its ongoing post-Cold War military reforms. In 2000 the Polish military had 185,000 troops and depended a lot on conscripts who were in for only a year. By 2010 troop strength was down to 100,000 and, as of 2009, conscription was gone. Civilian defense employees were also cut. The personnel cuts, and over 70 base closings, saved over a billion dollars a year. Also valuable was the retirement of old Soviet era equipment, which was expensive to maintain and not as effective as Western stuff. This was especially the case with Russian warplanes, like the MiG-29. Now Poland is replacing them with F-16s. Second hand Leopard 2A4 tanks provide Poland with a more powerful tank than anything the Russians have. Most current Polish tanks are PT-91s, a Polish made upgrade of the T-72. Most Polish forces are up to NATO standards, and all will be by the end of the decade. This is immensely reassuring to Poles, who have been threatened by their Russian neighbor for centuries.

 


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