The most popular tank in the world isn’t American; it’s a big cat in service with more than 20 countries worldwide. The Kampfpanzer Leopard 2, which Germany designed and built in the 1970s, is one of the most widely used tanks in the world, and is by far the most popular tank in NATO’s inventory. It was so advanced for its time that even the mighty American M1 Abrams has some Leopard 2 DNA in it.

Now, nearly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO is set to send up to 54 Leopard 2s to energize the Ukrainian army. The tanks, sent from NATO nations including Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal, will arm Kyiv with a better, more powerful tank fleet than ever before. In small numbers or large, however, the Leopard 2 would be a much better tank than anything fielded by the mighty Russian Armed Forces. (Editor’s Note: The number of Leopard 2 tanks that NATO countries have donated to Ukraine, so far, are accurate as of publishing time.)

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Cold War Origins

To understand what made the Leopard 2 the most popular tank in the world, we have to go back to the Cold War itself. In 1955, a decade after World War II, Germany reconstituted its armed forces. At the time, Germany was split in two: West Germany, an ally of the United States and a member of NATO; and East Germany, an ally of the Soviet Union and a member of the Warsaw Pact. West Germany established the Bundeswehr, or Federal Armed Forces, and under it, the Heer, or German Army.

West Germany was a frontline NATO state, facing down the numerically superior armies of the Warsaw Pact. While the United States for a time planned to offset Soviet superiority in tanks, aircraft, and manpower with nuclear weapons, West Germany’s policy was to build up a powerful land army to deter, and if necessary defeat, an invasion; after all, if either side used nuclear weapons, they would almost certainly be used on German soil. The Heer operated an impressive 12 combat divisions, including five panzer (armored) and four panzergrenadier (mechanized infantry) divisions, as well as several reserve mechanized brigades, for a total of 5,135 tanks.

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An early Leopard 2 of the West German Army, 1981.
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The main battle tank was the centerpiece of West Germany’s defense. Outnumbered by the sheer number of Soviet tanks, West Germany needed a tank that was qualitatively superior to the T-62s and T-55s of the Warsaw Pact, particularly the mighty Ground of Soviet Forces Germany. Analysts estimated that within 30 days, the entire Warsaw Pact could mobilize up to 41,295 tanks. NATO, on the other hand, could only mobilize 15,560 tanks in the same period of time.

West Germany and NATO could not match their opponents tank for tank, but they could build better tanks. The Leopard 2 entered service in 1979, and it was a better tank than anything fielded in the Warsaw Pact.

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The Iron Triangle

Tank design is ruled by an iron triangle of three factors: armor, firepower, and mobility, each with advantages and trade-offs. A tank with heavy armor is impervious to enemy fire, for instance, but might weigh so much it moves sluggishly across the battlefield. A lighter, mobile tank might have too little armor to survive hits from anti-tank weapons on the battlefield. A powerful gun introduces weight and internal volume issues, and could necessitate an automatic loader to lift heavy rounds.

“. . . A round fired by the Rh-120 gun is supersonic as it leaves the muzzle, traveling at up to 5,692 feet per second.”

West Germany’s first postwar tank, the Leopard 1, was effective, but sacrificed armor protection for mobility, leading to questions about survivability. Leopard 2 was an attempt to produce a more balanced tank—one that was mobile, heavily armored, and equipped with a larger, more powerful gun.

The Leopard 2 is a 55-ton main battle tank. It’s armed with a 120-millimeter smoothbore gun and two 7.62-millimeter machine guns. A crew of four operates the tank, including a commander, gunner, loader, and driver. It’s powered by an MTU MB 873 12-cylinder, water-cooled diesel engine, producing 1,500 horsepower. This results in a ratio of 27 horsepower per ton, enough to drive it to a top speed of 42 miles per hour.

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A Leopard 2A5 fires its Rh-120 main gun during exercises in Bergen, Germany, 2014.
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A Rheinmetall Rh-120 120-millimeter smoothbore main gun comes equipped on the Leopard 2. It’s served by one of the most advanced fire-control systems in the world, with a ballistic computer, laser range finder, and thermal night vision that made it the equal of the American M1 Abrams. This allows the tank to engage targets with high first-round hit accuracy, day or night, and even engage moving enemy targets through enemy smoke screens. According to Rheinmetall, a round fired by the Rh-120 gun is supersonic as it leaves the muzzle, traveling at up to 5,692 feet per second. (A .30-06 rifle bullet, on the other hand, travels at just 3,000 feet per second.)

The Rh-120 is highly accurate while shooting on the move due to a two-axis stabilization system that counteracts the tank’s movement against the position of the Rh-120 gun barrel. Older tanks need to come to a halt to fire accurately at enemy targets, an action that collectively slows an attacking force’s momentum. The Leopard 2’s stabilization system allows the main gun to remain oriented against a target even while the tank is maneuvering over rough terrain. This gives the Leopard 2 a high level of accuracy while shooting on the move, or a spill-free delivery of a stein filled with beer.

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The original main tank-killing round was the DM-13 armor-piercing, discarding sabot tank round, essentially a high-speed steel dart capable of penetrating 220 millimeters of tank armor at 1.2 miles. Another round was the DM-12 high-explosive, anti-tank shell that used the shaped explosive charge to penetrate armor. Today, the Leopard 2 carries even more powerful rounds with greater armor penetration, including the Rheinmetall DM53 and DM63 rounds, reportedly capable of penetrating 750 millimeters of tank armor at the same distance.

The Leopard 2 carried just 42 rounds of main gun ammunition. This prioritized using the main gun against enemy tanks, while trucks, infantry, and other unarmored targets would be engaged by the tank’s machine guns. The tank was fitted with one MG3A1 7.62-millimeter machine gun—mounted coaxially with the main gun, and fired by the loader— that could engage ground targets. A second MG3A1 mounted above the turret, fired by the commander, was primarily meant to engage enemy aircraft.

Pride of the Leopards: Get To Know These Variants

Leopard 2 (Leopard 2A0): The first production Leopard 2s, the -A0 tanks replaced the Leopard 1 in German Army service. The A0s included the classic vertical front turret armor, 120-millimeter smoothbore gun, and the MTU MB 873 Ka 501 1,500 horsepower engine. No longer in service.

Leopard 2A4: The most common variant today, the -2A4 includes an updated fire-control system and crew area fire- and explosion-suppression system. The Leopard 2A4 is the last variant that looks like the original Leopard 2A0.

Leopard 2A5: The first significant upgrade, the -2A5 includes additional turret armor, giving it a sharply angular look. It also included a new, longer L55 main gun and new fire control. Introduced in the late 1990s, the -2A5 is the minimum viable tank for the modern battlefield.

Leopard 2A7+: This latest version, fielded in small numbers by the German Army, includes all previous upgrades plus a remote-controlled weapons station, protection from top attack weapons like the Javelin missile, thermal night vision for the driver, and improved protection against improvised explosive devices.

Although the Leopard 2 is 40 years old, there is little public information regarding the armor and its composition. The best description of the original armor set is that it is a multilayer design with rolled homogeneous steel armor interspaced with nonmetallic, likely ceramic, materials. This is designed to stop traditional armor piercing, dart-like ammunition, and to dissipate the molten jet generated by a high-explosive, anti-tank projectile. There are rumors the tank used so-called “Burlington armor,” a composite matrix developed by the United Kingdom and reportedly shared with West Germany. The Leopard 2 also features smoke dischargers and protection against nuclear, chemical, and biological agents.

Upgraded Leopards from the -A5 variant onward include the addition of extra layers of armor bolted onto the face of the turret, protecting the tank from frontal attack. The thickness and composition of this armor is unknown, but is considered vital to keep the tank protected from modern anti-tank ammunition used by modern Russian main battle tanks.

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The Leopard Diaspora

In 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, West and East Germany reunited into a single state, and the NATO countries radically downsized their armed forces. This wasn’t the end of the Leopard 2, but rather a rebirth, as Germany and the Netherlands unloaded thousands of used tanks on the global arms market. Germany sold or transferred Leopard 2s to Chile, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Norway, Poland, Qatar, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey, while the Netherlands exported tanks to Austria, Canada, and Portugal. The Leopard 2 became a truly global tank.

Leopard 2 exports drove a new wave of upgrades for the main battle tank, upgrades designed to keep the original tank viable against armored threats. The Leopard 2A4, the baseline version at the end of the Cold War, received modifications that often varied depending on what part of the world they were exported to. This resulted in more than half a dozen serving Leopard 2 variants, including the German Army’s Leopard 2A7+, the most modern version in service anywhere worldwide. Almost all of the tanks were fitted with the -A5’s improved turret armor, giving the tank’s signature boxy turret a sharper, more angular profile.

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Leopard 2s serving in the Indonesian Army, October 2019. The tanks were sold to the island nation from German stocks after the end of the Cold War.
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Unlike the other main Western tank, the American M1A2 Abrams, the Leopard 2 has not seen a lot of combat. The German Army deployed the Leopard 2 to Kosovo for peacekeeping operations, while the Canadians, Danes, and Dutch deployed small numbers of their Leopard 2 fleets to Afghanistan. The Leopard 2s deployed to Afghanistan experienced no losses, although a few did suffer mobility damage due to mines, but were eventually returned to service. One Danish tanker was also killed. In neither deployment did the tanks operate against an enemy armed with modern tanks or anti-tank weapons.

In late 2016, Turkey deployed its 2nd Armored Brigade to its border with Syria. The brigade, armed with Leopard 2 A4 tanks, was engaged by Islamic State forces and lost ten Leopard 2s. According to The National Interest, Turkey lost “five reportedly by antitank missiles, two by mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one to rocket or mortar fire, and the others to more ambiguous causes.”

Although Turkish losses were relatively heavy, they need to be put into context. The A4 version of the tank was optimized for tank-vs-tank warfare, with heavy frontal armor on the turret and hull to absorb hits from enemy anti-tank shells and missiles. The A4 version, like all tanks of its time, featured relatively thin flank, rear, and underbody armor as a weight-saving measure. In the post-9/11 era, threats to tanks have evolved to include guerrillas trained to fire on an armored vehicle’s flanks and rear, or IEDs buried in the ground, directing their explosive force up into the lightly armored belly of the tank. The Turkish Leopard 2 A4s, isolated and without infantry to provide security, were vulnerable to enemy attacks.

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Leopards to Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 immediately prompted a call for NATO arms. Although NATO member states have donated hundreds of older, obsolete, Soviet-era tanks to the cause, the alliance has so far resisted calls to send Western-style tanks, with their improved armament, armor, communications, crew comfort, and other advantages, to defend Ukraine. Germany in particular viewed the deployment of such tanks as a dangerous escalation against a nuclear-armed Russia, and even blocked the legal transfer of Leopard 2s to Ukraine from third-party countries.

Russia escalated attacks against civilian targets across Ukraine in the winter of 2023, targeting civilian population centers and energy infrastructure. The attacks have left many convinced Moscow will continue to target civilians until it is persuaded to end the war, and an offensive weapon like a main battle tank is an excellent tool of persuasion.

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A Ukrainian army tank near Kreminna, Ukraine, 2023. Ukrainian tanks are universally descended from Soviet designs, including tanks donated from NATO. Leopard 2s will be the first Western tanks to serve in the war.
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In January 2023, Poland announced it would send ten Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, with or without Germany’s blessing, while the U.K. promised to send 14 Challenger II tanks. The United States is also planning to send 31 Abrams tanks. This finally broke political resistance to tank transfers, and on January 25, Germany announced it would not only send 14 Leopard 2s, it would no longer stand in the way of countries willing to send their tanks to Ukraine. As of now, Poland, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway all appear poised to donate a total of 54 Leopard 2s.

The 54 Leopard 2s are a drop in the bucket of NATO’s tank fleet, which includes more than 1,000 Leopards overall. As of this writing, other countries are deliberating sending more tanks, and a multinational Leopard 2 tank force that could consist of more than 100 tanks appears likely. This force, fighting for Ukraine, could reverse Russian advances over the past year, while proving more than a match for Russian T-72 and T-80 tanks, some of which are even older than the Leopards.

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Late Bloomer

The Leopard 2 is now in its fifth decade of service, and like many tanks worldwide, has served for much longer than originally planned. The Leopard, like the American Abrams, has proven it can accept upgrades designed to keep it relevant on today’s battlefields, incorporating tech like active protection systems, GPS, programmable ammunition, and other features, many of which were not even conceived of when the tank made its debut in 1979.

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A Spanish Leopard tank drives through an open field near Rena, Norway during Exercise Brilliant Jump 2022.
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While the Leopard 2’s combat career is brief, if the tank is deployed to Ukraine, that will quickly change. In a strange twist of fate, a tank designed to face down the Soviet Union’s mighty Red Army may end up the armored champion of one ex-Soviet country, while fighting another ex-Soviet country.

This is one leopard that doesn’t change its spots.

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Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.