This is a brief discussion of the iconic Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 tank families, touching on some of its best-known members.
Serious students of the Leopard family are encouraged to seek out the Leopard trilogy (2003 Barbarossa Books) written by Michael Shackleton, the Tankograd special series, or the concise Osprey New Vanguard titles by Michael Jerchel. Excellent written, digital and web based reference covering the Leopard’s use by the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Spain- and naturally Germany; have all appeared in recent years as well as a wide range of excellent model kits.
Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 MBTs are of course completely different vehicles in concept- and they come from different stages of the Bundeswehr’s Cold War armaments program. They nonetheless have a number of similarities and are together the most commercially successful and widely sold European tank designs from the 1960s to the present day. Mobile and powerfully armed, they represent the evolution of the German philosophy of armoured vehicle design. These two families of Main Battle Tanks feature sound basic design principles and were envisioned as part of a larger combined arms team. Over 6,000 Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 vehicles have been built in West Germany (and later in the reunified Germany we know today). A small number of these were produced under foreign license. A massive investment by the West German taxpayer, the Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 series of main battle tanks (and associated support vehicles) proved to be the most substantial and enduring European land weapons program of the Cold War. Such is their durability that we can expect to see Leopard 1 and 2 vehicles in service well beyond the 2025 period.
The concept behind the Leopard 1 was that of a simple, well-armed and mobile medium weight tank for conscript crews to operate- an ideal which was discussed in West German military circles in 1956. It was never designed as an indestructible super tank, which stood in stark contrast to contemporary designs, such as the American M60 or the British Chieftain. The Leopard design was being studied in the 1956-1957 period when West Germany formed the federal army, or Bundeswehr; in order to take an active role in NATO. At the time of the Bundeswehr’s formation, West Germany was dependent on the United States Military Aid Program for all of its rearmament programs, and was not permitted to manufacture heavy weapons. The new Panzerwaffe (armoured corps) received the U.S. M47 and M48 medium tanks as well as the M41 light tank, and numerous American light AFVs equipped other branches of the army. Given the extensive experience of tank combat that the Germans had accumulated during the Second World War, a critical view of the heavy M47 and M48 quickly emerged.
The West Germans shared the reluctance of many of the other NATO nations to depend completely on American military aid. In 1957 the West Germans became members of the FINABEL military study group (along with France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg) and received permission to manufacture heavy weapons once again. At this time the French, British and Americans all saw opportunities for their own defence industries in the re-equipment of the Bundeswehr with their own national designs.
While never discounting negotiation with allied partners, the West Germans fully intended to build their own tank from the moment that they accepted their first M47. Domestic AFV production was an area where West Germany could become self-sufficient very quickly. The Panzerwaffe required at least 2000 MBTs for the short term to succeed the existing generation of American-supplied tanks, which were considered too heavy for the firepower they could bring to bear. France had similar intentions to produce medium tanks and had already rebuilt its own defence industry at a rapid pace. The French held hopes of a partnership in arms production with their old enemy, but saw themselves as the senior partner due to the commercial success of many French arms programs in the mid-1950s. West Germany played a very balanced act between the reconstruction of its own industries, short term weapons purchases from allied nations and acceptance of Military Aid from America. The rapid recovery of West German heavy industry and their retained expertise in arms design after a decade of demilitarization was remarkable.
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