Germany is bringing back the Panther tank. No, not Nazi Germany’s famed Mark V tank, praised by some as the best tank of World War II. The new vehicle is the Kf51 Panther tank, which manufacturer Rheinmetall just debuted at the Eurosatory defense trade show in Paris. The story this time isn’t that German Panthers are clanking down Europe’s roads after a 78-year hiatus, but rather whether European nations will embrace a common tank.
The Kf51 tank itself is based on an older vehicle: the Leopard 2, which entered West German service in 1979 and has since been exported to almost 20 nations, including Canada, Indonesia, Qatar, and Turkey. But while the new Panther uses the Leopard 2’s chassis, it sports a new turret with a 130-millimeter smoothbore cannon – Rheinmetall’s Future Gun System – and a coaxial 12.7-millimeter machine gun.
The Kf51 truly seems like a next-generation tank. It replaces the 120-millimeter cannon and 7.62-millimeter machine gun combos that have been standard on Western tanks since the 1980s, including the Leopard 2, M-1 Abrams, Britain’s Challenger, and Israel’s Merkava. The Panther has numerous cutting-edge features, including an autoloader for a rapid rate of fire. In turn, this eliminates the loader position, enabling crew size to be reduced from four to three.
The vehicle also features active and passive protection systems against anti-tank missiles, as well as an ability to control drones and launch loitering munitions. Rheinmetall is also emphasizing the Kf51 as a truly digital vehicle that the crew can operate through workstations. “Sensor and weapon control assignments can be passed between crew members instantly,” according to Rheinmetall’s website. “Each workstation can hand over and take over tasks and roles from others with no reduction of functionality,” Rheinmetall added.
The turret could be unmanned while the crew operates the tank from behind the thicker armor protection of the hull, Rheinmetall said. “As the turret and weapons control are also provided to the chassis-based work stations, future upgrades being planned include unmanned turrets and remotely operated Panthers.”
And all this in a vehicle that weighs just 59 tons, compared to 70 tons for an M1A2 Abrams.
If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because many of the Kf51’s features are supposedly found in Russia’s T-14 Armata, a next-generation tank that includes an unmanned turret equipped with a 125-millimeter cannon, onboard aerial drones, and the ability to operate as a completely unmanned vehicle. The T-14 has not been fielded yet, however, it stunned Western armies who feared their existing Cold War-era tanks had become obsolete. Indeed, Rheinmetall claims the Panther’s armament and other systems will completely dominate the T-14.
Some of this is bound to be hype. The vaunted Armata, for example, has not been purchased in large numbers by the Russian Army, perhaps because of its cost – or because the vehicle doesn’t live up to its image. The Kf51 looks impressive, but then so did Nazi Panthers, whose effectiveness was curtailed somewhat by poor reliability, armor protection that was thick in the front but thin on the sides and rear, overcomplicated track and suspension systems, and difficult maintenance.
Political obstacles vs the Kf51 Panther
Can the Kf51 be Europe’s new main battle tank? The Leopard 2 already fills that role, if unofficially. It is operated by many Western and Eastern European armies; even Ukraine may receive Leopard 2s, courtesy of Spain.
The bigger obstacle for the Panther – at least as a common main battle tank for Europe – may be politics. Granted that Germany has a tradition of naming armored vehicles after hunting cats, but naming the Kf51 after the Third Reich’s premier tank may not be the best marketing strategy for a region with unfortunate memories of armored beasts called Tiger, Panther, and Elephant. It’s certainly a gift for Kremlin propagandists who can tell their people that German Panthers are coming for them again.
Further, France and Germany are already collaborating on the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), which is supposed to replace German’s Leopard 2 and France’s Leclerc tanks. That means two potential major customers for the Kf51 are politically committed to a rival project.
On the other hand, MCGS won’t be fielded until at least 2035, while Rheinmetall seems to have unveiled a tank that could go into production fairly soon. That is, assuming that European nations are willing to spend billions on new tanks, possibly at the expense of other priority projects such as jet fighters.
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