A few years ago, I wrote an MBT comparison for our procurement games. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams, we’ve seen some upgrade programs for both tanks, I’ve gotten enough data on the South Korean K2 to write on it, and Russia has introduced the T-14. Also, I love tanks. So let’s do another roundup. As always, I’m limited to open source guesstimates only.
The T-14 has a brand new 125mm gun, which can handle higher pressure rounds. So it’s almost certainly better than previous Russian guns. Whether it’s better than the latest Western stuff depends on whose propaganda you’re reading. I’m inclined to guess it’s going to be similar to the latest Rheinmetall options. Possibly a bit better because it’s newer.
Both the K2 and the newest Leopard 2 variants use the longer L55 version of Rheinmetall’s 120mm smoothbore, which gives more velocity than the Abrams’ M256 (a derivative of the Rheinmetall L44). Which would be better if all other things were equal, but they aren’t. The Americans use depleted uranium APFSDS rounds, which work better than tungsten (which Germany and South Korea use), all other things being equal (they still aren’t). Overall, tungsten sabot rounds from the L55 and depleted uranium sabot rounds from the L44 are about equal as far as armor penetration estimates are concerned. New rounds continue to come from the Americans, and there’s a plan to upgrade the L55 to the L55A1 which can take higher chamber pressures. Also, the Americans have finally added the capability to interface with datalinks on gun rounds in the SEPv3 Abrams, and this is present on the guns for Leopard 2 and K2. So this is very roughly a wash. Some magical person might be able to point to specific advantages of one option or another against specific targets, but this is all I’ve got with unclassifed, dodgy sources.
Damn it, this is classified too! UGH. In all seriousness, this too will be a wash in the main, because everyone’s got about the same technological problems, even if they come at it a little differently. Abrams and Leopard 2 have been receiving consistent upgrades, so their frontal armor should be just as good as the newer K2. T-14 has unclear amounts of protection on the turret, but only the gun is mounted there. Hull frontal protection should be good across the board too, given upgrades. Note that the Leopard 2 and Abrams have excellent side protection kits, should you wish to use them in cities full of scumbag insurgents. T-14 seems to have some quality skirt options as well, but K2 lacks similar levels of optional side protection. In terms of active protection, T-14 comes fitted with hard-kill APS systems from the factory, Abrams is getting Trophy kits installed (they’ve passed trials and money is allocated), K2 is fitted for but not with hard kill kits and the Germans are still trialing their hard kill setup. I should also point out that in the past the Americans have been reluctant to offer up their best armor technology in export models. The Abrams with export-level armor would be expected to be less good than the latest Leopard 2 variant or K2.
So you’ve been hit, and your armor is penetrated! That really sucks. Now what?
T-14 isolates the crew completely from the ammo. There are also blow-out panels on the bottom. Not sure about the turret, it might get wrecked, or there might be venting measures there. So those are all good things. On the other hand, the T-14 has the smallest crew compartment, so that means any penetration there is going to cause more problems. There’s always a bigger IED.
Abrams has the vast majority of it’s ammo in the turret bustle, again with blow-out panels. There’s also hull stowage for six more 120mm rounds, also with blow-out panels. Alternatively, if lots of hull hits from RPGs are expected, this can be emptied of ammo without too much difficulty. It’s only six rounds. Abrams has the biggest protected volume, which is why it uses fancy exotic materials for protection, but it also makes it very difficult to wound everybody.
Leopard 2 and K2 both have blow-out panels for their ammo stowage in the bustle. However, both have a large hull ammo rack (about 20 rounds or so) next to the driver up front. Neither has much in the way of bulkheads isolating this ammo and neither has blow-out panels for this stowage. Protect that hull, guys. Crew compartments are moderately sized, and should provide reasonable levels of safety due to dispersion. Leopard 2 is bigger internally than K2, and gets a bit of a nod here.
Also, while not strictly a survivability thing, more room means easier to jam upgrades in. So in order of most upgradeable to least: Abrams, Leopard 2, K2, T-14.
Also known in some cultures as “driving around the battlefield.” Everybody’s got a 1,500 hp engine. K2 and T-14 should have a significant advantage from being 10ish tons lighter than the latest Leopard 2 and Abrams variants. Both K2 and T-14 have had transmission problems recently, however. Abrams has the gas turbine engine, which comes with some maintenance advantages because of the fewer small parts, but it is a very thirsty beast. The latest Abrams tanks have protected auxiliary power units, but I don’t have much data on how much this improves fuel economy. The Leopard 2 has a pretty boring twin-turbo diesel powerplant that seems to work well.
Once again, the lighter tanks get the points here. I would be inclined to argue that the difference doesn’t matter for the purposes of ship-based transport, but a win is a a win.
The bureaucrats always get to put in their two bits. NATO-related stuff is going to torpedo the notion of a T-14 buy. Also, it hasn’t even passed Russian trials yet, and we don’t like being early adopters of anything. Otherwise, it comes down to who your friends are. America may not sell you the best and latest depleted uranium stuff if they don’t like you enough. The Germans may not support you with spare parts if you go off to war with the stuff. South Korea is new on the market and doesn’t have the same ability to bundle deals like the others.
I did find the approximate unit cost of a K2 on the internet. Unfortunately, costs of the others are going to be determined by upgrade package, which is kind of a bummer. Also, for all tanks, a lot depends on the terms of the purchase and what other equipment is included (spares, weapons, training tanks, etc.). So I’ll go out on a limb and say that a similar level of outfitting is going to cost about the same for new builds, and I think that’s pretty reasonable. I can’t adequately work out who might offer the best package deal. However, unlike the other two western competitors, there are a ton of old Abrams tanks sitting in the American desert. So the Americans ought to be able to give you a better deal on overhauled and upgraded tanks, and they probably will be available faster. Also, given relative labor costs, there might be advantages to the K2 or the T-14.
So which do we go with? Whichever one can get us the best pricing deal and meets the political obligations. I don’t see much difference overall with any of the options, at least not in any way that matters. MBTs don’t really have different schools of thought like IFVs do, so which one is not a big deal. They all provide reasonable quality; it remains to get them in reasonable quantity. One might argue that the large stock of old Abramses gives that an advantage, if modifying is cheaper than buying new. Or one might argue for the extensive, already-trialled options list available for the Leopard 2, or the newer K2 with more standard features and lower lifecycle costs from having a smaller crew.