This past June, the Spanish government floated a plan to send its aging fleet of 40 German-made Leopard 2A4 tanks to Ukraine, but just this week had to backtrack. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles said that the mothballed tanks were “in an absolutely deplorable state,” and added that the vehicles would be a risk to the crews operating them.
As Politico previously reported, the Leopard tanks were originally made in Germany and sold to Spain. Any transfer would have required approval from Berlin to re-export the tanks before they could be delivered to Ukraine. The 40 Leopard 2A4 tanks that Madrid had pledged have been stored for a decade in a logistics base of the Spanish Army. The Leopards are just a fraction of the tanks in the Iberian Peninsula nation’s arsenal.
Spain currently operates a total of 327 main battle tanks (MBTs), which include 108 German-made Leopard 2A4, and 218 Leopard 2E. The 2A4 models were “second-hand” tanks that Madrid purchased from Germany in 1995 – and previously it was reported that the vehicles were reasonably well-maintained and serviced. Apparently, that wasn’t the case, yet this might just be part of the issue on why the transfer won’t likely occur.
Germany wasn’t actually as onboard with the plan as first indicated.
“While it is possible Spain’s mothballing of Leopard 2As was so inadequate to render them useless, I can’t help but think there are other factors in place,” explained John Adams-Graf, military vehicle historian and editor of History in Motion.
“First, the whole point of mothballing frontline vehicles is to be able to quickly deploy them, if needed,” Adams-Graf told 19FortyFive. “If indeed the condition of Spain’s Leopards has decayed so greatly, their protocols should come under very close scrutiny. Whoever was in charge of storing the vehicles just cost the nation around $300 million as each Leopard 2A4 costs about $8.2 million.
NATO Tanks in a War with Russia
Politics, not maintenance, could be the bigger issue. Just as Washington has been cautious in which weapons it has supplied to Kyiv, Berlin may not have wanted to see its tanks on the frontlines of war with Russia.
“Apart from the excuse that the tanks are in too deplorable condition to be useful to the Ukrainian forces, I wonder if a few political reasons aren’t also weighing in on Spain’s reversal,” suggested Adams-Graf. “This transfer would require the blessing of Germany – the nation that provided the Leopard 2A4s to Spain. In June, Der Spiegel ran an article reporting that Germany was blocking Spain from sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine. The main reason for this is optics: Germany doesn’t want German-looking vehicles in direct conflict with Russian forces.”
This may not just be a German point of view, but also that of the whole of NATO.
“The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance has taken the informal stance that the West would not supply main battle tanks (MBTs) to Kyiv,” added Adams-Graf. “If Berlin had agreed to Spain’s decision, it would have been the first time a NATO member had delivered MBTs to Ukraine, certainly raising the stakes in its war with Russia.”
Not Wanting to Escalate the Conflict
Adams-Graf further suggested this could be a matter of limiting the escalation of the ground war.
“Although the Leopard 2A4 is an earlier version of the current Leopard 2 main battle tank, it is still what world military forces consider a ‘third-generation’ tank, on the same level as the U.S.-produced Abrams tank or the Russian-built T-80,” he explained. “Currently, Russia has limited its deployment to mostly second-generation tanks in the war with Ukraine. If Ukraine introduced a third-generation tank into the conflict, it could be seen as an escalation – something Ukraine’s NATO neighbors certainly don’t want to see.”
It is true; however, that some T-90s have been employed on the battlefield, but Ukraine is the nation that is essentially forced to show constraint. It can’t fire into Russian territory and Washington has called on it not to use certain weapons offensively. By no means is it a level playing field, but the West may not want to risk being drawn into the conflict.
Moreover, 40 tanks are unlikely to help Kyiv win its regional war, but the vehicles could be enough for Russia sees NATO is actively engaged in the conflict.
Different Platform Entirely
There is the matter of the training that would be required. Ukraine, once being part of the former Soviet Union, largely has employed Soviet equipment. The Leopard 2 is a different platform entirely, one that its soldiers have little to no experience with.
“Logistically, supplying the Leopards to Ukraine would require providing training,” said Adams-Graf. “Right now, Ukraine depends primarily on former Soviet T-64 and T-72 tanks. These weapons systems have very little in common with the German-built Leopards. It would be a major undertaking to train personnel to operate, service, and maintain the Leopards were they to be provided to the Ukrainian Army.”
That doesn’t address the issue of ammunition or spare parts. But because of those issues, the Leopard 2 might not be well-suited to the current fighting. Anti-tank weapons, not tanks, are better serving the Ukrainians.
“And finally, as magnificent as the Leopard 2 platform is, the truth of the matter is that the Leopard 2A4, in particular, doesn’t have a stellar combat record. Turkey had acquired 354 Leopard 2A4s from Germany in the early 2000s,” said Adams-Graf. “After Turkey deployed forces into Syria, the Turkish Second Armored Brigade suffered the loss of 10 Leopard 2A4 tanks to the jihadists who were defending the area Al-Bab between November 6, 2016, and February 23, 2017. Despite whatever reasons Turkey gave for the defeat, the reputation of the Leopard 2A4 was forever tarnished.”
In other words, there is far more at play than the tanks being in a deplorable condition, yet it could allow Spain to save face.
“That might just be a convenient alibi for Spain to back out of a promise it probably should not have made in the first place,” Adams-Graf continued. “If Spain followed through with its promise to send the Leopard 2A4s to Ukraine, the consequences would be far greater than the logistical requirement of a lot of maintenance to get the tanks in running condition.”
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.