By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“We are talking to Kyiv about exporting the Panther…in 15 to 18 months.”
— Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger, February 2023
On June 13, 2022, the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Defense (of Düsseldorf) publicly unveiled their innovative, all-new, KF51 Panther main battle tank (MBT) at the Eurosatory international defense and security trade fair in Villepinte, just north of Paris, France. The “KF” designation stands for Kettenfahrzeug, or “tracked vehicle,” and it’s named after the famous German Panther tank of World War Two. Rheinmetall justifiably claims that the new Panther is “the strongest battle tank in the world.”
The original Panther tank entered combat service just in time for the massive Battle of Kursk in southwestern Russia in July 1943, with the epicenter of fighting only 32 miles from the present-day Ukrainian border. It was the largest tank battle in history, resulting in an estimated 1,200 German tanks and 6,064 Soviet tanks destroyed, and ultimately ending in a Soviet victory along a 1,200-mile front. A total of 184 German Panthers saw action there, of which only 23 were direct losses in battle, with 56 more damaged by Soviet tanks and mines.
The first Panther was noted for its high-velocity, Rheinmetall 75x640mm KwK 42 L/70 cannon and comparatively lighter weight of 45 tons, powered by a 700-horsepower, Maybach HL230 P30 V-12 gasoline engine from the heavier Tiger I tank. Its gun was the most-powerful of World War Two, due to a large propellant charge and long barrel, which gave it a very high muzzle velocity of 3,070 feet per second, and excellent armor-penetrating capability. The Panther demonstrated its ability to destroy any Soviet tanks from long distances (up to six miles) during the Battle of Kursk, and had a very high overall kill ratio. It was also lighter and faster than the fabled Tiger I, and could traverse rough terrain better, due to its wider tracks.
Moving forward to the present day, Germany and France have together invested $1.6 billion in the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), to create a new, Franco-German MBT to eventually replace Germany’s aging Leopard 2 tanks, and the French Army’s outdated Leclercs. An Enhanced MBT demonstrator was revealed in 2018, but progress on the overall MGCS program has been painfully slow, and it wasn’t expected to enter service until 2035, anyway. Rheinmetall Defense seems to be dissatisfied with the MGCS foot-dragging, and it has boldly struck out on its own, and very rapidly developed the all-new, cutting-edge, KF51 Panther MBT design.
Like its World War Two namesake, the new Panther is lighter, at 59 tons, than the latest Leopard 2A7 tank, at 66.5 tons, and certainly lighter than the latest American M1A2 Abrams (73.6 tons) and British Challenger 2 (75 tons) MBTs (but not as light as a Russian T-72B, at just 44.5 tons), thus enabling it to traverse muddy terrain or cross bridges more easily, increasing its speed and mobility in battle. Its hull is based upon the Leopard 2A4 design, with a larger, two-man, low-profile turret, in a vehicle powered by an MTU MB 873 Ka-501 water-cooled, V-12 diesel engine producing 1,479 horsepower (1,500 European HP), more than double the power output of the original Panther.
Rheinmetall’s goal in producing the KF51 Panther was to demonstrate the potential for increasing the lethality, mobility, survivability, and networking capabilities of MBTs without incurring a significant increase in weight, and they have succeeded brilliantly in all aspects.
But the KF51’s real centerpiece is the mighty Rheinmetall Rh-130 L/52 130x850mm smoothbore cannon with 22-foot barrel, capable of delivering more than 15 million foot-pounds of impact force onto a target, “more than 50-percent more powerful” than the gun on the Leopard 2, and providing an astounding, 50-percent longer effective range than most current 120x570mm, NATO-standard, tank guns. The Panther is the world’s first production tank equipped with a 130mm main gun, which will fire both kinetic-energy, tungsten-rod, sabot projectiles and programmable, explosive rounds.
An autoloader replaces a crew member, enabling the tank to have a crew of three men instead of four, and the autoloader consists of two revolving, drum magazines, each holding 10 rounds. During a test firing in April 2022, the Rh-130 mounted on a test rig was able to fire three rounds in 16 seconds, including time for safety checks.
The big gun was originally created in June 2016 as the Rh-130 L/51 (meaning barrel length was 51 times the bore diameter, hence the tank designation of KF51), but it was later updated with a chrome-lined, L/52 barrel, about 5.1 inches longer, for increased muzzle velocity and muzzle energy.
Secondary armament consists of a .50-caliber, coaxial machine gun beside the main gun, with 250 rounds of ammunition loaded, while most other tanks mount a smaller, 7.62mm coaxial weapon. There is also a 7.62mm Natter (“Viper”) remote-control weapon system (RCWS) at the rear of the turret roof, with 2,500 rounds of ammunition, designed in 2021.
The new Panther is also equipped with four Israeli-made, UVision HERO 120 loitering-munition “kamikaze” drones with 7.7-pound warheads, and a range of 25 miles, for engaging targets beyond their line of sight, such as behind hills or tree lines.
In the interest of reducing overall weight, the KF51 has thinner armor than the Leopard 2 tank, but it relies instead upon active, reactive, and passive protection systems, including jammers, smokescreens (from the Rheinmetall Rapid-Obscuring System smoke-grenade launchers), and short-range projectiles to destroy incoming anti-tank rockets. The innermost layer consists of welded, steel armor, covered by passive armor modules. The next layer comprises sensor-based, reactive armor (explosive tiles that deform a molten, anti-tank, shaped charge), and the outer layer consists of Rheinmetall’s “StrikeShield” active-protection system (APS-Gen3), which protects against kinetic-energy projectiles and anti-tank, guided missiles.
This includes the ability to defeat “top-attack” munitions, such as the American FGM-148F Javelin and Swedish NLAW designs. While most Western and Russian tanks are vulnerable to top attack, Panther’s Top-Attack Protection System (TAPS) is the first-known system devoted to defeating top-attack weapons.
Overall, combat efficiency is enhanced by an open-architecture, digital-networking system known as NATO Generic Vehicle Architecture (NGVA), allowing rapid integration of sensors and weapons, and improving general interoperability with other platforms. The tank also includes outward-facing digital cameras, giving the crew 360-degree visibility without exposing themselves to enemy fire.
As of March 11, 2023, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense officially calculated that the Russian Federation had lost a staggering figure of 3,448 tanks and 6,742 armored personnel carriers in the first year and two weeks of open warfare, and the Ukrainians themselves had lost at least 500 tanks. So, there is a clear need for replacement tanks for Ukraine, and the U.S. and Germany have promised to deliver M1A2 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks, but the precise schedule remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, Rheinmetall’s radical departure from the Franco-German, MGCS project throws the program into stalled disarray, with the Germans going rogue and producing the superb, new, KF51 Panther totally on their own.
The never-ending war in Ukraine has upset every modern concept of tank warfare, which many thought was a thing of the past, evoking shocking memories of the massive Battle of Kursk so nearby. Tank warfare has once again risen to the forefront of military priorities, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect for Rheinmetall Defense and their amazing KF51 Panther tank.
Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger stated in February 2023, that, “We are talking to Kyiv about exporting the Panther…in 15 to 18 months,” and he suggested that building a tank factory in Ukraine might be possible in the near term for about €200 million ($213 million), which could produce up to 400 Panther tanks annually.
Interestingly, no nation has officially purchased the KF51 Panther, yet. And like the original Panther tank of WW2, there might be some initial mechanical issues to iron out, but the Ukrainians seem quite willing to accept that risk in order to gain brand-new state-of-the-art Panthers. The combat success of the KF51 in battle against Russian forces would surely accelerate military orders for Rheinmetall Defense, which is a win-win situation for both the company and the Ukrainian Army. The Panther has been introduced at a critical moment in the modern evolution of tank warfare, and it could help to define the future of MBT forces around the world.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including four years in Germany) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and hunter. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.