Germany’s Rheinmetall has unveiled a new, next-generation tank for the modern battlefield.
The tank, KF51, is called the “Panther,” sharing its name with a World War II-era tank.
Panther adds a larger gun, suicide drones, and a new system to defeat top-attack anti-tank weapons.
Germany has unveiled a new main battle tank—its first in more than 40 years.
The KF51, also known as the “Panther,” is bristling with new technology, including a larger main gun, a digital computer backbone, and a full suite of defensive features. The Panther even has the ability to counter so-called “top-attack” munitions, like the American-made Javelin missile, that are decimating Putin’s army in Ukraine.
On Monday, Düsseldorf, Germany-based Rheinmetall, an arms manufacturing firm, unveiled the KF51 Panther at France’s Eurosatory arms show. The show, held every two years, is a showcase for Europe’s arms manufacturers to advertise their latest equipment. Rheinmetall unveiled the Panther (pictured at the top of this story) featuring a gray, black, and neon yellow digital-camouflage pattern.
If the name Panther is familiar, that’s because it is. The Panzerkampfwagen V, also known as the “Panther,” was designed in 1942 to counter Russian tanks, including the T-34 medium tank. The Panther was one of the best tanks of the war, but was severely hobbled by mechanical and reliability issues. The Panther made its debut in the Battle of Kursk in 1943, and served on both the Eastern and Western fronts, including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
The KF51 is the successor to the Leopard 2, a contemporary of the American M1 Abrams tank. The Leopard 2 debuted in the early 1980s and is still in service today with over a dozen armies worldwide. The Leopard II has been steadily upgraded for decades, with the latest version being the German Army’s Leopard 2A7. Unfortunately, like many upgraded systems, eventually there comes a point when it becomes impractical to keep adding new stuff to the old system. The only way to move forward is to design something completely new.
Panther is that new tank. It appears to use the basic hull design of the Leopard 2, though the shape of the hull suggests newer, thicker armor along the front and sides. The Panther keeps the Leopard 2’s lines over the engine compartment, but with a pronounced bulge. Despite this, the Panther reportedly still has a 1,100 kilowatt/1,500 horsepower engine, the same amount of power available to the Leopard 2, so there might not be much difference to the power pack.
The Panther’s turret is bigger with sharper angles and a much larger overhang over the engine compartment, the latter to both store larger, heavier main gun ammunition and to act as a counterweight to the new 130-millimeter main gun. The KF51 is the first production tank equipped with a 130-millimeter main gun, a break from the current 120-millimeter standard. Although the NATO countries—particularly the United States, Germany, and France—experimented with the larger 130-millimeter caliber in the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and relatively good relations with Russia made that unnecessary.
The new gun, named Future Gun System (FGS), is largely in response to the new Russian T-14 Armata tank, which was first unveiled in 2015. Rheinmetall claims FGS has a “50 percent longer kill range” than the older 120-millimeter guns. According to Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, the new gun is a 130-millimeter/L52 gun, meaning the barrel length is 52 times the diameter of the barrel. That comes out to 6,760 millimeters, or 22.1 feet long. The barrel is also fitted with a futuristic-looking shroud, but it’s not clear how it contributes to the efficiency or effectiveness of the tank.
The KF51, like the Leopard 2, uses an autoloader for the main gun. This results in a three-man crew consisting of the tank commander, gunner, and driver. (The American M1 Abrams tank uses a human loader instead of an autoloader, resulting in a crew of four.) KF51, however, has room for a fourth crewman, according to Rheinmetall, acting as either a company-level commander or a drone operator.
The KF51 is equipped with a 12.7-millimeter (.50 caliber) coaxial machine gun mounted next to the main gun. This is a larger and heavier gun than coaxial machine guns on older tanks, which typically mount a 7.62-millimeter machine gun. The larger machine gun gives the gunner the ability to engage softer, less-protected targets such as trucks, light armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and ground troops without wasting 130-millimeter gun rounds on less-heavily-armored targets.
The Panther is equipped with a number of other new features. The tank includes outward-facing digital cameras, giving the crew 360-degree visibility without exposing themselves to enemy fire. A second 7.62-millimeter machine gun can be remotely operated from inside the tank to target drones and ground targets. The KF51 can launch four reconnaissance quadcopters from the turret, allowing the tanks to conduct their own local reconnaissance. A drone launcher is built into the turret, capable of launching four Hero 120 loitering munitions. The Israeli-made Hero 120 has a flight time of 60 minutes and packs a nine-pound warhead. Hero 120 will allow Panther tanks to engage targets beyond their line of sight, such as behind hills and tree lines.
Top-attack weapons like the Swedish NLAW and American Javelin have proven devastatingly effective in Ukraine, firing an explosive charge down into a tank’s thin roof armor. Most Western tanks are similarly vulnerable, and Panther’s top-attack defense system is the first-known system devoted to tackling top-attack weapons. It’s not clear how the new defense system works, with rumors it may involve the quadcopters moving to intercept incoming rockets and missiles.
One of the most interesting things about KF51 is that it weighs just 59 tons. That’s relatively svelte by modern standards and will make for an agile, sprightly tank. The latest version of the M1 Abrams weighs 73.6 tons without features like a larger gun, loitering munitions, and drones. Rheinmetall states that the tank uses active defenses (active protection systems that shoot down incoming anti-tank rockets and missiles), reactive defenses (explosive tiles that deform a molten anti-tank shaped charge), and passive defenses (steel composite armor) to protect the tank. KF51 could lean more heavily on lighter active and reactive defenses than heavier passive defenses, lowering the overall weight of the vehicle.
The big question is whether anyone needs a new tank like the KF51. Russia’s armored forces have performed abysmally in their invasion of Ukraine, with dated tanks and poorly trained crews. Russia’s tank corps has been badly decimated and poses less of a threat than ever before. Then again, KF51’s new, innovative features and bigger gun are beyond what the West’s current crop of tanks—first developed in the 1970s and 1980s—can bring to the battlefield. Overmatching the threat is a safe bet, but an expensive one.
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