Panther KF51: Rheinmetall shows the successor to the Leopard 2 – with a grotesque weak point?

With the Panther KF51, Rheinmetall has presented the possible successor to the Leopard 2. But the high-tech main battle tank has a significant weakness that could become a death trap for the crew.

A few days ago, the German armaments group Rheinmetall presented the prototype of a new main battle tank. This behemoth, known as the “Panther KF51”, could become the successor to the Leopard 2, provided another manufacturer does not win the tender for the Leopard 2 successor with its model. For example, KNDS, which emerged from the German tank manufacturer Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann (KMW) and the French competitor Nexter, is also developing a successor to the Leopard 2. But now Rheinmetall has submitted and thus duped the previous cooperation partner KMW.

High-tech tank with powerful gun

The “Panther KF51” is full of the latest technology. It is armed with a 130 mm cannon (“130 mm Future Gun System FGS”) with the latest target acquisition technology. The Leopard 2 still has a 120mm gun and its predecessor, the Leopard 1, had a British 105mm gun. Rheinmetall promises a 50 percent longer range compared to the 120 mm gun. A 12.7mm coaxial machine gun complements the main weapon system. The new tank can also pilot “HERO 120 Loitering Munitions” that more or less independently seek out targets outside of direct line of sight.

The on-board cannon is also loaded by an automatic loading system for the first time in a German tank. This eliminates the loader, which previously always belonged to the 4-man crew of German tanks. However, the space that is freed up as a result can be occupied by another soldier who, as a weapon or subsystem expert, is supposed to relieve the commander. The Munster Tank Museum

this decision because it should lead to a better overview in combat.

software and networking

In addition, Rheinmetall packs the KF51 with electronics according to the NGVA standard and the tank is fully networked. The fully digitized architecture with the target optics and the fire control computer should enable seamless target engagement and future AI decision support. Rheinmetall continues: ”

The Panther is a truly software-defined tank, fully capable of gathering, processing, and distributing intelligence on the multidomain battlefield. The integration of modern BMS and software-defined communication systems enables armed forces to operate in collaborative combat environments, e.g. B. in cross-platform sensor shooter networks.

The Panther is designed to control assigned unmanned aerial vehicles such as onboard or offboard drones, loitering munitions and a range of unmanned ground vehicles.

The fully digitized system and shared operator stations enable true human-machine teaming and control of unmanned systems covering capabilities such as anti-aircraft and anti-drone defense at platoon level.

The fully digitized NGVA architecture enables seamless integration of sensors and effectors both within the platform and across platforms. Sensor and weapon control tasks can be immediately passed between crew members. Each operator station can take on tasks and roles from others without restricting functionality

.” But this sentence, which really sounds like the future, is important: ”

Since the turret and weapons can also be controlled from the chassis-based operator stations, unmanned turrets and remote-controlled Panthers are also planned for the future.

protection concept

For protection against anti-tank weapons, the KF51 is said to have “an integrated survival concept with sensors on and outside the platform as well as active, reactive and passive protection technologies and a special protection system against attacks from above (Top Attack)”. These include soft kill and hard kill systems as well as reactive armor In addition, the rapid smoke protection system ROSY is available.Several options for the integration of a remote-controlled weapon station (RCWS) ensure flexibility in close-range defense and counter-drones, as Rheinmetall says.

As far as the description of Rheinmetall. This was picked up by many media and accordingly it can often be read that the Panther KF 51 should keep Putin’s T-14 Armata at a distance. The testosterone-charged fan community on Facebook and Twitter is also cheering for the new tank. But nobody goes into a major weakness of the KF51.

Deathtrap: classic manned turret

Because of the three-man crew, there are two soldiers in the turret: commander and gunner. Only the driver and the optional fourth soldier – the weapons expert, but maybe also a company commander or a drone operator etc. – are in the hull. This concept of a manned turret is now considered quite controversial, as the renowned tank expert Rolf Hilmes explained the weaknesses of the manned turret tank years ago. After all, how is the survival of the crew in the tower supposed to be guaranteed – reliably even when the above-mentioned hardkill systems fail/fail/are overwhelmed?

It is extremely complex to construct a tower in such a way that it can reasonably protect its occupants against direct hits. Such a turret has to be heavily armored, which makes the tank very heavy and very high – and then easier to spot and fight in the field. In addition, such a high weight makes the tank less agile, especially during the important sprint from a covered position. At 59 tons, the new KF51 weighs only a few tons less than the current Leopard 2 A7V at almost 64 tons.

crest gun armor.


crest gun armor.

© Munster Tank Museum/Rolf Hilmes

That is why development is increasingly moving in the direction of unmanned turrets that are completely separate from the crew in the crew compartment, along with the automatic loading machine and ammunition. Such unmanned towers are smaller, weigh less and no longer endanger the occupants. The Puma infantry fighting vehicle, which is to replace the Marder in the Bundeswehr, already has a turret without a crew; the experience for such a development is there, albeit on a smaller scale.

If the armor of such an unmanned turret penetrates, the force of the exploding ammunition can be dissipated to the outside via “predetermined breaking points”. On the other hand, the entire crew – preferably with an additional man to relieve the commander – finds shelter deep in the hull; roughly speaking, like the Russian T-14 Armata.

On the other hand, with modern tank destruction systems such as Javelin, NLAW and the increasingly powerful drones, a manned turret will often become a deadly trap for the crew. The current Ukraine war provides a series of images of Russian or Ukrainian tanks whose turret was blown off because the ammunition inside was detonated by a hit. And how long does the crew of the KF51 have to crank to turn the huge turret by hand when the electronics are broken?

Rheinmetall seems to be well aware of this weakness and expressly points out that the turret could also be operated unmanned: “Since the turret and the weapons can also be controlled from the chassis-based operator positions, unmanned turrets and remote-controlled panthers planned.”

At least positive: Germany can apparently still develop tanks without France. Now the KF51 just has to get a really future-proof protection concept for the tower.

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