Slovak army takes over the second Leopard 2A4 tank, the question of new tanks has no solution yet
The Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic (AF SR) have taken over the second German Leopard 2A4 tank. Germany has promised Slovakia a total of 15 Leopard 2A4 tanks as compensation for the 30 BVP-1 infantry fighting vehicles Slovakia donated to Ukraine. While the 15 German Leopard 2A4s will substantially increase the combat capabilities of the tank battalion and the ground forces in general, there is also a need to look at the possibility of acquiring new modern tanks. Modern tanks are currently in high demand and therefore need to be addressed as soon as possible.
Members of the 14th Tank Battalion Trebišov, the 42nd Supply Base of the Slovak Armed Forces and representatives of the modernisation section of the Ministry of Defence of the Slovak Republic received the second Leopard 2A4 in Germany. The remaining tanks will be delivered continuously this year after they undergo repairs at Rheinmetall Landsysteme in Germany. The first Leopard 2A4, which Slovakia will receive in the second half of December 2022, has already passed military tests and has thus been successfully introduced into the armament of the Slovak Armed Forces. Together with the 30 T-72M1 tanks, Slovakia will have a total of 45 tanks after delivery of all promised Leopards, reaching the size of one NATO tank battalion. Although the German tanks will significantly increase the strength and capability of the 14th Tank Battalion, it is necessary to take swift action on the purchase of new tanks for the Slovak Armed Forces. Several European countries have agreed to purchase new, modern tanks in recent months, and if Slovakia wants to avoid long waiting times, the ministry and the army must take a clear stance and start acting.
The current state of Slovak tank armament is not ideal. According to the Comprehensive Defence Assessment of the Slovak Republic for 2021, the Slovak armed forces lack modern weapon systems in particular, including tanks. According to the findings of the Value for Money Unit of the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic, which conducted a review of defence spending in 2020, all tanks in the Slovak Armed Forces are beyond their useful life. The same document also proposes to accelerate the replacement of obsolete T-72 tanks, as this is a high-priority project to build a heavy mechanised brigade. The long-term development plan of the Ministry of Defence with a view to 2035 assumes that the decision on the procurement of new tanks will fall by 2026. However, the outgoing defence minister Jaroslav Nad at the beginning of 2022 admitted that the issue of new battle tanks will not be resolved in the current term of office.
Three realistic options
The purchase of new tanks will almost certainly be, or at least should be, one of the priorities of the new defence minister. He will emerge from the early parliamentary elections to be held this September. The decision on new tanks will not be an easy one for the new leadership of the Ministry of Defence, as in the context of the unfavourable security situation many European countries are buying new heavy military equipment and modern tanks are no exception. For tanks, the search for a solution is much more difficult, as no new tanks are being produced on the European continent, apart from the German Leopards, and this significantly extends the lead times for delivery of the required equipment.
There are currently three realistic options for Slovakia. The first and probably the most logical solution is the purchase of modern Leopard 2A7 tanks or the upcoming Leopard 2A8 tanks. These are the most modern versions of the Leopard 2 tanks made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW). Leopard 2 tanks are among the top tanks in the world and are the most widely used tanks in Europe. In addition, the Leopard 2A4 tanks offer the potential for upgrades that will bring not only the Slovak Leopard 2A4, but also all other tanks in this version, closer to the 2A7 standard in the future. All users of Leopard tanks are also associated in an informal LeoBen association, where they can share their experiences with the use of these tanks with each other and also communicate directly with their manufacturer. KMW will begin delivering 44 Leopard 2A7HU tanks this year to Hungary, which purchased them in 2018. More recently, Norway, which plans to buy a total of 54 Leopard 2A7NO tanks, and Germany, which has ordered 18 Leopard 2A8 tanks from the manufacturer, have opted for the Leopard 2A7NO tanks. The Czech Republic's interest in around 50 Leopard tanks in the latest version cannot be overlooked. It is clear that the capacity of KMW, the only active tank manufacturer in Europe, is full for the next few years, and if the choice of the new leadership of the Slovak Ministry of Defence falls on Leopard 2 tanks in 2026, it can be expected that the first tanks will be delivered only around 2030.
Another option is the US M1A2 Abrams tanks in SEPv3 version. This is the latest version of the legendary American tank, but until recently it had no users in Europe. That changed last year when Poland ordered 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks and this year Romania also expressed interest. Romania, like Slovakia before the first Leopard 2A4 was delivered, does not have modern Western tanks and still has Cold War-era tanks in its arsenal. The interest of Poland and Romania in M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 tanks may create a good basis for other potential customers in Europe. The choice of Abrams as new tanks for the Slovak Armed Forces would then be logical, especially in terms of even greater cooperation and interoperability with the US. Slovakia already has UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters of US provenance and the first F-16 fighter aircraft should be delivered to the Slovak army next year. In addition to these, according to Defence Minister Jaroslav Nada, Slovakia may also acquire AH-1Z Viper helicopters and the Slovak army is also interested in JLTV armoured vehicles. On the other hand, the M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 tank, with its weight of almost 67 tonnes, is one of the heaviest tanks in the world, and there is no adequate infrastructure for such a heavy tank in Slovakia. Last but not least, there is also the issue of sufficient spare parts.
The third solution is the Korean K2 Black Panther tank. This is one of the newest tanks on the market and, unlike Leopards or Abrams, it is relatively "light" at around 55 tonnes. The K2 Black Panther was introduced into the South Korean army's arsenal in 2014 and did not enter the global markets until early summer 2022. In the summer of 2022, a contract was signed with Poland for the delivery of 1,000 K2 tanks to the Polish army, of which more than 800 units are to be produced directly in Poland in the K2PL version. This is crucial information for Slovakia, mainly because it can establish cooperation with the Polish defence industry for the supply of spare parts or servicing of tanks. On the other hand, the question is how successful the transfer of production technologies from South Korea to Poland will be. In Turkey, where the domestically produced Altay tank is based on the K2 Black Panther tank, the transfer of production know-how from South Korea has been very problematic and the project has been delayed for several years, for example due to problems with the delivery of engines. In addition, the K2 tank has not yet seen any combat deployment and, according to some reports, it is unable to counter North Korea's Bulsae-5 anti-tank missiles, which are based on Soviet designs.
It is not yet known which tank Slovakia will eventually opt for, but the Slovak defence ministry needs to start preparing the groundwork for the purchase of new tanks as soon as possible. By ordering modern tanks, Slovakia will be assured that it will not have to rely on Cold War-era technology for many years to come and can become a modern 21st century army.