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Analysis: what do ex-Belgian Leopard 1A5 tanks bring to Ukraine?

On August 10, 2023, the German newspaper Handelsblatt revealed information that the German tank manufacturer Rheinmetall had recently acquired 50 Leopard tanks from a Belgian company. Among this batch, 30 units are destined for the Ukrainian armed forces after a thorough renovation. This initiative could potentially increase the number of Leopard 1A5 tanks that Ukraine might receive to nearly 150. However, beyond quantity and modernization, the divergence in optical systems emerges as a central aspect of this new strategic shift.
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Belgian Leopard 1A5BE tanks utilize the SABCA fire control systems, developed by the eponymous Belgian company. (Picture source: Army Recognition)

The conflict in Ukraine has recently cast a spotlight on Leopard 1A5 tanks due to the substantial demand from Ukraine for this vehicle type. Yet, beyond this dynamic, the selection of the fire control system has garnered particular attention. It unveils a substantial distinction between Belgian Leopard 1A5BE tanks equipped with SABCA systems and other Leopard 1A5 tanks equipped with EMES-18 systems.

The Belgian Leopard 1A5BE tanks utilize the SABCA fire control systems, developed by the eponymous Belgian company. Although less widespread than EMES-18 systems, SABCA sights offer superior precision in certain scenarios, despite the numerous criticisms it is currently facing. These systems also integrate thermal sights for improved night vision and a laser rangefinder for precise distance measurement to targets.

In contrast, the EMES-18 system, prevalent in Leopard 1A5 tanks, stands out due to its aiming and targeting capabilities. It incorporates high-resolution thermal imaging sights, enabling crews to detect and track targets through challenging weather conditions and smoke-obscured environments. Additionally, a precise laser rangefinder accurately measures distances to the target, while a sophisticated ballistic computer assists in adjusting the aim, considering parameters like distance, velocity, and atmospheric conditions.

The EMES 18 targeting system on the Leopard 1A5 not only enhances targeting and aiming capabilities for the tank, but also provides a secondary advantage. Beyond the capabilities previously mentioned, the system offers the opportunity to standardize Leopard 1A5 tanks in Ukraine, encompassing both equipment and, notably, optics. This perspective uniformity enables Ukrainian troops to employ these vehicles cohesively, thereby simplifying training, combat operations, and maintenance. This attribute holds significant value, particularly considering the formidable challenge Ukraine encounters due to the delivery of a wide range of NATO-standard vehicles, which often exhibit varying equipment configurations.

The Leopard 1A5 has garnered international interest, with several countries supporting Ukraine by supplying refurbished Leopard 1A5 tanks. Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have united their efforts in this initiative. Rheinmetall of Germany formally sought approval from the German government to provide Ukraine with 88 Leopard 1A5 tanks. Denmark pledged to donate 20 refurbished Leopard 1A5 tanks, and the three nations collectively announced the provision of 100 reconditioned Leopard 1A5 tanks from their private defense stocks. These deliveries were confirmed through joint statements and various credible sources, culminating in the initial dispatch of 10 Leopard 1A5 tanks to Ukraine on July 20, 2023. The recent inclusion of 30 Leopard 1A5 tanks from Belgium further reinforces this collaborative endeavor and raises the total number to 130.

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