Initially, with the recreation of a German Army within NATO in the mid ‘50s, the tanks used were US made M47s – adequate for training but far from ideal. So, in 1956, specifications were laid down for a new design, which was intended to be a joint venture for Germany and other NATO countries. Although Germany had once had considerable experience in tank design, much had moved on since 1945 and no single company was in a position to do the entire job. So, two competing consortia were organised, which, taken together, formed a roll-call of the German tank industry from a previous generation – Porsche, Wegmann, Atlas MAK, Ruhrstahl, Rheinstahl-Henschel, Rheinmetall. The design selected came from the consortium led by Porsche, which delivered its first prototype in early 1961. It was a 35 tonne tank with, very soon, a British 105mm gun, a Mercedes Benz 10 cylinder diesel engine and torsion bar suspension.
By this time the attempt at a joint venture was abandoned for various reasons and Germany embarked on the production of a so-called ‘O’ series of development and testing vehicles, in common with earlier practice. Extensive hot- and cold weather testing took place, and the resulting ‘standard’ tanks were in service in Germany by the mid 1960’s.
Already by this time, work had started on a further improved tank, to balance he later developments in Russia. This development resulted in a programme of prototype building and testing throughout the 1970s, in conjunction with the USA in a programme known as MBT70 (Main Battle Tank 70). In this it was pitted against the XM1 (later Abrams M1). When the US Army opted for the M1 Abrams, the German development continued with some early export deals boosting production. The gun selected was the Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore gun and the engine a supercharged 12 cylinder MTU diesel giving 1,500 bhp. It has a maximum road speed of 68kph, making it just about the fastest MBT in service.
Despite the end of the cold war, development has continued, seeing the upgrading of sighting and fire control systems as well as armour. Specific protection measures have been incorporated as a result of experience in places such as the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. By the standards of peacetime, the Leopard 2 has been an export success, with tanks in service in The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland Norway and Spain. Even a former Eastern Bloc army – Poland -, now a NATO member, also operates it. Given its excellent performance and protection, and the absence of any other major geopolitical dynamic like the Cold War, it seems destined to remain in service for many years to come.