Turkish Leopard 2A4TR in the Syrian snow

Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria. Source - Defence Blog.
Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria. Source - Defence Blog.

The Turkish Army acquired 298 second-hand Leopard 2A4 from the Bundeswehr depots, as many of NATO’s European partners. These Turkish Leopard 2A4TR received a single modification in later years, consisting of the addition of new and improved air filters – something important for the dusty lands of the Middle East – although possibly this improvement was implemented without thinking that they would be tested in a conflict as complex as the Syrian conflict…

Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield

At the end of August 2016, after months of preparation, Turkey began the deployment of troops through northern Syria with the intention of preventing the unification of the Kurdish cantons in Syrian territory, whose peshmerga were expelling Daesh from large areas of the country. The possibility of the Kurds achieving a sort of state of their own in northern Syria was seen as a great threat in Ankara, which did not hesitate to use force.

Thus, Turkish units were deployed, preceded and combined with rebel forces of the Syrian Free Army (FSA), which could hardly be considered light infantry. In a few weeks, they managed to break through the lines of the Islamic State (IS) and take over various localities, establishing a buffer zone between the Turkish border of the Syrian Arab Army and the Kurds, although the mission would not officially end until 29 March 2017, after seven months of offensives and counteroffensives.

During that operation the first battle tanks to be deployed were the old M-60A3 Patton and, especially, M-60T Sabra, a Turkish variant of the Israeli-designed Sabra Mark III based on the previous one. This car had a good performance, proving to be able to resist even the direct impact of the most modern Russian Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), the 9M133 Kornet – with the right modernization package, of course.

In the months following the start of the actions, the media were filled with images of various Turkish Leopard 2A4 dressed in green camouflage pattern as they were transported by road and train to the Turkish-Syrian border. Finally, on 8 December, its use on the Syrian stage was confirmed, when for the first time a Leopard 2A4 opened fire on an IS car bomb (VBIED) on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Al-Bab.

Turkish mechanized force

In addition to the aforementioned Sabra, Patton and Leopard, the Turks fielded T-155 and M110A2 self-propelled artillery systems to provide fire support and ACV-15 vehicles. This is an improved version of the well-known M-113 that includes a greater armor and has been used in APC variants – with a heavy machine gun M2 Browning caliber 12.7 mm – and VCI – with a rapid fire gun of 25 mm and an average machine gun of 7.62 mm. Both were used by Turkish mechanized infantry, and in fact some ACV-15s of the APC version were delivered to ELS units to increase their offensive capabilities.

As recovery vehicles, the Turks deployed the M88A1, which is based on the M-48 and M-60 Patton sagas and has a more powerful power plant in its A1 version, and the Bergepanzer Leopard, based on Leopard 1.

In addition, the Turks used large quantities of OTOKAR Cobra, a tactically highly mobile vehicle with numerous variants: Medical, reconnaissance, armed with a heavy machine gun, transporting personnel and so on. Despite being extremely light, the version of this vehicle deployed in Syria had four smoke launchers, as well as an M2 Browning heavy machine gun operated remotely or manually, depending on the variant. This vehicle was used to explore and search for targets for the Leopard 2A4, forming a highly effective tandem.

M-113A2 vehicles were also deployed in their medical variant, as well as Poyraz, a logistical support vehicle based on the T-155. There was also the presence of the MRAP of Turkish design Kirpi, although this was not armed with machine guns, although protected by signal inhibitors, which could suggest that this type of vehicles were used mainly in command and control missions.

As a Bellingcat investigation brought to light from the plates visible in the various armoured vehicles, and as we have been able to corroborate from our own sources, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have deployed elements of the 2nd, 5th and 20th Armoured Brigades, as well as the 16th and 39th Mechanised Brigades, to Syria. Along with these forces, special forces units were deployed, with great emphasis on precision shooting equipment.

Considering all the above, we can deduce that, on a tactical level, Turkish units were organized into Task Groups (TGs). These could be constituted in different ways depending on the objective of the mission, although the most common ones were:

  • Units of three battle tanks accompanied by a mechanized infantry force mounted on ACV-15 and responsible for providing security.
  • A force like the previous one together with a Kipri in charge of command and control, a unit of the special forces in charge of requesting targets for artillery, battle tanks or aviation.
  • A force of battle tanks preceded by an OTOKAR charged with exploring an area or searching for targets.
  • A force of Leopard 2A4 and ACV-15 providing fire support to an FSA force equipped with Toyotas artillados and ACV-15.

The small GdT emphasize the use of Turkish units with a rather low profile, since otherwise they would have carried out offensive operations at full capacity using the ordinary manoeuvre units, without the need to create GdT. This eyedropper employment is one of the reasons for the large number of casualties suffered by Turks, as will be explained later in the article.

The Allied Forces

In the early phases of Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) – especially in the border-side combats – it was exclusively the Turkish forces who attacked and easily took over the EI positions that presumably abandoned them shortly after the offensive began. The subsequent advance was led by the FSA forces, which, armed by Turkey, were in charge of leading the offensive while the Turkish troops cleared the ground and performed support tasks.

Just two months after the start of OEE, Ankara seemed to have achieved its main strategic objectives, except in a few cities where the EI had decided to put up special resistance, particularly in Al-Bab. The Turks had reached the outskirts of this city in November, but it was not taken until the end of February 2017, almost four months later.

The situation created during this combined offensive between the TAF and the FSA must have been the most complex issue to deal with. In particular, because of the difference between Turkish and Arabic languages and alphabets, and probably because of the more than questionable competence, training and even morale of the rebel fighters. These, in many cases, were nothing more than groups of young people drawn from Turkish refugee camps under promises of good pay and action, but without a real interest in combat. Ultimately the trust and cooperation between TAF and FSA has been one of the touchstones of the development of the combined offensives between the two organizations.

In addition, to moving forces between one and two brigades in size, Turkey provided all sorts of support to its allies: F-16 and F-4 multipurpose aircraft, combat helicopters and 155 mm T-155 self-propelled artillery systems and the older but powerful 203 mm M-110A2.

If we compare the Turkish coordination with that which may exist between Assad’s troops and the Russians or between the Americans and the Kurds, we will appreciate several differences. Firstly, neither Russians nor Americans have engaged their own armoured forces in the offensives, and if they have done so – as the Russians are suspected by the end of the summer of 2015 – it was to a very limited extent. On the contrary, both have been limited to cleaning, logistics and air or artillery support through the special forces. 

Both the Kurds and Assad have an advantage over the FSA forces in OES, because the Kurds have shown a greater fighting will and have taken advantage of the enormous US experience in hybrid warfare operations that have been conducted with particular intensity since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Moreover, in the case of Assad and despite the fact that his troops have not generally demonstrated a high morale, it is true that they had heavy material outlets: from the old-fashioned T-54, T-55 and T-62 to the modern T-72B3 and T-90A supplied by the Russians. The latter, by the way, although they have not suffered any known losses of battle tanks, have had an alarmingly high casualty rate among their officers, including a Lieutenant General, which gives an idea of their involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The Americans, on the other hand, have deployed regular Ranger forces in Stryker vehicles to support the Kurdish offensive on Raqqa. However, in no case, as far as is known, have they been deployed in the front line of combat, which has happened in the Turkish case with the Leopard 2.

The forces of the Islamic State

By the end of 2016, the defeat of the Jihadists was already on the horizon, although they still possessed sufficient strategic forces and reserves to pose a major challenge to a force such as that added by the ELS and Turkish regular units.

We do not know for sure how many men the EI could have mobilized to sustain the defence around Al-Bab while it was being harassed by Turkish aviation, tanks and the ELS itself, various sources have figures ranging from 800 to 3,000 men. This force would have had light infantry units and good anti-tank defence using ATGM, anti-tank rocket launchers, anti-tank mines and even mortars. In addition, were also present to a lesser extent the famous Toyota artillery, the VBIED, the BMP-1 and it is also possible that some T-55 battle tanks during the initial phases of the battle.

It seems that, contrary to what was usual until then, the EI relied on a perimeter defense of Al-Bab, seeking to prevent enemy forces from reaching the outskirts of the city and using numerous hand blows to disrupt enemy forward positions near the city. In addition, to protect themselves from the very active Turkish air force, they had to rely on their usual stratagems of digging tunnels and using civilians as human shields.

In order to defend themselves against Turkish tanks, it is likely that the IS tried to cover certain approach routes or to channel enemy forces through the use of IED fields or mines, while for short-distance anti-tank defence they relied on the popular RPG-7 and probably on the Turkish version of the disposable M72 LAW rocket launcher, the HAR-66. In addition, the use of mortars is also documented. In any case, the real pillar of anti-tank defence was the ATGM, in particular those of Russian origin, such as 9M133 Kornet, 9M113 Konkurs, 9M111 Fagot or 9M115 Metis. There are even those who have suggested that the TOWs were also used, but we consider it highly unlikely, as EI has only operated this ATGM in very small quantities, and no launcher was observed at Al-Bab.

The biggest casualties in the Turkish ranks, in any case, occurred at the hands of the ATGMs and a daring Daesh hand strike that lost up to ten Leopard 2A4 battle tanks in just a couple of weeks in December. These combats followed a failed advance of Turkish-rebel forces on the western flank of Al-Bab, and particularly in the area around its hospital. There the Leopard 2A4 along with many other Turkish armored means were destroyed, captured or rendered unusable.

The scene of the combats

The scenario in which the Turkish Leopards 2A4 fought was around the city of Al-Bab, which had been fortified by the Jihadists as an important junction of roads and a city of a certain size and political significance. Four months of furious fighting took place there, of which the most intense were experienced throughout December.

To the north and west of Al-Bab there are several hills about 500 metres high, but generally around the city there is a flat terrain dotted with isolated farm and crop complexes. In addition, immediately west of the city, just a few hundred metres away, is the local hospital that played a role in Turkish manoeuvres to encircle Al-Bab.

As for Al-Bab itself, before the war it had some 140,000 inhabitants, with an approximate perimeter of 9.5 km. 

People erroneously tend to assume that Syria is a hot and arid country, however contrary to popular imagination the north of Syria is a green area with a climate similar to what we might find in Salamanca. Winters are cold and a layer of snow of several centimetres covers everything. Frost, fog, rain and snowstorms are not a rarity between November and February. Fortunately for Turks, Leopard 2 – like all other German cars – is well designed to cope with extreme cold weather conditions.

One of the problems Turkey has faced in Syria is that its personnel have been poorly trained and have used ineffective tactics. Source - Twitter.
One of the problems Turkey has faced in Syria is that its personnel have been poorly trained and have used ineffective tactics. Source – Twitter.

About the Turkish Leopard 2A4

Since the birth of the Panzerkampfwagen Leopard 2 saga in Germany at the end of the 1970s, Germany has continued to introduce modifications and improvements that led to new versions. Among all of them, the one that reached greater popularity, greater index of exportation and greater time in service was the version Leopard 2A4, appeared in the middle of the 90’s and that today begins to notice the ailments of the age. Although new versions of the Leopard 2 have been designed with more armor and more firepower, such as the A5 or A6, the fact is that the A4 remains the most popular and has been the variant that has maintained the best balance between mobility, protection and firepower because the new versions have lost some mobility in favor of protection. 

In addition, the Leopard 2A4 maintains the excellent 120 mm Rheinmetall L/44 gun, similar to the M256 of the M1 Abrams and which, despite having a lower penetration capacity than the more modern L/55 installed in the Leopard 2A6 has the advantage that it is shorter and therefore much more practical for use in closed scenarios such as streets or wooded areas. In particular, when faced with asymmetrical forces that are not going to oppose significant armored forces, the more modern L/55 is inferior to the L/44. This gun can use various types of ammunition:

  • APFSDS (Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot) designed to penetrate thick shields by kinetic energy.
  • HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) which is multipurpose, the shrapnel useful at very close distances against soft targets.
  • HE (High Explosive) against light fortifications and infantry and the rarer HE-OR (High Explosive-Obstacle Reduction) specially designed to undo obstacles.
  • There are upgrade packages that would allow Leopard 2 to fire missiles such as LAHAT.

The Leopard 2A4 can carry up to 42 projectiles in two armoured compartments, one located at the rear of the tower within reach of the magazine and containing 15 projectiles, and the other located to the left of the central barge, with 27 projectiles stored. 

Although, a priori, the APFSDS projectiles are not an adequate ammunition to face the IS, insofar as it will not oppose modern battle tanks, we have been able to verify the routine use of this type of ammunition. The motive is unknown to us. The only possibility that has occurred to us would be that the fast and armoured VBIEDs of the EI could be a difficult target to hit at a great distance. In this case, the APFSDS ammunition because of its flatter trajectory and higher velocity might be more suitable in the face of this type of threat. The projectiles could be German DM-43 or DM-53 and Israeli M322 or M328 or North American M829.

The other most commonly used projectile is the HEAT type, considered multipurpose and used against fortified positions, lightly armoured vehicles or against unprotected targets. In the case of the HEAT we have observed the use of M325 projectiles.

As for secondary armament the Turks would use the same configuration as our Leopard 2A4E, this is a MG-3A1 coaxial machine gun caliber 7.62 mm NATO and rarely a second MG-3 located in the hatch of the artilleryman.

The Shooting Control System (SCT) employs a variety of sensors as well as 12x magnification optics including laser telemetry and night sights. It can be considered effective at the distances of asymmetric warfare, which rarely exceed 2 km.

The car’s mobility depends on its 1,500-horsepower MTU MB engine, which enables the Leopard 2A4 to reach speeds of the order of 70 km/h on the road. In addition, as usual, the Turkish Leopard 2A4 had soft ground shoes mounted on the front of the car, which testifies to the snow and mud conditions they expected to find in northern Syria.

In terms of protection, the Leopard 2A4 has a multi-layer Chobham armour on the front of the barge and the tower, although the latter has no inclined armour. Although the actual thickness of the armour is classified material, it should protect against the main Russian ATGM of its time, the 9M113 Konkurs, although it remains to be seen whether it would be sufficient against the 9M115-2 Metis-M, against the 9M113M Konkurs-M or against the 9M133 Kornet. It should also withstand the impact of rocket-propelled grenades such as RPG-7, although more powerful and modern weapons such as RPG-29 may be able to penetrate it.

Unfortunately, the Leopard 2A4 has a major flaw in the frontal protection: The EMES-15 optics of the gunner, embedded in the left side of the tower, area in which the armour is greatly diminished. Other vulnerable points but difficult to hit would be the ring of the tower and the area of the ceiling that is immediately above the tablecloth of the gun.

The flanks are another story: The front of the flanks is protected by heavy skirts, while the rest of the barge has light skirts. They all function as spaced armour. The most exposed area is the rear side of the flanks and the tower, where the armour is conventional, vertical and relatively thin. To increase the chances of survival, the 15 ready-to-use projectiles are housed in a shielded watertight compartment, which offers additional protection against penetration. Nothing unusual, as modern battle tanks generally do not have enough protection on the flanks to withstand the impact of a powerful ATGM unless reactive or modular armor has been installed, which is not the case with the Leopard 2A4. In fact, a PG-7 grenade-rocket should be able to penetrate the Leopard 2A4 on the flanks, something incredible given its price on the Syrian black market, which is around $100.

The IED and mine protection offered by the Leopard 2A4 is also classified material, although it is presumed to be able to withstand the most common Soviet anti-tank mines of its time, such as the TM-62. On the other hand, the Canadian experience in Afghanistan showed that the Leopard 2 protected their crew well against FDI, despite which the industry has endeavoured to present variants such as A6M or PSO that improve this section, which is indicative of certain shortcomings.

As far as camouflage is concerned, the Turkish Leopard 2 used the same three-tone camouflage pattern of the Bundeswehr. This scheme was replaced by new ones of the arid type. Presumably the repainting was done on the fly, as not all the cars were able to enjoy their new colours before arriving in Syria.

On the other hand, unlike the rest of Leopard 2A4, Turkish vehicles seen in Syria mounted a device on the right side of the tower, a metal box from which sometimes protrude a kind of small antennas no more than 10 cms. high, which makes us think that we are either a communication device, or a device to inhibit signals.

Finally, we have noticed that part of the Turkish Leopard 2A4 have a scar on the left side of the tower. This mark of weld consists of an old door used to introduce ammunition to the car and was sealed when the battle tanks of lots prior to the A4 were upgraded to that version. This means that some of the Turkish A4 were not born as A4, but are Leopard 2A1, A2 or A3 converted to the A4 version, although there should not be any significant differences between them.

Leopard 2A4TR occupying a fixed position, which has cost Turkey several casualties. Source - Twitter.
Leopard 2A4TR occupying a fixed position, which has cost Turkey several casualties. Source – Twitter.

Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria: The Facts

After numerous incidents related to the Turkish Leopard 2A4 to which no one gave an explanation, a paper was leaked detailing data on the state of the vehicles impacted by EI weaponry along with a brief description. Despite initial reticence about its validity, a posteriori it has proved to be absolutely reliable, so we will use it as the basis for Table 1.

Combat tankUnitStateRegistrationFinal destination of the trolley after publication of the paper 
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeATGM/ High Damage195556Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeATGM/ High Damage195591Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeATGM/ High Damage195586Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeATGM/ High Damage195536Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeATGM/ High Damage195535Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeMine or IED/ Engine damage195541Unknown
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeMine or FDI195526Destroyed by air raid
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeRPG or mortar195528Captured and destroyed by EI
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeUnknown (Under the wall)195537Destroyed by the Turks
Leopard 2A4TR2nd Armored BrigadeBreakdowns195532Captured and destroyed by EI

The ten Leopard 2A4 reached that the document talks about belonged to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade, 3rd Army Corps that, by the way, participated in the coup d’état against Erdogan. Of the ten Leopard 2, one had a mechanical breakdown, another had suffered damage that we presume was slight – no indication to the contrary – due to an RPG or a mortar, another two had been rendered unusable by mines, of which only one had heavy engine damage, and the remaining five had been hit by ATGM, which had caused heavy damage. Although the exact meaning of “heavy damage” is not given, we intuit that they refer to damage that required competing repairs of the fourth step or basic maintenance.

Several of the battle tanks were subsequently lost, as Daesh launched a series of successful hand strikes that allowed him to capture and destroy them. It also appears that at least three of the wagons could have been destroyed by the Turks themselves to avoid capture and use by Daesh members. Air strikes were used, carried out by an F-16 with a guided missile, probably an AGM-65 Maverick, or grenades placed in key locations on the wagon.

The IS hand strike was the culmination of a week in which numerous Leopard 2A4s had been knocked out by the ATGMs. During that operation the jihadists were able to break the positions defended by the Turkish army around the hospital and seize several Leopard 2A4 along with an ACV-15 and other vehicles such as a M-60T Sabra.

It can be said that the use of IS’s ATGMs was extremely effective. In all the cases found, they had impacts on the flanks, causing serious damage and probably causing the death of several carristas. The ATGMs confirmed for use would include two 9M113 Konkurs and 9M115-2 Metis-M, the latter with a range of only 1.5 kilometres, but with a high penetration capacity.

Finally, there is news of some skirmish between the Leopard 2A4 and various armored. At least one Daesh BMP-1 is known to have been hit by an M325 hollow-charge projectile fired by a Leopard and impacted the front of the BMP-1 whose shell was pierced. The BMP-1 caught fire and at least two crew members were able to leave it to die a few metres further down, shot down by the Leopard 2A4’s coaxial machine gun or the infantry that might have accompanied it.

Missiles and Impacts

All the missiles IS launched hit the Leopards’ flanks. In the best of cases, there may have been some who got the heavy skirts right, but the latter are clearly insufficient to stop an ATGM. Once the penetration was produced, the damages were inevitable and if they were diluted it was thanks to the internal design of the German car. However, it seems that none of the cars were completely destroyed, although the images circulating on the net do not allow us to be very optimistic in this respect.

Two battle tanks stationed behind barriers received the direct and almost simultaneous impact of two ATGM 9M113 Konkurs, on their right flank. Although one received the impact totally angled with respect to the trajectory of the missile and that this one made target in the zone of the barge or of the tower, in no case it provoked the explosion of the ammunition. Thus, despite the damage, the car resisted relatively well, to the point that after the impact the tower was operational long enough to be turned, as can be seen from the analysis of the moment it received the ATGM and an image taken later.

Less fortunate was the other tank located just a few meters above and that only offered as a target the side armor of its tower. This exposed him to an impact near the ammunition compartment which resulted in a catastrophic explosion that blew up the armored compartment with the 15 projectiles, hatches and other elements.

One of the reasons why all the impacts were lateral was to recede in the own direction of the turk-rebel offensive, always advancing in a west-east direction towards Al-Bab. In this way, Turkish battle tanks were placed facing Al-Bab by exposing their flanks to Daesh ATGMs located to the south that could open fire at distances of several kilometers from their own territory without the Leopard 2A4 that did not have any kind of active protection system, laser receiver or similar, could do anything to prevent them.

Daesh’s hand strike

The Turks had bet a small force around the Al-Bab hospital, located in a strategic area. This grouping was composed of a pair of immobilized Leopard 2A4 battle tanks, as well as a contingent of mechanized infantry on ACV-15 in charge of providing security. Although the fighting in the area had been minor until then, the IS – probably aware of the state of the Leopards – gave a hand strike taking advantage of low clouds, fog and the snowstorm. The climatology and its initiative allowed the jihadists to approach without being detected and take the position intact in a short time, after which they plundered everything they could and destroyed the rest, including the Leopards with the numbers 195532 and 195528.

Faced with the threat that this movement posed to two other Leopard 2A4 that had been immobilized in a curve of a road a few hundred meters further north, the Turks decided to destroy them before they fell into jihadist hands, for which they launched two air strikes.

Incorrect planning

Heinz Guderian, in his mythical Achtung Panzer, said that: “This force [in reference to the armoured forces] which today has the greatest offensive power has also the right to use that power under its own rules and thus whatever the place where it is used will be the main force and the rest will be subordinate to it. […] The rights claimed by this new weapon result in the following tactical needs: 

  • Surprise.
  • Massive Employment.
  • Adequate land.

[…] The high speed of the armoured attack is essential in determining the results of combat.”

However, in the case of Syria the situation had been completely reversed, and it was the battle tanks and their mechanised infantry that were subject to the tactical needs imposed by the FSA light infantry they had to support, thus operating against their own nature and wasting their strengths – mobility and protection – thus maximising their vulnerabilities.

In the case of Al-Bab’s combat of the three fundamental principles, only the right terrain was followed, but at no time was there any element of surprise or massive use of means. 

Now, why weren’t the basic principles of modern mechanized combined weapons warfare followed? Because this type of war involves high-intensity operations, and the Turks considered that this was not the right option, even though they mobilized the necessary critical mass to attack such a relatively weak enemy as the Caliphate.

The reasons for this decision are undoubtedly political, as a high-intensity operation would have had to bear the image of an occupying force and assume the inevitable frictions with the local population. On the contrary, putting the FSA on the front line and supporting it with its TAF achieved a much more desirable low profile for the international press, something in line with the real interests of a Turkey that sought to prevent the Kurdish cantons from uniting, to have a certain amount of Syrian territory as a cushion and a letter to be exchanged in future negotiations with Assad and Russia.

If we look at similar operations in Syria, such as the support given by Iran or Russia to Assad, or US support to the Kurds, in no case has high-intensity war been chosen. Not even the Russians have been able to operate their heavy equipment alongside the Syrians and when they have deployed vehicles such as the BTR-82A or the BMPT-72 they have done so in Russian units and always in the rear or on the flanks. Never as a support force for the Syrians, a task reserved for special forces, aviation and artillery.

The circumstances thus exist that Turkey has been the first state to employ small armoured groupings in hybrid warfare operations in which armoured units are employed in support of light infantry. The problem is that the tank was designed for other types of scenarios and in this case key aspects such as agility or the surprise factor are wasted. As a matter of fact, it is more normal for armoured units to be isolated from infantry unable to follow their progress and not, as in this case, to be forced to follow the rhythm of units such as those of the ELS. This is how they have been made vulnerable to the infinitely cheaper anti-tank weaponry in exchange for minimal profits.

While battle tanks are designed to survive in high-intensity scenarios, including artificial obstacles, mines, air strikes, missiles, CSRs, RPGs, explosives, chemical strikes and so on, the Syrian theatre of operations is very different. 

Irregular forces such as Daesh have numerous veteran combatants, experienced in the handling of advanced material such as ATGM and used to attack opportunity targets in a short time under the threat of aerial bombardments and support fires. In addition, despite being in full strategic retreat, harassed on all fronts, they have managed to maintain the strategic initiative, with constant hand blows, withdrawals and counteroffensives.

This scenario forced the Turkish troops to maintain 360º surveillance 24 hours a day, since attacks could happen at any time, especially when the enemy was operating hundreds of ATGM, easy to acquire for an actor like ISIS, and can have a range of up to 3,000 meters.

It can be concluded that perhaps using battle tanks was not the best option, taking into account both the past experiences in the Syrian War itself, about which there are several articles on our website and that their lessons had not been apprehended installing additional armor or warning equipment in front of some ATGM that Daesh had already demonstrated to be able to use with great effectiveness. In addition, Turkey had T-155 and M-110A2 artillery, as well as a large number of mortars which, in combination with special forces and perhaps some support vehicles with rapid-fire guns, should have been able to provide the ELS with the necessary support to undertake its mission without exposing battle tanks to a type of war in which they have much to lose and very little to gain.

Finally, it is obligatory to make a small reference to the Turkish situation itself, since its Armed Forces were not alien to the effects of the purges carried out after the alleged attempted coup d’état of July 2016. It is possible that after suffering the expulsion of thousands of its members, they would still not have recovered in terms of effectiveness, cohesion and the ability of the command to lead the mission.

Serious Faults

The contempt for the enemy could have led to excesses of confidence that facilitated Dash’s hand strike. This was not only paid for during the hand strike, but also when numerous tanks received missile strikes on their flanks, underestimating Daesh’s ability to establish a counter-tank defense. This overexposure of the Leopard 2 flanks and the consequent consequences should not be attributed to a bad car design, because a missile in that area turns the survival of any car and its crew into something that hangs largely on random factors.

It can be blamed, however, on the poor coordination with the FSA infantry that should have secured the advanced positions that would protect the flanks of the wagons, something that did not happen. The Turkish mechanized infantry, on the other hand, did not seem to contribute much in the fight against the ATGM either, perhaps because they were simply dedicated to providing security at a very short distance, precisely to avoid hand strikes and infiltrations.

The fact that the cars were hit despite being apparently protected by ground barriers speaks in favour of the precision of modern ATGMs and forces modern armies to extreme diligence when constructing firing positions. Now, even though the wells are perfectly constructed and the tower of the cars barely appears, they continue to be in danger in front of these mills.

On the other hand, that same overconfidence – and the careless application of the manuals – also caused the Turkish tanks to spend much more time than they should have in the same position, allowing the jihadists to position their counter-tank reserves and calmly plan each attack. In fact, after the “black week” of December 2016 the Turkish carristas became more cautious and when they had to open fire they did it quickly and then change position.


The reconnaissance work was not well executed. Either the terrain was not recognized with due diligence or the information collected by the exploration units did not reach the right people in the chain of command, as many of the positions chosen for the Turkish Leopards turned out to be too exposed.

The use of mobile means such as armoured vehicles or battle tanks for exploration is more effective against a conventional enemy that opposes heavy means, relatively easy to detect. In the Syrian scenario, when confronting the elusive Daesh units, a more thorough and persistent observation of the battlefield becomes necessary, a task for which the Turkish special forces with their teams of precision shooters would have been especially qualified but which was nevertheless entrusted to other units.

Recovery and mines

One of the Leopard 2 suffered mechanical breakdowns and two others were immobilized for days as a result of the anti-tank mines. Several of these vehicles remained outdoors waiting to be recovered, until they finally had to be destroyed or abandoned in Daesh’s hands. It seems unacceptable that a system of the value of a tank can spend days waiting for its recovery, even if it is in full front line.

It is possible that this delay, which resulted in the loss of several cars, was due to a lack of adequate command, as OES has been led by special forces officers, or if it was due to a shortage of recovery vehicles such as the M88A1 or a lack of reserves to mount a proper rescue operation. In any case, the action taken highlights the need to include, whenever heavy vehicles are deployed, an adequate contingent of combat engineers.

As we have said, at least two of the ten damaged Leopard 2A4 battle tanks were immobilized due to mines. As reflected in the Turkish press in the following days, Turkish troops were fully aware of the existence of minefields on the access roads to Al-Bab hospital, as well as of booby traps. There is no record of the use of specific means, and yet we do know that at least one of the wagons went into a minefield of which they were aware. Did they not know how to evaluate the power of those mines, did they underestimate the Daesh and took risks? It is strange that a modern army like the Turkish army, belonging to NATO and which should have had ample capacity to detect and clear the small, rudimentary minefields planted by the Islamic state, should have fallen into these errors.

Insufficient technological means

While doctrine, training, proper interweapon cooperation and diligent reconnaissance should have been able to prevent the Turkish Leopard 2A4 “black week” disaster, the truth is that it remains very difficult to deal with ATGM. Especially if the battle tanks are not equipped with the necessary technologies. These range from simple laser receivers, complex Active Protection Systems (APS) in charge of employing electronic or physical countermeasures against missiles. 

The main problem lies in the fact that the range of anti-tank threats is becoming wider and wider and therefore requires increasingly complex and expensive systems. In the Syrian case we find from laser-guided missiles such as the modern 9M133 Kornet to the 9M113 Konkurs or TOW 2. The latter, despite using cables also depend on the infrared (IR) SACLOS to be guided to the target. In any case, Turkey did not deploy in Syria any adequate means to combat these threats, except for an experimental M-60T Sabra that was subsequently sent.

Moreover, despite its undeniable goodness, the reality is that the Leopard 2A4 is an already mature car unable to offer full protection against modern missiles even in its front bow. It is true that when used well, they still offer a sufficient level of protection against anything other than last generation ATGM or extremely powerful IEDs, and yet the Turkish command knew only too well what the threat they faced, especially when the social networks were filled with Russian chariots such as the T-90s reached by these weapons.

Turkish Leopard 2A4TR in damaged in Syria. Source - Telegram.
Turkish Leopard 2A4TR in damaged in Syria. Source – Telegram.

Turkish Leopard 2A4 Vs Russians T-72 and T-90

Precisely at this point it is very interesting to compare the performance of Russian-designed battle tanks such as the T-72 or T-90 used by the Syrian army against the Turkish Leopard 2A4. After analyzing dozens of randomly selected videos, in which there are impacts against Russian-made battle tanks, we have elaborated Table 2.

Combat tank (x15)Weapon usedImpact zonePenetrationDamage 
T-90 or T-72B obr. 1989GTOW 2A or 2BFront bargeNo
T-72 version unknown9M113Front bargeNo
T-72 version unknown9M113Front towerNo
T-72 version unknownATGM unknownCenter of the barge side shieldingNo
T-72AV Safrah9M115 or Milan F1 or F2Front zone side armor of the bargeYesHigh
T-90ATOW 2A or 2BSide area of barge or towerYesMedium-High
T-72M1ATGM unknownHigh front zone of the barge, near the tower ringYesDestruction
T-72 Ural9M113 or TOW 2A or 2BRear side zoneYesDestruction
T-72 version unknown9M113 or TOW 2A or 2BRear side zoneYesHigh-Destruction
T-72M19M115 Metis or Milan F1 or F2Front towerUnknownUnknown-Leve
T-72 Ural Kurdish with home spacing armour9M113 or TOW 2A or 2BFront side zoneYesDestruction
T-72 UralATGM unknownCenter of barge and tower side shielding (two penetrations)YesDestruction
T-90 or T-90ATOW 2A or 2BSide area of the bargeYesMedium-High
T-72AVRPG M79 OSACenter of the barge side shielding YesMedium
T-72M1RPG-29Rear side area of bargeYesDestruction

In this table we have ordered the carriages according to their level of protection, from higher to lower, that is, taking into account both the shielding itself and the inclusion of additional protection systems and their capacity and modernity. So, we have the following cases:

  • T-90A, T-90 and T-72B obr. 1989G The three with reactive armor Kontakt-5 in the front and part of the flanks.
    • T-72AV: First generation Kontakt-1 reactive shielding in the front area and on the flanks.
    • T-72AV Safrah: Syrian experimental battle tank with shielding tile spacing (with the same configuration as roof tiles) that has not proved too effective.
    • T-72M1: Slightly lower export version than T-72A.
    • T-72 Ural: First version of the T-72 deployed en masse by the USSR.
    • T-72 Kurdish Ural: It had an additional grid armor on the flanks and around the tower.

In the case of the Turkish Leopard 2A4, based on the data we have been able to collect, we have carried out Table 3.

Combat tank (x10)Weapon usedImpact zonePenetrationDamage 
Leopard 2A4TR9M113Barge Side CenterYesMedium-High
Leopard 2A4TR9M113Tower Side CenterYesHigh
Leopard 2A4TR9M115-2Tower Side CenterYesHigh
Leopard 2A4TRATGM unknownUnknown, probably on the flank.YesHigh
Leopard 2A4TRATGM unknownUnknown, probably on the flank.YesHigh
Leopard 2A4TRMine/IEDLower zone, right caterpillarNoSlight-Medium
Leopard 2A4TRMine/IEDUnknownUnknownMedium
Leopard 2A4TRRPG/MortarUnknownUnknownSlight-Medium
Leopard 2A4TRUnknownUnknownUnknownUnknown
Leopard 2A4TROwn mechanical difficulties

It must be clarified, however, that in the case of the Leopards we only have the complete picture of four of them, since many details are unknown from the rest of the attacks. Of these, three were impacted by ATGM and one was impacted by a mine/IED. In addition, there are two cases of Leopard 2A4 reached that we must discard for not having information about them.

With the data collected, we have tried to obtain as objective a score as possible on the resistance of the cars analysed to various impacts. The damage will be assessed as follows:

Damage levelPoints
Mild: repairable by crew.1Point
Medium: repairable at battalion level in a few days.2 Points
High: can be repaired in weeks in special rear installations.3 Points
Destruction: unrecoverable4 Points

The combination of two damages will result in the intermediate figure between the two. Example: Medium-High = 2.5 Points or Mild-Medium = 1.5 Points

To see the survival rate, we will compare the statistics from different combinations, thus showing in brackets the number of cars that appear in the tables and that have been chosen as a sample for the elaboration of the data, for example: (x6).

Statistics 1: Taking into account only the impacts of ATGM on the side of Leopard 2 cars whose picture is complete.

 Leopard 2A4 (x3)T-72/T-90 (x11)

Statistics 2: Taking into account only the side impacts of T-72/90 cars and assuming that all Leopard 2 cars hit by an ATGM were in the side zone.

Leopard 2A4 (x8)T-72/T-90 (x11)

Statistics 3: Taking into account only the Leopard 2 cars whose frame we know completely and only the side impacts in the case of the T-72/90.

Leopard 2A4 (x4)T-72/T-90 (x11)

Statistics 4: Survival in case of penetration or damage by type of carriage.

Type of carAverage damage
T-72 Ural (x2)4
T-72M1 (x3)3
T-72AV (x2)2,5
T-90, T-90A (x2)2,5
Leopard 2A4 (x8) 

Statistics 5: Counting only the ATGM penetrations and assuming that all Leopard 2 hit by an ATGM were on the side.

Leopard 2A4 (x5)T-72/T-90 (x9)

Statistics 6: Rate of cars recoverable after a mine/IED penetration or explosion. 

Leopard 2A4 (x8)T-72/T-90 (x11)
100% Recoverable 40-60% Recoverable

Statistics 7: Results of ATGM attacks on the frontal zone of the T-72/T-90.

Type of carAverage damage Note
T-72 (x6)0,833The only penetration in the frontal zone occurred in a T-72M1 that received the missile very close to the ring of the tower.

If we take into account all the statistics -and in particular the seven- we see as in case of impact in the frontal zone, either by an ATGM, by a CSR or by an RPG the probabilities of high damages -that require to send the car to Fourth Step or to Base Maintenance- are very high for all the models. This confirms something we already knew: that cars are very difficult to protect against ATGMs if we trust everything to armor. If a powerful AT weapon hits this area, damage to the crew can be limited thanks to the internal design, but immobilisation of the trolley will be almost inevitable.

Another data to highlight in the statistics is the number of recoverable carts after the impact of anti-tank weapons on their flanks. Especially interesting is the enormous difference we have found between German and Russian designs, as the former have ultimately proved much better able to withstand damage. Let’s see why.

In a tank the following elements are particularly dangerous and if hit by the penetrating projectile have a high probability of exploding and causing total destruction of the tank:

  • Ammunition.
  • Fuel tanks.
  • Engine (for fuel and oils).
  • Crew personal weaponry (hand grenades and personal weapons).

In the case of the Leopard 2A4, as we already know, there are two Santa Barbara: One in the rear area of the tower with 15 projectiles ready to use and another with 27 more located in the front area of the barge. In addition, the fuel tanks are located at the front and side of the barge well away from the engine. In the case of the 15-machine Santa Barbara, it is designed to redirect the explosion upwards, as can be seen in the image of two of the Leopard 2 hit by ATGM. All these elements are isolated and in different compartments inside the trolley. Thus, although any of them could cause very serious damage, except in the case of the Santa Barbara which holds 27 projectiles, it would be very difficult for her explosion alone to result in the complete destruction of a Leopard 2.

On the contrary, if we look at the design of the T-72/T-90 we will see that they have an automatic loader placed on the floor, right in the central part of the barge. Around it are also projectiles that are not ready for use, i.e. all 125mm ammunition is stored in the same place. In addition, the motor is practically next to the automatic loader, only separated from it by a thin layer of shielding.

That all the ammunition and the engine are together is something that maximizes the possibilities that in case of penetration of one of them the other is affected. While in Leopard 2 an impact in the engine zone would degenerate into a loss of mobility, but not in the destruction of the vehicle by an explosion of ammunition, in T-72 the result can be catastrophic.

The type and quantity of projectiles stored in both trolleys must also be taken into account. The T-72 stores 39 125mm projectiles -22 in the autoloader and 17 next to it-. The Leopard 2 has a capacity for 42 120 mm projectiles in both of the above-mentioned santabars. The difference in quantity is not very great, but the type and construction of projectiles is.

First and foremost, Leopard 2 battle tanks typically store APFSDS-type kinetic penetrating projectiles against highly armoured targets and HEAT-type projectiles that split their potential between penetrating capability and the ability to explode and cause damage. The Russians – and rebounding Syrians – also provide their cars with both types of ammunition, to which they add HE projectiles that concentrate their full potential on exploiting rather than penetrating. If the HE and HEAT projectiles are hit, their detonation causes lethal expansive waves inside the trolley. T-72s carrying HE projectiles and Leopard 2s couldn’t make a difference in case of penetration.

Finally, the Soviet projectiles are introduced into the gun chamber in two parts: On the one hand, the penetrator and on the other, the propellant. In the Leopard 2, it is the human loader who introduces the 120mm projectiles that are built into a single pod. These have a housing of a material that could be more resistant to splinters and incandescent material that spread inside the carriages in case of penetration. On the other hand, in the T-72 it happens that in many cases the propellants of the 125 mm projectiles end up burning after penetration, with devastating consequences.

Despite having local allies to bear the brunt of the fighting, it was the Turks, thanks to their armoured assets, who managed to prevent the operation from being a failure. Source - Twitter.
Despite having local allies to bear the brunt of the fighting, it was the Turks, thanks to their armoured assets, who managed to prevent the operation from being a failure. Source – Twitter.

Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria: Lessons

Turkey has certainly taken note of what it has seen in its Syrian deployment. In fact, it has corrected many of the initial errors. However, the lessons from Turkey’s use of Leopard 2 are not only important for the countries involved in the conflict.

It is curious that an a priori scenario as distant and different as the Syrian can also provide valuable lessons for Spain. However, bearing in mind that we have the same car model as Turkey – and of course the improved Leopard 2E – that our southern neighbour could use, in the event of a very unlikely conflict, ATGMs on a massive scale and that our cars are deployed in the Baltic Republics, where Russia would face, in addition to cars, a good number of state-of-the-art ATGMs, the comparison is not idle. Indeed, we can draw lessons, at least in the areas explained below.


It is clear that the environment of hybrid warfare is extremely demanding in terms of protection, as it requires maximizing the protection of the car everywhere, and against multiple threats. Any nation that wants to face hybrid threats will be able to go to the market in search of different upgrade packages that, like everything else, offer different systems with different levels of cost/benefit ratio.

As opposed to projectiles such as RPG rocket grenades, CSR projectiles or ATGMs, which are all systems that do not exceed 300 m/s, there are APSs with hard-kill systems consisting of explosive devices that are launched to intercept them. This type of system is the jewel in the crown. They are very expensive, they force the troop to retrain in order to get the most out of them and in addition they do not protect against rapid projectiles fired from other tanks or counter-tank guns that reach speeds higher than 1,000 meters per second. The Russians have the Afghanit installed in the T-14 Armata, and they claim that their APS can also destroy such high velocity projectiles, although we doubt it.

An APS with a hard-kill system such as the Israeli Trophy should be able to protect against CSR, ATGM and RPG, but they often present a problem of angles, since the explosive charges used are oriented in a certain direction and the projection of their explosion only reaches a certain angle, so that a projectile that travels flush with the ground or almost at the maximum height of the tank might not be interfered with by the explosion of the artifact.

On the other hand we have what we can consider electronic countermeasures, IR and the human eye known as “soft-kill” systems, these like a hard-kill need a series of sensors that detect the threat and from there use a combination of measures, such as using infrared spotlights to confuse the ATGM with a SACLOS IR like the TOW or the Konkurs. APS’s are often also combined with smoke launchers to create a curtain that prevents manual guidance or laser guidance to the target, and finally high-temperature smokers can be used to deflect missiles of the shot-and-forgotten type with an IR guidance head. 

The APS usually allow the tower to rotate automatically in the direction of the threat so that in the event of an impact it will be against the thick shielding of the tower. In essence, soft-kill differs from hard-kill in that they do not destroy the threat, but rather divert it, and although they are cheaper than hard-kill, they have the disadvantage that they need constant investment in order to be effective in the face of new threats, and they are also useless in the face of unguided munitions such as those of RPGs or CSRs.

The cheapest thing to do is simply to install a series of sensors as laser receivers that in combination with a series of manoeuvres allow the lanes to slip away and react in time when they learn that a missile is approaching, however the missiles are very fast compared to their prey, so the effectiveness of this type of measures is limited. 

Although all the previous measures were implemented, there are more and more ATGM systems that attack tanks from above, systems such as the FGM-148, the HJ-12, the Spike or the TOW 2B Aero, and the truth is that the current APS are not very effective against this type of threat. Fortunately, these weapons are not yet popular with non-state actors, particularly because they are more complex to operate, but their proliferation in the future is likely.

Hard-kill systems in service and tested only the Israeli Trophy exists, although many other countries have designed them without having deployed them yet in significant quantities. As far as soft-kill is concerned, the most popular to date is the Shtora-1 which has been used by Russian T-90 battle tanks for almost 25 years and whose real effectiveness in combat has not yet been demonstrated. 

As for the different means of direct physical protection, i.e. shielding, there are various possibilities, all of them composed of easily installable modules. Especially the Leopard 2A4 are suitable to be upgraded to some of the versions offered by various defense companies. All packs offered so far include the addition of multiple modular shielding in the front area and in the advanced areas of the sides of the car. The back of the flanks in some versions is left as is, as in the Leopard 2 PSO, while in others a grid shield is added, as in the Leopard 2A4SG Mark I acquired by Singapore.

If we look at Russian battle tanks, such as the T-90AM or the T-90MS, we can see that they rely more on reactive armor that weighs less and is more practical than modular armor than modular armor. The installation of grid shields in the less protected parts of the car seems to be a general tonic in Russian and Western designs, and is something that also seems to us to be effective.

We believe that the frontal protection of the Leopard 2A4 should be improved above all so that as the M-60T Sabra can resist the most powerful Russian missiles, the flanks are flour of another costal, there the most effective would be to use light shields based on grid or reactive shielding attached to skirts that act as spaced shielding. The installation of the same type of shielding in the lower part of the glacis could also be an interesting option.

The problem with armour is the same as always, because its weight can excessively limit the mobility of the vehicle, which forces either to limit the new armour introduced or to change the power plant for a more capable one.

Against mines and FDI it seems clear that the addition of protection in the basement is important, and equally the use of frequency inhibitors against certain types of FDI or directed mines could be interesting not only for the tank itself, but to support the infantry in their operations.

The most interesting upgrade option for hybrid war scenarios would be a combination of a soft-kill APS with the addition of modular shielding on the front of the Leopard 2A4 in conjunction with reactive shielding or grid shielding on the sides of the car. This in combination with some frequency inhibitor system would be reasonably priced. Mine protection can be saved, because in our view a good job of combat engineers on the battlefield could dilute this threat enough to make the risks bearable, and in the worst case scenario you can always add a shovel of engineers to the cart.

Fire power

The addition of a remote-controlled machine gun to the top of battle tanks, and the addition of a 50-calibre heavy machine gun, would be an improvement that would allow a third member of the crew not only to observe and search for targets, but also to do so under cover, without the need to expose the tower and also allowing the firepower of the battle tank to be significantly increased with a relatively low investment.

To maximize the support capabilities that armor can provide it would be a good option to conceive a Santa Barbara configuration of the car that includes many more highly explosive fragmentation type projectiles (HE or HE-F) such as the very modern DM-11, shrapnel (such as the M1028) and a few multipurpose HEAT. It is bloody to see that unlike the Soviets/Russians in the West, there are few countries that have opted for one of the few HE-type projectiles available on the market, when in the moment of truth they would be the most useful for the current hybrid war scenarios.

Mobility, engineers and recovery

Improving the Leopard 2’s power plant would be an interesting step towards incorporating more armor and designing effective manoeuvres against missiles, especially if such manoeuvres are combined with smoke release.

The need for a sufficient number of recovery vehicles has been amply demonstrated during the Turkish actions in Syria, and that is that in the planning of operations there is often a lack of certain means such as bridge launchers, engineers, construction of fortified positions, and so on.

In addition, the use of instruments such as barreminas rollers installed in battle tanks or engineering vehicles is a quick and cheap option that we have not seen used in Syria despite the usefulness it could have had to clear the fields of explosive ordnance planted by the Jihadists.

Observation and recognition

We understand that at the time of the observation of the area of operations the battle tanks showed all their tower and used of a side the visor of the artilleryman and of another one the periscope of the commander. Unfortunately, as we explained earlier, this way of acting exposed the tower, a target large enough to be accurate by the precise ATGM.

This shortage of battle tanks highlights the need to deploy alongside them independent platforms specially equipped with surveillance systems that can be used without being exposed too much – such as the VERTs of the Spanish Army – and that can carry out an effective observation of targets the size of a human being at distances of up to 3 km with the express mission of detecting anti-tank equipment. 

It is also curious to note the lack of emphasis placed until then by the Turkish Army on the acquisition and use of drones, whose persistence capacity and different angle of vision complement the observation network, allowing ATGM teams to be located before they approach critical distances. It must be said in favour of the Turks who, since then, have doubled the acquisition of these mills that they had already used against the PKK since 2015, which makes their absence in the Syrian scenario even more surprising, at least at first.

In any case, given the particularities of asymmetric conflicts, it is necessary to create safety networks that include advanced cameras and sensors based on ground and aerial platforms, heavy machine guns or rapid-fire guns and/or precision shooters of the special forces to provide 360º security to their own positions. In particular it would be interesting to be able to detect and suppress ATGM or CSR equipment over long distances.

Employment Doctrine

The tank was conceived by the English in the First World War as the ideal means of land to penetrate enemy lines and thus break the stagnation that had been reached on the western front. From Cambrai in 1917 to the offensive through central Syria in Assad in 2017 and through World War II, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iran-Iraq war or Operation Desert Storm. The basic principles of using the tank have been maintained.

Battle tanks are means designed to be used en masse, concentrated at one point on the enemy line in combination with other means on the battlefield and supported by other weapons in order to penetrate the enemy line and maneuver behind it to achieve victory at a tactical or operational level. Politics, however, can force planners to use tank droppers, so all the advantages of having an armoured war doctrine and training to operate as part of a much larger unit such as a battalion or brigade are lost, and only the technical skills of the crews themselves become dependent.

Think now of the performance of the Turkish runners, who are assumed to be much better trained than any of the rivals they faced around Al-Bab. Is there anything they have done in Syria that a crew of novice runners could not have done with a T-55 from the IS? It doesn’t take a lot of training to devote yourself solely to acting in platoon-sized units in which each car maintains a static position to fire on targets or to provide suppression fire during an assault. That only requires minimal communication and knowing how to shoot and move the vehicle to a basic level, nothing more. They could really have done the same with a mobile artillery system and with much less risk to the Turkish military operating from a greater distance.

It is true that, especially in urban combat or in asymmetric scenarios, it is necessary to send battle tanks with the sole purpose of providing fire support, as they are the only means capable of getting into the rubble, barricades and so on and to perform tense shooting. Faced with this situation, what must be done is to look for positions as safe as possible so as not to expose the chariots, constantly maneuver to prevent the enemy from fixing a position with their ATGMs and, above all, take full advantage of the protection offered by the infantry that must accompany the chariots.

In addition, knowing without doubt that the EI used intensively both ATGM and IED or vehicle bombs, there is no explanation for the absence of active protection systems or additional shielding in the Turkish Leopard 2A4. In fact, it would not even have been a major investment, as only the units deployed in Syria would have needed upgrading.

Throughout Operation Euphrates Shield we have seen on numerous occasions how Turkish battle tanks were used for long periods of time as artillery systems: Why expose a valuable Leopard 2A4 by performing direct fire when you can simply place a series of reconnaissance units with a direct link to artillery or aviation? Using Leopards 2A4 in such a way does not seem to make much sense or present significant advantages, with mortars, artillery or aviation being more appropriate to eliminate opportunity targets, while Leopards 2A4 and VCI are used in direct support work only during assaults.

Engineers and positions

Erwin Rommel said in “The Infantry Attacks” that sweat saved blood. He rightly expounded through many of his experiences in World War I as having built shooter pits more than a metre deep – despite being very tired after the fighting – he had saved his men more than once from being killed by the action of enemy artillery. Sweat saves blood, and with inexpensive means, alternative shooting positions could have been built more often, much less exposed, which would have saved lives and material. It is true that Turkey did not recognise more than 71 casualties in the whole operation – a very doubtful figure – but even so, it could have been less.

Engineers could also have contributed their experience in building more and better shooting positions, observation posts, trenches and so on. Building barriers at the cost of accumulating mountains of earth is not a bad option when you don’t have much time, but if you expect to have to open fire from a position over several days you could have excavated more complex shooting positions that would allow battle tanks to adopt the two positions: One with only the periscope of the commander looking out to observe and another in which only a small part of the tower appears above ground level to make fire.

The problem of the construction of positions has not only affected the Leopard 2A4: there are stills that show how a BMP-1 bomb  IS was able to enter a small position of the Turkish army and rebels in which there were about ten armored vehicles in row. This type of error should be avoided by constructing positions that minimize the damage caused by the explosion of a VBIED and facilitate neutralizing it in time.

Constructions of this type could have avoided many of the impacts that occurred on the Leopard 2A4 in Syria and, although some positions of the type described have been seen, they were generally the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, M88A1 and Bergepanzer Leopard recovery cars had been deployed in the OEE. The fact that up to ten Leopard 2A4 battle tanks were left abandoned for several days is a calamity that could probably have been avoided if there had been a necessary number of combat engineers able to take advantage of the recovery vehicles at their disposal. Not only could they have rescued the damaged wagons, but they would also have improved the operability of the entire force by clearing the battlefield of explosive ordnance and mines before, during and after operations.

Altogether, the operations around Al-Bab demonstrate the need to assign to the forces, however small a GdT, a contingent of combat engineers to facilitate mobility and recovery operations.


Coordinating regular and irregular forces is always complicated. The case of Turkey and the FSA has not been an exception and errors in coordination are behind the destruction, capture or rendering useless of several Turkish Leopard 2A4s.

First, idomatic and cultural differences must be taken into account. They can be remedied by translators, goodwill and common sense, but they are an important factor in generating what Clausewitz called “friction”. Second, allies such as the ELS are ill-equipped irregular forces that depend on third parties for supplies and training and very often lack heavy equipment, so they have to delegate fire support during attacks to others. This is partly due to their inability to handle complex military equipment, partly due to the fear of their own sponsors that they will gain too much power. This deficiency is sometimes critical, especially when they have to bear the weight of the fighting, even though they have the support of a regular army such as the Turkish army, when logic always indicates the opposite. Thirdly, the will to fight, the tenacity and the preparation of irregular troops is often very low, forcing the forces themselves to get involved beyond what was originally planned, creating situations of risk.

Let’s remember that during the battle for Mosul in 2016 the IS was able to keep units endowed with ATGMs hidden in tunnels while Iraqi Army troops supported by Al-Hashd Al Sha’abi and Kataeb Hezbollah advanced toward the city center. Subsequently they were able to leave their shelters without much opposition and hit several M1A1 Abrams battle tanks in full exhaust of the engine, in the rear, an area in which a missile has them all with it to produce a catastrophic impact that annihilates the armored. It will be said that it is inevitable to suffer casualties, especially in urban combat, but you must also be aware that, with proper recognition, these are reduced significantly.

In the case of the Turkish Leopards, a proper reconnaissance would have prevented the loss of several cars. Unfortunately, by entrusting these tasks to the Allies, with hardly any material or exploration units worthy of the name, the entire operation was jeopardized. Thus, although it is logical to deploy small GdTs in missions supporting irregular forces, the size and composition of these deployments must always be sufficient to act as autonomous units capable of protecting themselves in the event that the allied irregular forces flee or leave gaps in their lines, which is not uncommon.

The other possibility is to reinforce the allies with armoured material capable of providing fire support during assault operations as a way of avoiding the use of their own battle tanks, although neither the logistical nor human capacity of these groups augurs a great result, except after investing precious time and money in training.

Turkish Leopard 2A4 captured by Islamic State. Source - Amaq.
Turkish Leopard 2A4 captured by Islamic State. Source – Amaq.

Turkish Leopard 2A4 in Syria: Conclusions

Conflicts such as the Sirius are, in comparison with conventional conflicts, tactically unpredictable. This makes it necessary to take additional precautions in terms of recognition and construction of positions and, as we have seen, also tests the capacity for coordination between different types of forces. In addition, for the regular armies involved, political impediments are a difficult hurdle to overcome, as they force means such as battleships into small units and unnatural tasks, eliminating most of the intrinsic advantages of the vehicles themselves and their prepared crews.

In this case, although Leopard 2A4s are not bad cars at all, neither the setting, nor the tactics used nor the supports were the most appropriate. It is possible that an adequate investment in active protection systems or additional shielding – even handmade, as did the BRIAC Guadarrama XII in Spain as a test with a 2E Leopard – would have resulted in another. However, no one should be fooled. Technique can alleviate some effects, but never compensate for errors in doctrine and the use of means.

The main threat to armoured personnel in recent conflicts – and foreseeably in future ones – comes, in this order, from ATGMs, mines/IEDs and RPGs. Most casualties can be avoided if extreme diligence, alternative shooting positions are used, and wagons do not spend too much time exposing their tower while pointing or watching, a mission for which there are more suitable means. In this sense, the construction of buried hull down positions and the ability to recover the cars on the battlefield is vital – as it has always been since there have been cars – and must be the mission of engineers who must be an integral part of the GdT.

On the other hand, these GdTs can be reduced to a minimum by relying on allied forces, but they must always be able to ensure 360° surveillance capable of detecting anti-tank threats hundreds or thousands of metres away. This, moreover, is independent of the use of battle tanks, because although enemies such as IS often lack artillery, use ATGM not only against tanks but also against almost any type of target, such as light armor, command posts, and so on.

Battle tanks have an undeniable psychological effect on both the enemy and the allies. However, using these systems to make fire support – and more from static positions – does not make much sense. Especially when you have aviation and artillery.

There is no doubt that the Turkish Army has taken note of Al-Bab’s lessons, as many of the mistakes were not repeated in the time when Operation Euphrates Shield continued to operate. These lessons, however, do not concern only Turkey. Just look at what has happened in other parts of Syria, in Iraq or the problems of the Saudis in Yemen. Everything indicates that in the coming years, the use of ATGMs – as has been the norm since the Lebanon War of 2006 – will continue to increase. Protection against this threat is only possible if the appropriate technical means (additional armour, reagents and active protection systems) are adopted and if the doctrine is updated accordingly. Quite the opposite, as happened in Al-Bab, leads to disaster.


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