The Ukrainian army’s 47th Mechanized Brigade has maybe 17 Leopard 2A6s left out of the 21 of the high-tech tanks Ukraine got from Germany and Portugal early this year.
The 69-ton, four-person Leopard 2A6 with its extra-long, 55-caliber main gun is one of the best tanks in Russia’s 22-month wider war on Ukraine. But it also is an endangered species in Ukrainian service.
Don’t tell that to the 47th Brigade’s sole tank battalion. The 47th Brigade’s tankers are as aggressive now as they have been at any point in the brigade’s five-month first rotation, which began in early June when the unit led one of the initial—and disastrous—assaults kicking off Kyiv’s long-anticipated southern counteroffensive.
After leading the attack in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast for four months, the 47th Brigade in October redeployed to eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. There, it reinforced the Ukrainian garrison in Avdiivka, which for a month now has been under relentless assault by a multi-brigade Russian force.
The 47th Brigade brought with it its hundred or so American-made M-2 infantry fighting vehicles and its 18 surviving Leopard 2A6s. Arriving on Avdiivka’s vulnerable northern flank, the brigade immediately rolled into action—and promptly lost a Leopard to a lucky shot by a brave Russian infantryman firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the tank’s thinly-armored side.
A Russian drone-operator named Vova was watching the whole time. “The Leopard is fucked up!” Vova shouted into his radio. “The Leopard is fucked up for the first time!”
One of Vova’s comrades was less excitable. “Vova, save your voice,” he intoned over the radio as Vova shouted slurs at the Ukrainian Leopard 2A6 crew, bailing out of its burning vehicle. “There are still a lot of Leopards.”
Sure enough, the 47th Brigade has continued launching local counterattacks, combining its M-2s and Leopard 2A6s in fast-moving assault teams that roll up on Russian positions, fire a few shots then speed away.
The Leopard 2A6 is well-suited to these hit-and-run tactics. It’s fast. More to the point, it’s fast in reverse. NATO-style tanks such as the Leopard 2 tend to have robust reverse gears—unlike Soviet-style tanks, which slow to a crawl whenever their drivers shift into reverse. The big exception is the gas-turbine T-80.
To withdraw from a fight, a Russian tank crew must make an impossible decision. It can reverse. That keeps the tank’s thickest armor—its frontal armor—oriented toward the enemy. But the tank meanwhile slows to maybe three miles per hour, barely a tenth of its best forward speed.
The alternative is to turn around—a maneuver that takes time—and withdraw in a speedy forward gear. But that exposes the tank’s thinnest rear armor to the enemy. Either way, a Russian tank is extremely vulnerable while retreating.
A Leopard 2A6 by contrast can keep its best-protected side to the enemy and still speed along at 20 miles per hour in reverse. That nimbleness starkly was on display just before Saturday, as a hunter-killer team from the 47th Brigade—at least one missile-armed M-2 and at least one Leopard 2A6—raided Russian positions outside Avdiivka.
As a Russian drone watched, the Ukrainian team raced toward the Russians, barreling right through apparent near-misses by artillery. An M-2 ate some return fire that immobilized it, while a Leopard fired a few rounds and beat a hasty retreat—in reverse. A second M-2 rolled in to tow away the damaged IFV.
It’s hard to assess the human losses on either side, and equally hard to judge whether the Ukrainian raid achieved its objectives. It’s worth noting, however, what Russian observers have been saying.
“Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces counterattacked in the Avdiivka direction on Nov. 10 and reportedly recaptured previously lost positions,” the Washington D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War noted. “Another milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces are consistently trying to counterattack to regain lost positions.”
Fast mechanized raids are one way the Ukrainians blunt Russian advances around Avdiivka. The raids are sustainable only because the 47th Brigade is as aggressive as ever. Despite months on the front line. And despite its dwindling tank inventory.
But don’t discount the critical role the Leopard 2A6’s fast reverse gears play. The 47th Brigade’s tankers can hit and run … because they can run without getting killed.