TechReactive armor on Leopard tanks: a new defense against drone threats

Reactive armor on Leopard tanks: a new defense against drone threats

A Leopard 1A5 tank covered with reactive armor blocks somewhere in Ukraine.
A Leopard 1A5 tank covered with reactive armor blocks somewhere in Ukraine.
Images source: © X (formerly Twitter) | Andrei_bt

1:33 PM EDT, May 21, 2024

Ukrainians have been deploying reactive armor tiles on Western tanks and other armored vehicles, which has become a meme. Now, the rumors about covering old Leopard 1 tanks with reactive armor have come true. We explain the reasons for this action and examine whether it is effective.

Using reactive armor tiles on tanks makes a lot of sense even though it is not without its problems. It has become standard for Ukrainians to reinforce Leopard 2A4 tanks, whose primary armor is reflective of the 1980s.

These tiles significantly increase the level of protection against shaped charge warheads (they are particularly effective against simple single-warhead solutions), but their method of operation can be catastrophic for the crew if mounted on vehicles with too thin armor.

Ukrainians are not as catastrophically imaginative as Russians, who mounted reactive armor tiles on BMP series infantry fighting vehicles or UAZ Buchanka cars. Leopard 1 tanks have stronger armor than those (several inches of armored steel reinforced with Lexan panels (one of the polycarbonate variants)). Still, its thickness will be on the borderline of safety when using reactive armor tiles.

Reactive armor on Leopard 1A5 tanks – may protect against a single threat

The revealed photo shows a Leopard 1A5 tank covered with a mix of reactive armor tiles. Some appear to be well-known Kontakt-1 tiles, while others look like those from T-64 tanks, so they might be Ukrainian 'Knife' tiles.

Ukrainians likely decided to use them to increase protection against FPV drones with attached PG-7VL grenades, also used by Russians, capable of penetrating about 20 inches of armored steel. These single-warhead grenades are used extensively on drones, and in such cases, a reactive armor cassette will work.

The situation is worse if the tank is hit by a larger caliber anti-tank guided missile or a missile with a tandem (double) shaped charge. In such a case, the tile and the very thin armor behind it won’t be enough. Similarly, kinetic penetrators like APFSDS (armor-piercing, fin-stabilized, discarding sabot ammunition) also require massive armor for protection.

Reactive armor tiles are cassettes containing explosive material that detonates upon impact by a shaped charge jet. The explosion generates a shock wave and a hail of fragments from the casing, which disperse the shaped charge jet, negating its armor-piercing properties. It is crucial that the tank's armor can withstand the explosion.

For this reason, reactive armor tiles are designed for specific vehicle types, and for example, those used on infantry fighting vehicles like the M2A2 Bradley ODS are different from those on tanks. It's also worth noting that Ukrainians mainly use the Leopard 1A5 tanks for firing support from a few miles away, where the main threat is from drones, as other vehicles like Polish PT-91 Twardy tanks are used for assaults.

Related content