MILAN, Italy — German arms maker Rheinmetall wants to build a factory in Ukraine that could produce up to 400 of the company’s envisioned Panther KF51 main battle tanks annually. Some land warfare experts argue those plans are iffy, at best, pointing to pitfalls ranging from site security to supply-chain risks.
Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger broached the subject with German media numerous times since the beginning of the year, saying the company is negotiating with Ukraine about the possibility of investing €200 million ($215 million) in a brand new tank plant that could equip Kyiv’s forces with heavy armor.
Asked for details by Defense News, a company spokesman confirmed the plans but demurred on specifics, pointing to Papperger’s interview on the subject with the Rheinische Post newspaper.
“For business reasons and in view of Ukraine’s sensitive security interests, we are however, unable to provide further details at this time on the status of talks and the possible establishment of manufacturing capabilities in the country,” spokesman Jan-Phillipp Weisswange wrote in an email.
Several elements of the proposal have left experts skeptical. For one, the envisioned production rate appears unrealistically high, according to Mark F. Cancian, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“To produce 400 complete tanks per year is a huge endeavor,” he said. “By comparison, the U.S. roughly currently manufactures 100 per year. The Ukrainian Army, in contrast, had a total of about 800 before the war erupted. Assuming a lifespan of about 20 years, that requires procuring around 40 tanks a year, not 400,” he said.
Cancian added that €200 million as an investment to build production capabilities sounds far too low for an endeavor of this magnitude and duration.
Notably, Rheinmetall’s plans, at least whatever is public about them, are notional and may be aimed more at a post-war Ukraine. Perhaps most importantly, it remains unclear whether the goal is to erect a full-scale production plant or a potentially smaller assembling facility.
Marta Kepe, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation, said that pre-building parts in Germany and doing the final assembly and qualification in Ukraine carries the risk associated with shipping sensitive goods to a war zone. In contrast, fully building the vehicle in Ukraine could alleviate these difficulties and in the longer-term also possibly benefit other European countries.
“Producing the Panther in Ukraine would mean that Germany along other European states would not have to hand over the platforms in their inventories to Ukraine, thus preserving their own deterrence and defense capabilities, while assisting the country,” she noted.
Rheinmetall’s newest tank is essentially still a concept weapon, unveiled at last summer’s Eurosatory defense exhibition in Paris. The Panther KF51, which in technical terms is actually a turret and not a complete tank, is based on the hull of the Leopard 2A4 fitted with a new turret, housing an auto-loaded 130 mm caliber main gun. By the company’s own account, the design will take until 2026 to reach full technical maturity.
Producing the Panther in Ukraine would likely require the German government’s approval, a step carrying political risk in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Cancian pointed out that Ukraine is in the process of amassing different styles of tanks from donor countries that could prove difficult to maintain, and adding yet another type could exacerbate the problem.
In that spirit, Rheinmetall’s proposal makes little sense, he argued. It would be more useful to build or modernize a plant to upgrade the country’s T72 main battle tanks, Cancian said.
“Ukraine possesses a lot more of these Soviet-era vehicles and could modernize them for a much lower cost. It would also allow them to possibly enter the world market since many other states have T72s that are becoming obsolete,” he said.
At the same time, a new platform with technological bells and whistles may just be what Ukraine needs in the long run, according to Scott Boston, a senior RAND analyst whose research has focused on land warfare and Russian military capabilities.
“The tank’s new 130mm main armament is going to have a lot of room for future growth,” he said. “Particularly since Russia has lost so much of its modern tank fleet, it will be a very long time before its land force can assemble as large a number of modernized vehicles as they did in the initial months of the invasion last year,” he stated.
There is also a prospect for the Panther to be able to operate robotic platforms, drones and unmanned ground systems, capabilities already designed into the concept tank, Boston said.
Given how experienced Ukrainian forces have become with employing drones on the battlefield, the technology could prove a capability leap, he added.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.