Navy’s Fleet Support Unit – South East has completed a very unusual job for their Army friends.
Over the course of several months, the unit has been sectioning a retired Leopard Main Battle Tank for the Army.
Since it arrived in October 2017 the Leopard has been worked on every week in between other Navy duties and priorities. It took until the following March to finish splitting the hull. Given the smaller section to be cut from the turret, this took from April to May, but this was by no means any less challenging. Now complete, this particular Leopard is only one of a handful of tanks in the world to be sectioned in this way. Soon it will return to its home at the Australian Army Tank Museum, Puckapunyal, Victoria.
While definitely a novelty, from an engineering perspective the Leopard was something very different to what the sailor-fabricators had previously worked on. Despite being lightly armoured for its time, the sheer thickness of the frontal areas of the hull and turret was unlike anything encountered before, and it was of interest to the fabricators to examine just how the vehicle was constructed.
In scoping the job the FSU team identified a number of challenges.
“It was just a lot of work getting it ready for the cut” said Leading Seaman Kevin Wilmshurst.
”We had to think of how to support the torsion bars, how and where to place supports, drawing out the line, drilling through to align the bolts to bolt the supports on. We kept on going through drill bits.”
The fabricators had to carefully plot the cut lines so that important parts, especially in the turret, engine mounts or areas of particular strength were not cut unnecessarily.
“We used about 30 disks on the hull. When the disk went down and I wasn’t getting through I put a new one on but when I started the next cut I’d put an old one back on,” said LS Wilmshurst.
“We budgeted for about 140 disks,” said Lieutenant Mark Duncan, Production Manager, FSU-SE.
The turret which is the thickest part of the tank, 70mm, took about 20 twelve inch disks and half a dozen fourteen inch disks.
“We’ve done well; only a grinder was needed as this left a much cleaner cut than a Broco (exothermic) cutter,”said LS Wilmshurst.
The heat generated from the cutting was amplified at times from having to work in a cramped environment, which made the task rather uncomfortable, even with protective equipment and ventilation. The team designed and built custom stands for the tank to sit on as once it was cut the opposite track would no longer be supporting it, yet the hull would still be expected to support half of the turret. The uneven cut also meant there was an imbalance of weight of the two parts so the stands had to be carefully positioned.
Once returned, the Army will install the engine and gearbox back into the tank. It will then be used as a museum piece and an educational tool for tank crews in training.
LCDR McGuinness said FSU was pleased to be approached to conduct this unique task.
“Certainly there were challenges involved in determining the best method to get the job done, but the FSU team was able to experiment on a former range target turret provided by the Army School of Armour in 2017, and devised a strategy from there.”
The Leopard was in Australian service from 1976 to 2007. The Australian Army acquired 103 Leopards including 13 support variants.