France and Germany sign off on future battle tank system

France and Germany sign off on future battle tank system

PARIS — France and Germany have formalized an agreement to develop a future battle-tank system, with the countries’ defense ministers signing off on an industrial work-share pact here on Friday.

The countries’ defense firms – KNDS, Rheinmetall and Thales, among others – can now get to work on proposals, which are expected in the coming months, French Armed Forces Minister Sebastian Lecornu said at a briefing. Germany is leading the project and will be in charge of awarding contracts for the first demonstrator phase by the end of this year.

Lecornu and his German counterpart Boris Pistorius in the past eight months have managed to reboot the project known as the Main Ground Combat System, which languished for years amid wrangling over which countries’ industries would get to work on what. The ministers, who have said they get along well, last month agreed on divvying up the workload equally between both nations.

The political agreement “will force the different industrials to work together,” Lecornu said, adding that cooperation can be decreed, or created by setting a concrete industrial target. “We can’t have this type of partnership without also creating a common culture between the industries.”

Lecornu said lessons were learned from discussions around the joint Future Combat Air System, where in some cases industrial agreement was reached before German, Spanish and French air forces were asked for their input. That is “out of the question” for the MGCS project, which is based on the needs of the countries’ two armies rather than industrial ideas, the French minister said.

Officials of the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, have stressed the modular character of the envisioned system. Tank variants with different specializations, working in concert on the battlefield, will all share a common undercarriage, according to a statement on the Bundeswehr website. The concept has yet to be proven, and as of now there are no studies or models yet about a system demonstrator for the program as a whole, it adds.

Designing a completely new land combat weapon will entail pulling together the operational experience from tank warfare of the past years, including lessons learned from Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders, which has seen hundreds of main battle tanks destroyed or incapacitated.

France and Germany will be designing “not so much the tank of the future, but the future of the tank,” Lecornu said. He said the U.S. hasn’t yet started considering the post-Abrams era, while Russia is experiencing “great difficulty” moving from its current generation of tanks to a successor.

Germany is counting on the future combat system to replace its Leopard tanks sometime in the 2040s, while France is looking for the MGCS to replace its Leclerc fleet.

Competition in the tank domain will become “tougher and tougher” towards 2040, with giants such as India and others “waking up” and potentially flooding the market for land-forces equipment in coming years, according to Lecornu. The focus on technological and innovative breakthroughs should position the MGCS in a different market segment that will boost its export prospects, the minister said.

Lecornu said work on the planned demonstrator will be split 50-50, as will future production capacity. Still, he said industrial distribution wasn’t at the core of the memorandum of understanding signed on Friday, but rather the two governments saying that they need the same tank in 2040.

The joint French-German tank effort is “something we very much welcome,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Germany on Thursday, before the agreement was signed in Paris. “It will make NATO stronger and it will help allies to get new and modern capabilities.” Cooperation will help overcome defense-industry fragmentation, the NATO chief said.

Multiple other countries have expressed interest in the MGCS program, including Italy as well as countries in Eastern Europe, Pistorius said at the briefing in Paris. He said making Europe stronger also means including more partners.

The project will be divided into eight pillars, including for the main platform, the turret and gun combination, new types of fires, connectivity and electronic warfare. While some of those pillars are obvious areas for French-German cooperation, for some the leadership will be “purely national,” based among other things on industrial experience, according to Lecornu.

Tanks’ vulnerability to drone attacks as well as the waning effectiveness of 120mm cannons against ever-improving armor are among the pitfalls on the German military’s radar, according to Bundeswehr.

With a decision on a next cannon still outstanding, what’s clear is that it will need bigger projectiles with higher velocity, one unnamed German acquisition official is quoted as saying. Calibers of 130mm or 140mm are being considered.

According to the Bundeswehr statement, it is “highly probable” that MGCS will use some kind of hybrid diesel-electric propulsion system. A near-silent electric drive will be harder to hear on the battlefield, a tactical advantage during certain operations, the thinking in Berlin goes.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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