With the joint development of a new main battle tank, Germany and France wanted to set an example for stronger European defense. But six years after the start, the project is on the brink.
A few days ago, Sabine Thillaye burst at the National Assembly. If the opposition is now demanding the end of the privileged partnership with Germany, says the visibly annoyed member of the government majority, then they are laying the ax on the European project. Previously, MPs from the major opposition parties from the left and right had called for a stop to Franco-German armament projects. The excitement in Paris is currently great, as is the distrust of the German partners.
Six years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron promised a billion-dollar project with great appeal. In the summer of 2017, just a few weeks after Macron was elected president, they agreed to jointly develop the next generation of battle tanks, the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS).
According to the plan at the time, the MGCS was to consist of battle tanks, unmanned escort vehicles, drones and an information network, and from 2035 it would replace both the French Leclerc battle tank and its German competitor, the Leopard 2. Together with the project for a Franco-German air defense system (FCAS), Paris and Berlin wanted to send a clear signal to their European partners: the continent’s joint defense capability should finally be filled with life.
With the MGCS, both countries started the third attempt to jointly develop a main battle tank that should become a model for the whole of Europe. Shortly after the founding of the Bundeswehr in 1955 and in the 1970s, there were negotiations about a Franco-German main battle tank – but both projects failed in the end due to national reservations.
Avoid past mistakes
In order to reduce the dispute that is common in international armaments projects, Macron and Merkel have linked the tank project to the FCAS fighter jet project. Germany and France also want to jointly develop and produce the next generation of combat aircraft. In order to keep the balance between both nations, France should take the lead in the FCAS and Germany in the MGCS.
It was also agreed that both countries should each receive half of the orders. That initially seemed unproblematic, because the German tank manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and its French competitor, the state-owned company Nexter, had founded a joint holding company in 2015. But in 2019, Rheinmetall also joined the MGCS. This gave the project a German preponderance from the French point of view.
Defense industry with record sales
There can be no talk of a bad mood at Rheinmetall in Unterlüß in the Lüneburg Heath. Today’s main battle tanks are built here. Around 2,400 employees work in three shifts in the province of Lower Saxony. Production is in full swing: Leopard 2s for the Ukraine are rolling out of the factory here, as are main battle tanks for the German armed forces and their allies. Because the order books are full, the company wants to ramp up production in the coming months.
In NATO, the German battle tanks have been coveted for decades – 13 other European countries now have the up to 70-ton giants. Ralf Raths, head of the German tank museum in Munster, calls the Leopard the “VW Golf of the battle tank market”. “It has a classic diesel engine, a classic modern gun and normal state-of-the-art armor. He didn’t do anything particularly well, but the package was perfect.”
France under pressure
KMW and Rheinmetall, who build the tank together, want to continue the Leopard’s success story with the new 2A8 version. The 2A8 is the biggest evolution in 15 years. With it, the Leopard will in future be able to destroy anti-tank missiles as they approach. In two to three years, an improved version should also be available that takes further lessons from the Ukraine war into account. The Bundeswehr ordered the first 2A8 a few weeks ago.
In France, the success stories from Germany are worrying politicians. It is feared that a continuously further developed Leopard 2 could torpedo the German-French prestige project MGCS. Should the 2A8 and its planned successors also meet with interest among the allies in Europe, there would be no need for further new tank development, at least in the medium term. But not only the Leopard retrofit threatens the joint project. At an armaments fair last year, Rheinmetall presented the Panther, a main battle tank that the listed armaments company developed on its own. This also caused a stir in France.
Dispute over the distribution of orders
Unlike Germany, France is under time pressure when it comes to tanks. While the German tank industry is producing at full speed, Leclerc production in France ended 17 years ago. After the end of the Cold War, France – like Germany – massively reduced the number of its main battle tanks. In addition, France could only sell the model in the United Arab Emirates. France will need a replacement for the Leclerc by 2035 at the latest.
However, when and if the MGCS will be available to the armed forces is currently completely open. The supplier industry expects delays of several years – instead of 2035, the system could not be ready until 2040 or even later. “The main point of contention is the distribution of orders for the various components of the heart of the MGCS project, i.e. the next-generation main battle tank,” says Jacob Ross, France expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “For example, there is the question of who is developing the cannon for this tank, which has not yet been clarified even after months.”
Paradigm shift in procurement
Negotiations on the MGCS have been deadlocked for a long time, and even a possible failure of the project is being discussed more and more openly. From the point of view of German industry representatives, cooperation with France does not appear necessary from an economic and technological point of view. German tank builders could probably develop the next generation on their own.
The members of the Defense Committee in Paris reacted correspondingly nervously after Defense Minister Boris Pistorius ordered a paradigm shift in arms procurement for the troops a few weeks ago. Solutions that are available on the market should always be given preference and the time factor should be given the highest priority, according to the minister. The new Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, General Carsten Breuer, spoke before the defense committee in Paris of the “end of the gold edge solutions”.
The issue of MGCS is now being discussed at the highest level. French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu is coming to Berlin on Monday to talk to Pistorius about a solution to the main battle tank dilemma. “The announcements made by Defense Minister Pistorius and the Inspector General caused a great deal of unrest in Parliament,” says Sabine Thillaye, describing the mood on the French side. Armaments cooperation with Germany is now being fundamentally called into question, and not only on the political fringes. “Even in the moderate parties,” says Thillaye, “the reservations are growing.”
Secretary of Defense Lecornu has meanwhile passed the ball to the military. The two army chiefs in Germany and France are to define the military expectations of MGCS six years after the start of the project. “To clearly define what we expect from this ‘tank of the future’: is it manned or unmanned? Can he pilot a drone swarm or not? And what armament do the military need?” These are the questions Lecornu wants to discuss with his German counterpart on Monday.
But the Frenchman apparently no longer believes in the original schedule. In the military planning law for the coming years, which was passed by the National Assembly a few days ago, money has already been earmarked for the modernization of the Leclerc tanks. The law does not contain any details on the MGCS.