Leclerc: Did France build one of the best tanks in the world?

Leclerc – An incredible tank from France: “I’d rather have a German division in front of me than a French division behind me.”

This is one of the works of General Patton most famous quotes — or infamous, if you are a Francophile. Shortly after leaving the United States Air Force, I shared this quote with a friend of mine from USC who was another Army veteran, and he replied, “It’s not fair to the French, Chris”. He proceeded to praise the virtues of the Free French general Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque and the 2n/a Armored division. It turns out that General Leclerc was indeed a hero. He was so revered that not only was Leclerc posthumously named Marshal of France in 1952, he even had a main battle tank named after him. This last honor places Leclerc in the same category as General Patton, which probably rolls Old Blood and Guts in his grave, but those are the breaks.

Now let’s take a look at Armored namesake of Leclerc.

Origins of the Leclercs

The Leclerc main battle tank replaced the AMX-30which had entered service in 1966. Although originally designed in 1983, the Leclerc did not enter production until 1991 and was not commissioned until the following year, thus missing out on France’s participation in Operation Desert Storm.

The tank was made by Nexter systems – formerly known as GIAT Industries and created in 1973 – which is located in the town of Roannein the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes central-southeastern region of France. Nexter currently employs 4,000 people and is in turn part of the KNDS joint defense industry holding company headquartered in Amsterdam.

Nexter has built a total of 862 Leclerc tanks, with the last rolling off the assembly lines in 2007. However, the company still retains the ability to resume production of the armored beasts if called upon to do so. According to Army reconnaissance websitethere are currently 200 Leclercs in the French army’s tank fleet and another 390 in the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates. In 2020, the Emiratis donated 80 of their Leclercs — either Zayed tanks in their own language — in Jordan. A little Dubai oil money goes a long way to fostering such generosity, I think.

The end product is impressive. The Leclerc weighs 55 tons, which, like my 19fortyfive coworker Brent M. Eastwood emphasizes, makes it relatively light compared to other MBTs. This helps to make it more agile and maneuverable. The tanks of other NATO allies are much heavier: British Challenger 2 weighs 71 tons, the German leopard 2 weighs 62.3 tons, and the battle-hardened American M1 Abrams tips the scales at 73.6 tons. The Leclerc is powered by a 1,500 horsepower 8-cylinder Hyperbar diesel engine at a maximum speed of 72 km/h on asphalt surfaces and 50 km/h in cross-country.

However, the Leclerc is no lightweight when it comes to weaponry. It packs a heavy punch in the form of a 120mm CN120-26 smoothbore main gun, AKA the Model F1, which has a rate of fire of 12 rounds per minute and a range of 4 km. In addition, the tank is able to fire while moving at high speed. In the immortal words of Muhammad Ali, he can “flutter like a butterfly and sting like a bee. The secondary armaments consist of a coaxial Browning M2 “My Deuce” 12.7 mm machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun for anti-aircraft protection.

Survivability-wise, the crew is protected by a composite advanced modular armor system which combines steel, ceramic and Kevlar. This armor system can be customized to fit the intended threat environment, and damaged systems are easily replaced.

Field performance

As previously reported, the Leclerc missed Desert Storm, so the tank still has to engage in the kind of epic tank vs tank battles that the Abrams and Challenger have. However, this does not mean that the French tank has not proven itself in the field. As part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates has deployed at least 70 of its Zayed tanks to the beleaguered Arab nation. They engaged in major military offensives in August 2015 and December 2018. According to the journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet from the French newspaper opinion concerning the 2015 operation:

“According to French sources, the Leclerc gives complete satisfaction to the Emirati army. three of them were reportedly hit by the enemy, the Houthi militias: 2 by mines or IEDs, which damaged the landing gear, without destroying the tank, and another by RPG fire that the protective grid system seems to have stopped. The Leclercs opened fire several times with their 120 mm gun, which was their baptism of fire.

In the future

Although, as noted earlier, Nexter Systems hasn’t built new Leclerc tanks since 2007, that doesn’t mean the company is resting on its laurels. Last June they unveiled their latest and greatest version of the tank, labeled XLR, at the Eurosatory 2022 defense exhibition in Paris. Dylan Malyasov of Defense Blog clarifies:

“[I]This is the biggest tank upgrade in over a decade…the Leclerc XLR already has a level of functionality and performance that other main battle tanks of its generation are just beginning to match. implemented thanks to their respective modernization programs… The Leclerc tank was integrated into the Joint Battle Group (JBG) SCORPION via vetronic systems common to the various platforms (supplied by Thales). Thanks to the SCORPION information and communication system (SICS) and the new CONTACT radio, the Leclerc tank will be fully integrated into the collaborative combat environment… Finally, the armament has also been modernized with the installation of a remotely operated turret armed with a 7.62 mm caliber gun.”

Image: Creative Commons.

By the way, for the benefit of military history museum enthusiasts, older Leclercs are on display at the Tank Museum (Museum of Armored Vehicles) in Saumur, France.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal Law Enforcement Officer, and private military contractor (with assignments in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of United States Naval Order (US). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, restaurants, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and professional sports in Washington DC.