The Leclerc program’s development has been treated elsewhere in depth by Marc Chassillan, Stephane Ferrard and Gerard Turbé, and what follows is a synopsis for the Anglophone reader. The AMX 30 series was France’s first main battle tank program.
From EPC to the AMX Leclerc
The Leclerc program’s development has been treated elsewhere in depth by Marc Chassillan, Stephane Ferrard and Gerard Turbé, and what follows is a synopsis for the Anglophone reader. The AMX 30 series was France’s first main battle tank program. Despite its success, by the time it entered the advanced trials phase in 1964 ideas for its successor were already being sketched on DEFA’s drawing boards. This project received official sanction under the general designation Engin Principal de Combat (EPC) or main combat vehicle. The term ‘vehicle’ was open to discussion in the EPC concept; it could be either a tank or a helicopter or a totally new kind of vehicle yet to be defined. Some thirteen years passed before it received an official cahier des charges in 1977. The EPC emerged as a tank, but one built under a very different concept than that
of the simple AMX 30. Superior technology, complexity and a higher unit cost were factors expected to come part and parcel with a design that would be capable of fighting superior numbers.
In 1978 a Franco-German partnership was briefly undertaken to build a common MBT. The Germans, far ahead in the development of the Leopard 2, offered the French the development of part of the turret, naming the common design Napoléon. The French proposed developing the entire turret, and to leave the hull design alone to the Germans. Unfortunately the two allies never came to an agreement, but each came to similar conclusions regarding the specification of their future tank requirements. France needed a new tank more urgently due to the obsolescence of the 105mm armed AMX 30, but in order to preserve its defense industry the new combat platform had to be built in France. France adopted shorter term measures to get a modernised battle tank into service in the meantime, which delayed the EPC’s procurement.
In 1979, the prototype of the AMX 32 was developed, offering significant improvements over the AMX 30. At the same time French army place a tender for the modernization of the AMX 30 to the standard known today as the AMX 30 B2. The technology developed for the AMX 32 was offered for the AMX 30 B2 program, but the French army declined any modifications requiring major redesigns (judging them too expensive), and preferring to save a large part of the budget for the EPC. Deliveries of the production AMX 30 B2 followed in 1982. Even with the upgrades, the AMX 30 B2 held poor odds on a battlefield in face of masses of new Soviet MBTs armed with 125mm guns, adding urgency to the EPC project as the new decade began.
In 1983, the first AMX 40 prototype was built as a high-end medium tank for the export market. The AMX 40 employed a powerful 1100 HP V12X diesel engine coupled with the German ZF LSG 3000 gearbox and the CN120-25 (also known as CN120G1) 120mm smoothbore gun. At a mere 43 tons, the AMX 40 was amongst the best armed vehicles of its size, carrying a conventional 3-man turret based on proven technology and with composite armour on its frontal arc. It incorporated a stabilised commander’s sight that allowed the gun to be laid on the move by the commander and carried its ammunition supply in a vented rotating magazine in the turret bustle. Despite its technical merits the AMX 40 attracted little interest from abroad (GIAT attempts to market the AMX 40 being focused on the Saudi and Egyptian armies). The EPC specification was settled in 1984 as a 120mm gunned, turreted MBT in the 50 tonne class. The projected cost was estimated at roughly 15 Million Francs per unit. A healthy competition between the two GIAT designs was settled by mid-1986 in favour of the design we know now as the Leclerc.
Five years into the EPC program, chassis and turret test bed construction began in 1982-83. Technological changed quickly in early 1980s, and this brought a number of design options forward for the turret. The choice of an unmanned turret was very seriously entertained before the two man turret with autoloader was selected in 1984. Four different hulls test rigs (known as Banc Roulant) were tested to evaluate the engine, transmission and the suspension options. The TSC (Tourelle Système Complet) turret was perfected at the same time, with a two man crew, gun stabilisation and an automatic loading system.
The EPC program was officially renamed AMX Leclerc on January 30th 1986, in honour of Général Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque, the revered commander of the Free French 2e Division Blindée. The decision to name a tank after a great soldier was a departure from normal French practice of employing numerical designations based on the parent design bureau and weight class. That same year, the MSC test bed (Mulet Système Complet) was assembled at the AMX workshops at Satory on the basis of the Banc Roulant 3 and the TSC turret, in order test out the new tank’s basic design features. The MSC hull was similar in size and layout to that of the AMX 40, with six road wheels per side running on a torsion bar suspension system. The TSC turret, despite having an appearance somewhat reminiscent of the Leopard 2 A4 when viewed from the front, was at a closer look a complete departure from any other western MBT design. Because it employed an automatic loading system, the turret crew positions were farther forward in the turret than in previous designs and both positions incorporated extensive vision devices. The turret rear was entirely taken up by the automatic loading system and the gun itself was perfectly balanced on its trunnions for minimum stress on the stabilisation system. The commander’s stabilised panoramic sight dominated the turret roof and a large stabilised gunner’s day/night sight was sunken into the right turret cheek with a thermal gunnery sight on the left. Smaller than contemporary MBTs like the Challenger 1, M1 Abrams or Leopard 2, the MSC was extensively tested between 1986 and 1989.
The first Leclerc prototype saw light in 1989, and it emerged as a compact, very agile and heavily armed battle tank. A high power to weight ratio (25hp/t) was given priority in the design, allowing high speeds and excellent cross country mobility. This translated into an MBT design that would have a better power to weight ratio than other tanks of similar firepower, and better protection per tonne than any other MBT. The single factor that set the Leclerc apart from its peers was not its gun nor its mobility, nor its modular armour design. The design set out by GIAT incorporated a fourth pillar into the armour-protection-mobility balance that had always driven every design tabled by the world’s tank designers. This revolutionary factor was the incorporation of digital technology. The Leclerc design included real-time communication capability between the tank’s sub-systems, which allowed real-time diagnostics of technical status, datalink communication and the use of a battlefield management system. These were weapons for fighting what has come to be known as the digital battle.
Production of 1400 Leclerc tanks was envisaged to allow the replacement of the AMX 30 and AMX 30 B2 on a one for one basis. Development of the Leclerc was expected to continue during production so that the annual batches of 200 vehicles accommodated changes in technology by introducing standardised upgrades. It was intended to upgrade all production vehicles to the final standard once deliveries were complete. This resulted in the production order being planned out on paper on the basis of multiple production batches (or tranches) before the design was finalised.
Leclerc Prototypes and Pre-Production
In 1989, three Leclerc prototypes were produced in the AMX/APX workshop at Satory. In parallel, a fourth prototype was built in the Atelier de Roanne, allowing the workers to acquire production experience and to develop the special tooling required in order to produce the Leclerc. Once delivered, the prototypes underwent intensive tests. In 1990, two additional prototypes were built. Once again, one was made in Roanne in order to prepare the production line. The 1990 prototypes could be identified visually from those built in 1989 by their improved side skirt armour modules. The different prototypes each bore the name of a famous character revered in the French cavalry. P1, registration number 6894-0081 (built at the AMX Satory facility): Arès (god of war) P2, registration number 6894-0082 (built at the AMX Satory facility): Bayard (the fearless knight beyond reproach) P3, registration number 6894-0083 (built at the AMX Satory facility): Carnot (the military engineer and war minister who organised the French Republic’s citizen armies) P4, registration number 6894-0084 (built at the ARE Roanne factory): Duroc (a French Napoleonic general, later entombed next to his friend Napoléon Bonaparte) P5, registration number 6904-0115 (built at the AMX Satory facility): Estienne (the French Great War general, revered in France as the father of the tank) P6, registration number 6904-0116 (built at the ARE Roanne factory): Foch (the French Great War Marshal and polytechnician who was revered as an architect of the final victory of 1918)
Each of the AMX Leclerc prototypes was assigned to a specific range of tests by the DGA in order to qualify a different set of the Leclerc’s design requirements. These included mobility, protection, firepower and electronics trials. Not all prototypes were built with the hydropneumatic suspension, and it is unlikely that all carried the full armoured protection intended for a series Leclerc. The Estienne’s purpose (as an example) was to test the Leclerc’s designed protection against a wide range of battlefield threats and the prototype was eventually heavily damaged validating the design’s armour layout. The trials undertaken by the prototypes remain secret, but some vehicles were extensively modified during the process. The Bayard in particular received modifications to make it nearly equivalent to a much later production vehicle. It was partly for the sake of publicity that the prototypes were named. The prototypes also received official serials (numéros d’ immatriculation) so that the DGA could use them on public roads. For the first years of the Leclerc program, the prototypes were treated in the media and defence press as production vehicles.
The publicity was misleading. The end of the Cold War delayed the Leclerc’s entry into service, and spurred a chain of events calamitous to the new tank’s speedy procurement. The first effect was to slow the first deliveries to the armoured regiments and to prolong the testing phase. When Leclerc production began in 1991-92, the four tank batch-1 was built to test the production process in the different factories and the tanks were used as required by the DGA, STAT and by GIAT as demonstration vehicles. They were never formally issued to any operational regiment. The final unit cost per vehicle grew higher than estimated in 1986, because the order projections for the French army were drastically reduced.
As a second effect of end of the Cold War, the army was cut in size. In 1991 the Arme Blindée Cavalerie started the traumatic process of reduction, a transformation which took years to complete, but which resonated in the army long afterwards. Although it was by then apparent that Leclerc orders would never approach the 1400 units once considered for the French Army, GIAT held out hopes that 650 tanks would be purchased. In the end, budget cuts and political pressure for the rapid reduction in forces resulted in the Leclerc order being reduced to 406 vehicles, all of which were expected to be delivered by 2002.
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