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Has France Created One of History’s Deadliest Tanks?

The LeClerc tank is maneuverable and agile, but despite weighing just 55 tonnes, it packs a punch befitting a heavyweight.

Leclerc, a remarkable French tank: “I’d rather have a German division in front of me than a French division in back of me.”

It is one of Patton’s most famous—for infamous if you’re a Francophile—remarks. Shortly after I left the U.S. Air Force, I shared this phrase with a fellow military veteran and USC classmate. His response was, “Not fair to the French, Chris.” He then praised Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque and the 2nd Armored Division. General Leclerc was, as it turns out, a hero. Not only was he appointed Marshal of France posthumously in 1952, but a main battle tank was also named in his honor. The latter distinction places Leclerc in the same category as General Patton, which will likely make Old Blood and Guts roll in his grave, but such is life.

Now, let’s examine Leclerc’s armored namesake.

The AMX-30 was superseded by the Leclerc main combat tank in 1966. Although the Leclerc was conceived in 1983, it did not enter production until 1991 and entered service the following year, missing France’s participation in Operation Desert Storm.

The tank was made by Nexter Systems, formerly GIAT Industries, and formed in 1973 in Roanne, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France. Nexter employs 4,000 people and is a subsidiary of the KNDS defense industry joint holding company with headquarters in Amsterdam.

In 2007, the last 862 Leclerc tanks produced by Nexter rolled off the assembly lines. Yet, the firm can resume production of the armored animals if required. According to the Army Recognition website, there are now 200 Leclerc tanks in the French Army and 390 in the United Arab Emirates. The Emiratis donated 80 Leclercs, or Zayed tanks in their language, to Jordan in 2020. I believe a small amount of Dubai oil money goes a long way toward developing such kindness.

The final product is remarkable. My colleague at 19 Forty-Five, Brent M. Eastwood, notes that the Leclerc’s weight of 55 tonnes makes it comparatively light compared to other MBTs. It contributes to its agility and maneuverability. Other NATO partners’ tanks are considerably heavier than the M1 Abrams: the British Challenger 2 weighs 71 tonnes, the German Leopard 2 weighs 62.3 tonnes, and the American M1 Abrams is a massive 73.6 tonnes. A diesel engine with eight cylinders and 1,500 horsepower propels the Leclerc to a top speed of 72 kilometers per hour on the paved ground and 50 kilometers per hour off-road.

But the Leclerc is not lightweight when it comes to its weaponry. The 120mm CN120-26 smoothbore main cannon, also known as the Modèle F1, has a rate of fire of 12 rounds per minute and a range of 4 kilometers. In addition, the tank can fire while moving at high speed. It can “fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” in the iconic words of Muhammad Ali. For anti-aircraft defense, secondary armaments include a coaxial Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” 12.7 mm machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun.

In terms of survivability, the crew is protected by a sophisticated composite modular armor system comprised of steel, ceramics, and Kevlar. This armor system may adapt to the predicted dangerous environment and quickly replace damaged components.

As previously stated, the Leclerc did not participate in Desert Storm; hence, the tank has never been involved in tank-on-tank fights comparable to those of the Abrams and Challenger. Nonetheless, this does not mean the French tank has not proven useful on the battlefield. As part of the Saudi-led coalition combating the Houthi uprising in Yemen, the UAE has deployed at least 70 Zayed tanks to the troubled Arab country. In August 2015 and December 2018, these countries conducted large military offensives. About the 2015 operation, according to journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet of the French publication opinion:

“According to French sources, the Leclerc gives the UAE army complete satisfaction.” Three of them would have been hit by the enemy, the Houthi militias: two by mines or IEDs that damaged the tank’s undercarriage without destroying it, and one by RPG fire that the protective grid system appears to have thwarted. The Leclercs frequently fired their 120-millimeter cannon, which served as their “baptism by fire.”

Even though, as stated previously, Nexter Systems has not produced any new Leclerc tanks since 2007, the company is not resting on its laurels. In June 2018, at the Eurosatory 2022 defense expo in Paris, they debuted the XLR, their newest and most advanced tank model. The Defense Blog’s Dylan Malyatov elaborates:

“This is the most significant modification to the tank in over a decade…

The Leclerc XLR already possesses a level of capability and performance that other main battle tanks of its generation are just beginning to incorporate through their modernization plans, such as…

Incorporation of the Leclerc tank into the Scorpion joint battle group (JBG) through standard avionics systems (supplied by Thales), The Leclerc tank will completely integrate into the collaborative fighting environment because of the Scorpion information and communication system (SICS) and the new CONTACT radio. Last, the armament was modified by installing a remotely operated turret armed with 7.62 mm ammunition.

Older Leclercs are shown in the Musée des Blindés (Museum of Armored Vehicles) in Saumur, France, for the benefit of military history museum enthusiasts.

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