Heavy Revival: A French Leclerc tank participates in an exercise in northern France. Upgrades for the tank are being considered. (FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP)
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PARIS — Land systems specialist Nexter expects to win an order this year to study Leclerc upgrades, reviving a heavy tank seen as the French Army’s statement of serious intent, not just a piece of firepower, Chairman Philippe Burtin said.
The studies will run four to five years and allow “maintaining a main battle tank for the Army at the highest operational level,” Burtin said in an interview ahead of the Eurosatory trade show opening June 16.
France pointedly backed up its troops with the Leclerc and other heavy land weapons in the second UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon in 2006. The Army had insisted on armoring up, as officers said Israeli forces had not been supportive when lightly equipped French troops deployed in a previous UN intervention in the crisis-stricken country.
Preparatory work on the Leclerc will run parallel to expected development of the engin blindé de reconnaissance et de combat (EBRC), a light fighting vehicle.
Engineers will focus on protection, firepower and a digitized turret, looking to share a common technology as they “create” a turret for the light vehicle while upgrading the heavy tank, Burtin said.
The third vehicle in the expected launch of the Army’s long awaited Scorpion modernization program is the véhicule blindé multirole (VBMR), a troop carrier.
Defense officials use the term EBRM referring to both the EBRC combat vehicle and VBMR troop carrier, an industry executive said.
Nexter, Renault Trucks Defense (RTD) and Thales have agreed in an exclusively French deal to work together on the planned two new vehicles, with the two former concentrating on the platforms and the latter focusing on the electronics and network.
“It’s important for the company, and partners RTD and Thales,” Burtin said. “We are making progress. We submitted our second offer at the end of May. The target, as set out by the minister and confirmed by the ministry, is a program launch in 2014.
“The call for tender came at the end of December; we were invited to bid in mid-February,” he said. “That’s a fast process. In this budget law there is just over 1,600 VBMR, because the remaining units are lighter and not included in this phase.
“The contract will cover development, certification, production and maintenance, and will be long term. This is an important program for us; it will deliver the backbone for the Army,” Burtin said.
Industry expects the government to order 1,600 of the new troop carriers for an estimated €2 billion (US $2.7 billion), and 250 combat vehicles in the current budget law. Previously, the government was expected to order 2,080 of the troop carriers, but now the tight budget has raised doubts on the target figure, an executive said.
The companies had to wait at least a couple of years for a Scorpion launch as the government first drew up the white paper for defense and security, and then adopted the 2014-19 multiyear budget law.
That delay raised particular concern for Nexter as the company delivers the last of vehicule blindé de combat d’infanterie (VBCI), an infantry fighting vehicle, next year.
At Eurosatory, Nexter plans to display a version of the vehicule blindé de combat d’infanterie fitted out to show the changes requested by potential export clients.
The export showcase includes an engine power pack favored by the British Army and ergonomic changes.
The land systems sector has seen some shake-up in the last two years, an analyst said, with British Chemring selling its Belgian Macar and Italian Simmel munitions units to Nexter, and the latter’s acquisition of Eurenco from the SNPE group, said Hélène Masson, senior research fellow at think-tank Fondation pour le Récherche Stratégique.
An industry executive said Chemring received bids from ATK, Nammo, Rheinmetall, Oto Melara, and Thales before selecting Nexter.
The world market has seen increasing competition, with volatility in certain segments, Masson said.
“The aim of major European manufacturers is to deploy internationally, by setting up subsidiaries in the main export markets, with German and Italian producers showing a certain dynamism,” she said.
Krauss-Maffei Wegmann set up a factory in Brazil, following in the footsteps of Italian competitor Iveco, while Rheinmetall has set a sales target of 50 percent outside the European Union.
Strengthening industrial presence and technology abroad is a condition for entering the local market set by the client state, which wants know-how and work for domestic industry, Masson said.
Volvo and Rheinmetall are in a favorable position as they have a civil-defense product mix that delivers a counter-cyclical business effect and access to subcontractors set up for the commercial vehicle market. Iveco has a local presence in South America for trucks, she said.
Land system markets are competitive, particularly as the US continues to sell equipment at low cost or delivers for free, Burtin said.
“That was the case in Croatia with the Navistar Maxxpro, and there was Greece with 200 to 400 of the M113 and trucks, which were handed over for free,” he said.
Those were potential markets that were “seized,” probably by secondhand equipment, he said. “And we’re in Europe,” he added.
Nexter is waiting for Spain’s procurement budget to recover, he said.
The French company still hopes to win the United Arab Emirates’ order for 700 troop carriers, and Nexter is working on a solution to the request for fitting on the Russian BMP 3 turret. “That’s part of the client’s wish,” he said.
Nexter, Patria’s armored modular vehicle (AMV) from Finland and Otokar’s Arma from Turkey were on the UAE’s short list last year.
“We are active in Qatar,” Burtin said. “We will again take part in a VBCI demonstration this summer.”
Lebanon is another prospective client for French arms, funded by Saudi Arabia to the tune of $3 billion. “That is up to the government,” he said. “There is a list approved by the client. We are confident.”
The VBCI export showcase is in desert colors, unlike the conventional green and brown camouflage colors of the French Army’s fleet.
The company will show its Caesar cannon mounted on an Ashok Leyland truck chassis, a partner alongside Larsen & Toubro in the Indian tender for a mounted gun system. Nexter is also bidding for India’s request for 700,000 modular charges.
Burtin said he hopes the newly elected Indian government will raise the equipment budget after the previous administration preferred a pay increase for the services.
“There are land systems programs which have been held up for years and years,” he said. “We believe there will be an effort.”
India requires a transfer of technology, but the deal has to make business sense for the supplier, he said.
“We can bring technology transfer, but we have to have a balanced return on the technology,” he said. “We have to have a return on the investment, share the profit on the future use of the materiel by the third-party countries.”
Nexter sees significant prospects in Asia.
“The threat is growing and we offer solutions such as artillery,” Burtin said. Indonesia has bought the Caesar gun and Thales’ Starstreak short-range, surface-to-air missile.
The company has installed an immersive 3D simulation on Clarté virtual reality suites. The engineers use the visual packages to de-risk on the design work before building a prototype.
There is also potential for offering clients training for maintenance. ■