LONDON and COLOGNE, Germany — The British Ministry of Defence has opened discussions with France and Germany about signing up as an observer on their next-generation Main Ground Combat System program, according to government and industry officials in the U.K. and Germany.
Details of exactly what access the British will get to the program remain unclear, as a possible pact wouldn’t be signed until later this year. “Observer status is being granted to the U.K. for the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System program,” an MoD official in London said.
An industry team involving Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Nexter and Rheinmetall are in the early conceptual stages of pulling together a vehicle design to replace Germany’s Leopard 2 and France’s Leclerc around 2035.
A KMW spokesman told Defense News that the company is aware of ongoing talks aimed at making Britain an observer, but he referred additional questions to the German Defence Ministry.
For the British, the link is expected to help inform future capability requirements developed by the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and others as part of the MoD’s Future Ground Combat System program.
That program is considering a series of options to replace the current capabilities in the mounted, close-combat arena from 2040 onward.
The Franco-German tank is not the only program being eyed by the British MoD, which continues to monitor a number of global programs and developers, British officials said.
The German Defence Ministry was tight-lipped on specifics regarding the U.K.’s involvement, though a spokeswoman stressed the project’s international thrust.
“The MGCS project was created with a European approach in mind, open for other nations to participate,” the spokeswoman told Defense News. An observer status would precede a more formal role for cooperation with new candidate countries, she added.
“Bringing new members on board with MCGS is in line with Germany’s aspirations to push consolidation in the European defense industry,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The British interest in MGCS, depending on how far it progresses, has all the markings of a test case for pursuing large-scale, joint programs in a post-Brexit Europe. Military and government leaders from both sides have vowed to leave defense cooperation unscathed after the laborious divorce proceedings that ended the U.K.’s membership in the European Union. Still, London is formally an outside party in a defense cooperation regime engineered through Brussels.
The way ahead for Britain in a broader ground-warfare context might become clearer if the government goes ahead with a dedicated land-equipment industrial strategy as part of a defense and security industrial strategy review.
A land strategy, to go alongside already complete maritime and air reviews, is being considered, but a final decision is outstanding.
The fact that Britain is keeping tabs on the European tank project is a step in the right direction for those who believe the battlefield behemoths still have a future in the British Army. But it didn’t seem that way in August when national media in the U.K. reported the MoD was considering scrapping the service’s 227 Challenger 2 tanks to afford a pivot to more pressing future requirements in areas like cyberspace, space and unmanned vehicles.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace ended the speculation in September when he denied the Challenger 2 force would be mothballed. However, he didn’t say how many tanks the British would update.
Lethality and protection upgrades to the Challenger, assuming they are approved, will be led by RBSL, the British-based Rheinmetall-BAE Systems joint venture. It includes the installation of a new turret with a 120mm smoothbore gun replacing the rifled cannon currently installed on the vehicle.
A decision on the program approval is imminent, with the business case for the life-extension program delivered to the MoD’s approval body late last year. The idea is to make the vehicles last through 2035 or even 2040.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.