PARIS — The defense ministers of France and Germany expect to begin negotiations for their next-generation tank project with industry leaders KNDS and Rheinmetall in 2024, after which other European countries could join the initiative.
Italy, the Netherlands and “many others” expressed an interest in joining the project to develop the Main Ground Combat System, or MGCS, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said at a press conference at Evreux airbase west of Paris on Thursday.
There is the possibility of nations joining as “observers” as a first step, French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu said. German and French top military leaders are in discussion with the Italian armed forces, who have their own future armored cavalry requirements, the minister said.
Berlin and Paris will spend the rest of the year hammering out of project specifications, after the two countries’ army chiefs reported on the operational requirements for the replacement of Germany’s Leopard 2 and France’s Leclerc main battle tanks. That will put both governments in a position to uphold their military objectives, as MGCS contractors are expected to push their own ideas for the next-generation tank once negotiations begin, Pistorius said.
The agreement on operational requirements “shows to what point, basically, it won’t be a new Leopard and it won’t be a new Leclerc,” Lecornu said. “The technological breakthroughs are going to be brutal.”
The future tank is expected to come into service on the 2040-2045 horizon, according to Lecornu. The French minister said he hopes the first contracts will be signed in 2024.
Other interested EU countries will only be invited to join the project once France and Germany have defined the specs of the future tank, according to Lecornu.
The future tank will be modular, including platforms that can be either manned or automated, according to Lecornu. It will have a classic fire capability – “it goes without saying that the function of classic fire will not have disappeared” – but also electromagnetic weapons, electronic warfare functionality and laser weapons, the minister said.
The MGCS will require a reactive defense with a hard-kill capacity, drones to protect the tank, artificial intelligence functionality to coordinate fire in a connected environment, and the technological leap in terms of cybersecurity will be “absolutely colossal,” Lecornu said.
France and Germany will discuss in the coming days how to divide the work on the project into several “pillars,” Pistorius said. The countries are taking inspiration from their joint Future Combat Air System project, which has defined pillars including the combat aircraft, engine, drones and combat cloud architecture, each assigned to a different group of contractors with a national lead.
The war in Ukraine has shown the costs of tank maintenance in a high-intensity conflict, and keeping operational support costs under control will be a “major element” in the choices for the future tank, according to Lecornu.
Pistorius said the MGCS is “a lot more advanced” than a separate project by German, Spanish and Italian defense companies for a modern battle tank, and the two governments don’t expect the industrial project, which responds to a European Union-defined capability gap, to compete with their plans.
France has included €500 million ($533 million) in its 2024-2030 military budget for the MGCS project, which doesn’t include the costs for a mid-life overhaul of the country’s Leclerc tanks, according to Lecornu.
Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.