Could France's Leclerc Tank Destroy America's M1 or Russia's Best Armor in Battle?
Its 120-millimeter smoothbore main gun is slightly longer than the Abrams’ is, meaning it can, in theory, penetrate more armor. It’s also capable of firing programmable air-burst high-explosive shells. But the Leclerc’s principal advantages lie in its defensive properties and mobility.
The comparative effectiveness of modern tank armor is difficult to calculate, but the Leclerc and the M-1 appear to have similar frontal armor, though some critics argue the Leclerc’s frontal plate has more weak points around its sensors. In place of the M-1’s Chobham composite armor, the Leclerc boasts an unusual mix of composite, traditional and reactive armor that is slightly more effective against kinetic penetrators fired by other tanks.
The Leclerc’s side armor, however, is clearly superior to the M-1’s. Newer models also feature titanium armor inserts and explosive-reactive armor bricks on the side — belts of explosives that prematurely detonate incoming missiles and shells.
Finally, a Galix grenade launcher in the turret can discharge a variety of munitions including flashbang grenades, high explosives, multi-spectral screening smoke and infrared decoys that can confuse missiles.
The Leclerc also has a smaller turret profile than the Abrams does— making it harder to hit. However, critics argue the smaller turret affords less space for internal upgrades.
At 60 tons, the Leclerc is 10 tons lighter than most Western main battle tanks are. There are many benefits — a good power-to-weight ratio, lower ground pressure, superb acceleration and a comparatively high maximum speed of 45 miles per hour. The Leclerc is a lot more fuel efficient than many other tanks. It can travel 340 miles before refueling, compared to 260 for the Abrams. This reduces the tank’s logistical burden.
Critics claim the Leclercs are difficult to maintain. Defenders of the French vehicle insist this reflects the teething problems of early production models.
Though they haven’t seen combat, French Leclercs have deployed…on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Lebanon, where they performed well. In one dramatic incident in Lebanon in 2006, a platoon of four Leclercs confronted between two and five Israeli Merkava tanks attempting to enter the Lebanese village of Marwahin. After a 20-minute standoff, the two sides disengaged.
The French unveiled a new upgrade, the Leclerc XLR, in June 2016, with the goal of keeping Leclercs relevant until 2040. In addition to new sensors and electronics, the XLR would have modular armor kits, including one kit protecting against IEDs by jamming cellular signals and another optimized for defeating rocket-propelled grenades.
The United Arab Emirates was the only other army to purchase Leclercs. The UAE acquired 390 “tropicalized” versions with V12 engines plus 46 armored recovery vehicles. The UAE Leclercs also deployed on the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, where a contrast was stark. The Emirati Leclercs boasted superior sensors and systems compared to the French tanks.
The Emirati army bought 13 Azure armor kits with slatted bar armor designed to detonate the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades before they impact the hull. The U.S. Army fielded a similar urban-combat upgrade in Iraq. Azure also includes a remotely-operated machine gun.
While the French Leclercs remain unblooded, the Emirati tanks have actually seen combat — in Yemen, where the UAE has deployed between 70 and 80 Leclercs.
When Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh was deposed in 2011, Houthi tribes felt squeezed out of the new government and launched a full-scale rebellion in 2015.
Complicating matters was that Yemen’s military was already engaged in intense counterinsurgency campaign against Al-Qaeda militants who had carved out footholds in the countryside.
By the end of March 2015, the Houthis were close to triumphing, having captured the capital of Sana’a and seized territory in the port city of Aden. Perceiving the Houthis to be Iranian proxies, Saudi Arabia intervened at the head of a coalition of Arab states.
The Saudi-led coalition, benefiting from U.S. logistical and technical support, succeeded in recapturing Aden, but has sustained heavy casualties from the Houthi fighters. The coalition stands accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians.
By July 2015, Saudi ground forces were bogged down attempting to capture the Al Anad air base near Aden. An Emirati armor brigade conducted an amphibious landing — most likely via tank landing craft — at an oil refinery terminal, a major logistical feat for the small country. The armored brigade rolled down the N-1 highway and captured the air base on Aug. 3, allowing coalition forces to break out of Aden.
The Emirati Leclercs are split in two armored battalions, one of which remains stationed around Aden, while the other patrols Yemen’s mountainous central region. The armored brigade also includes a mechanized battalion of Russian BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles equipped with 100-millimeter guns, plus a battery of G6 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzers.
In videos, Leclercs can be seen racing down roads and firing their main guns in urban skirmishes. But how effective are they? It’s unclear whether the Emirati tanks have directly clashed with the Houthis’ own small number of captured tanks. But there is some information to work with.