Key point: The UAE has particular security needs and its upgrades to the Leclerc have been highly successful.
There is a saying in the Pentagon that the United Arab Emirates is "Little Sparta," a phrase repeated by outgoing defense secretary James Mattis. The reason is that Emirati troops are experienced and battle-tested from the war in Yemen, and the oil-rich country has spent its riches on some of the most advanced military hardware in the world.
At the forefront is the UAE's armored corps of French-made Leclerc tanks, an innovative machine which for the past 26 years have been a more common sight at mock war games, peacekeeping missions and France's Bastille Day parade than on the battlefield. But the UAE first tested the Leclerc's mettle in Yemen -- and is adding upgrades to make its armor harder to crack.
France developed the 60-ton Leclerc to replace the 1960s-vintage -- and lightly-armored -- AMX-30 to keep pace with Soviet tank developments. Broadly similar to other Western main battle tanks of its era and featuring a 120-millimeter GIAT cannon, the Leclerc dispenses with a human ammunition loader for an autoloading system bringing the crew size down to three, a feature common to Russian tanks more than Western ones. This autoloader served as an inspiration for a similar machine on South Korea's K1 main battle tank.
The Leclerc's armor is also a blend of armor types -- reactive, composite and steel -- for better protection versus a wider array of penetrating anti-tank shells and guided missiles. A .50-caliber machine gun embedded in the turret and a top-mounted 7.62-millimeter machine gun round out the armament.
Whether the Leclerc -- without upgrades -- is better protected than America's equivalent M1A1 Abrams is debatable. The Abrams is likely better armored in the front but weaker on the sides. However, the Leclerc is less fuel thirsty -- relative for a tank -- boosting its unrefueled range to an impressive 340 miles over the Abrams' 265 miles, and the Leclerc accelerates faster thanks to its lighter weight and hydropneumatic suspension, like an armored Citroën.
Acceleration is a critical advantage in "shoot-and-scoot" warfare, a tactic by which tanks pop out from behind cover to fire a round before reversing to safety. This lighter logistical footprint and greater nimbleness on the battlefield reflects French doctrine of roughing it and making do with less -- compensating with a greater sense of élan or combat enthusiasm and initiative. "The French prefer mobility over protection, a choice that reflects their cultural and doctrinal emphasis on maneuver," analyst Michael Shurkin wrote in a 2014 study of the French military for the RAND Corporation.
The Leclerc entered French service in 1993. The UAE is the only other country which has them, buying 388 Leclercs plus 36 armored recovery support vehicles to equip its own forces. The UAE purchase helped lower the cost of production. The French army's Leclercs have deployed in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Kosovo -- but have otherwise stayed put in France.
The UAE has modified its Leclercs in a unique way. UAE Leclercs have been spotted wrapped with CLARA add-on armor packages designed by Germany's Dynamit Nobel Defense. CLARA is a type of explosive reactor armor that uses a combination of fibre plates that explode outward when impacted by a projectile, damaging the projectile and reducing its penetrating power. However, unlike conventional steel reactive armor plates, the fibres are potentially less lethal to infantry who may be standing nearby. Imagery of UAE tanks with CLARA plates shows bulky armor covering most of the turret's side and chassis.
The UAE also has Leclercs with AZUR up-armor kits spotted in combat in Yemen, where UAE ground troops have fought heavily as part of a Saudi-led coalition warring with Houthi tribes aligned with Iran. These French-made armor kits also extend the length of the tank's sides with additional wire grating in the rear to detonate rocket-propelled grenades away from the engine.
It is difficult to analyze the Leclerc's combat performance in Yemen -- although they appear to have performed better than Saudi Abrams tanks without up-armor kits. However, French media reported the loss of a Leclerc driver to an anti-tank guided missile in September 2015 during fighting near Marib, more than 70 miles east of the capital, Sana'a.
The Leclerc has performed well -- particularly in terms of leaving a small logistical footprint -- according to one study by the French Institute for International Relations, although the institute noted the Leclercs experienced problems with accumulated sand and dust in the engines. Houthi troops have also systematically targeted the Leclerc's external optics with rifle fire. Lastly, several were damaged by anti-tank mines. The institute also recommended bolstering early-warning protection systems to disrupt anti-tank weapons.
The good news for the Leclerc is that adding these improvements are on the agenda. First, France intends to upgrade its Leclercs as part of a plan to boost defense spending to two percent of GDP by 2025. This new Leclerc will be renamed the Leclerc Scorpion XLR and feature a 7.62-millimeter (NATO) remote weapons turret, and a new armor package including ERA blocks and wrap-around grating on the rear and sides.
Equally important are a counter-IED radio frequency jamming device, new digital information systems for the commander and gunner, and a laser warning system called Antares to detect incoming anti-tank guided missiles. Once Antares detects a missile, two dozen launch tubes affixed to the tank launch canisters, creating a wall of smoke to disrupt the projectile's guidance mechanism.
The UAE sits astride a tense region. Iran is less than 100 miles away across the Persian Gulf, and the war in Yemen is one of the world's deadliest active conflicts. Armored forces are not just adept at desert warfare, but insurance policies for future wars. The UAE has adapted futuristic technology for its Leclercs that other countries -- in the region and back in Europe -- will study.
Robert Beckhusen is a military technology correspondent and previously served as managing editor for War Is Boring. This article first appeared earlier this year.