“So what do you think of France’s new super tank, the Leclerc?” a retired colonel in the French army’s logistical brigade jokingly asked me in 2002. “You know, the one we paid a fortune for and that we’ll never use in battle.”
So far his prediction has proved true. The French military has deployed light armored vehicles and air power in its combat missions in Afghanistan, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic and Mali.
But the French army’s main battle tanks haven’t fired in anger since the Gulf War.
But in the summer of 2015, the United Arab Emirates threw two battalions of Leclercs into the civil war in Yemen — and from the few sketchy reports, it seems the tank has fared better than the American-made M-1 Abrams has done in the same conflict
France, along with England, has been a pioneer of armored warfare since World War I. At the beginning of World War II, it actually fielded more tanks — and better-armed and -armored ones — than the Germans did, but the French army’s poor doctrine and organization doomed the vehicles.
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During the Cold War, France produced two major tank designs — the AMX-13 and AMX-30. The AMX-13 was a light tank. Debuting in 1953, it weighed a mere 13 tons and boasted a long-barrel 75-millimeter gun.
Israel and India both deployed the AMX-13 in heavy fighting against Arab and Pakistani opponents, respectively — and the consensus was that the AMX-13’s mobility was useful, but it was too lightly armored for pitched battles against other tanks.
The French army, however, was convinced that anti-armor weapons were becoming so effective that adding thicker armor was pointless. It preferred to emphasize speed and firepower. Thus, when the AMX-30 tank arrived in 1966, it had only 80 millimeters of armor, compared to the 243 millimeters of armor that protected the United States’ contemporary M-47 Patton tank.
But the AMX-30 still had a decent 105-millimeter gun and, despite its light armor, managed to attract significant foreign orders. It also proved readily adaptable into various support vehicles.
By the early 1980s, a new generation of Western tanks emerged, typified by the American M-1 Abrams. These sported composite armor that was highly resistant to the shaped charges on modern anti-tank missiles. During the 1991 Gulf War, the M-1’s armor proved almost completely immune not only to anti-tank missiles but also to the 125-millimeter armor-piercing shells fired by Russian-made T-72 tanks.
Qatar and France deployed AMX-30s in the same conflict. The Qatari tanks saw action at the Battle at Khafji, where they destroyed three 1950s-vintage T-55 tanks. The Iraqis destroyed two AMX-30s.
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Fretting over the AMX-30’s thin armor, coalition commanders all but sidelined the French 6th Light Armor Division, deploying it as a rearguard along the flank of the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps.
In the mission, the French armor performed well, ultimately destroying 10 Iraqi tanks. But the French tankers probably wished they’d been able to go to war in the new tank that, at the time, was just a year away from entering service. The Leclerc.
By the 1970s, the French army knew its AMX-30s could not reliably defeat the latest Soviet tanks such as the T-72. The independent-minded French didn’t want to simply buy new tanks from the United States or Germany — they wanted a tank as hard-hitting as the Abrams was, but also lighter and better protected than the American vehicle.
The resulting AMX-56 Leclerc — pronounced “le-claire” — took its name from the French general whose armored division liberated Paris in 1944. It was, at the time, the most expensive tank in the world, costing $9.3 million per vehicle in 2011 dollars. By comparison, a new M-1A2 cost $7.56 million and the Russian T-90 carried a price tag of just $4 million.
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The French army fields 406 Leclercs, 240 of which are in its four active tank regiments. There are also 20 recovery-vehicle variants in service.
The three principal Western main battle tanks — the Abrams, the German Leopard 2 and the British Challenger 2 — share many design elements such as 120-millimeter guns, four-person crews and composite armor. While similar in its major performance parameters, the Leclerc exhibits a lot of French quirks.
In place of a human loader, it features an auto-loader system with a rate of fire of 12 shells per minute. The auto-loader reduces the crew to just three — a commander, gunner and driver. The Leclerc has a .50-caliber machine gun in the coaxial position next to the main gun, rather than next to the commander’s hatch.
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.