UK eyes Franco-German MGCS future tank programme

Harry Lye 18 January 2021 (Last Updated January 25th, 2021 09:10)

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has signed up as an observer to the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) programme, as it weighs up options for a post-Challenger 2 tank capability.

UK eyes Franco-German MGCS future tank programme
Pictured is a French Leclerc mk2 Main Battle Tank (MBT) in Silhouette, and shrouded in smoke after firing during the live fire element of a joint UK/French exercise as part of the eFP deployment. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

The UK’s interest in the programme, first reported by Defense News, is in early stages with few details about the nature of the UK’s observer status made public.

Under the programme, Germany and France through industry partners Nexter Systems, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall are looking to develop a replacement vehicle for both the Leopard 2 and Leclerc Main Battle Tanks (MBTs).

The British Army is currently seeking to upgrade its own MBT capability through the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme led by Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL). Under current plans, Challenger 2’s upgrade will ensure the tanks service up until 2040.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the MOD told Army Technology: “The UK is a world leader in tank design and proud to be involved with international partners via the European Main Ground Combat System programme.”

The future MGCS tank is projected to begin production in around 2035, aiming to declare full operational capability in the same year the UK’s upgraded Challenger 2 fleet could face potential retirement.

The MOD spokesperson added: “The British Army’s Challenger 2 upgrade will extend our Main Battle Tank capability up to 2040.”

In its story, Defense News reported that the MOD was also looking at other future tank programmes. Elsewhere in the EU, last year, the Italian Ministry of Defence began early work on a joint programme with Spain and Poland to develop a new tank.

In evidence given to Parliament’s Defence Select Committee last year, KNDS – the holding company of the merged Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Nexter Systems – said it offered the UK a ‘long-term strategic route map for UK industry-leading to MGCS.’

Elsewhere in the same evidence, the company promoted the Leopard 2 as ‘a state of the art yet, non-developmental and low-risk alternative’ to the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme as a ‘gap filler’ until MGCS is in production.

At the time, KNDS wrote: “We bring a broad range of immediate solutions (Boxer T40, Leopard 2) capabilities, technologies to support medium-term programmes (artillery and ammunition) and our appetite to invest in the UK, IP, research and development will lead to a sustainable UK industrial footprint making KNDS the natural partner for the UK and future programmes like MGCS.”

In 2018, the MGCS consortium showed a precursor to the future vehicle at Eurosatory showcasing a Leopard 2 hull fitted with the lighter turret of the Leclerc MBT. A key attribute of the vehicle was its lower weight, allowing it to traverse lower load bridges.

The UK’s Challenger 2 upgrade is still on hold pending the publication of the Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy. A decision on whether to proceed with the programme was due last December, however little has been revealed since the government decided to postpone publication of the review.

The review had been expected to be published in mid-February, however, this was recently cast into doubt by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In written evidence to the Defence Select Committee, the MOD signalled its preference for a Challenger 2 upgrade over purchasing off-the-shelf tanks such as Leopard 2 saying the upgraded Challengers would have the same level of lethality but offer better survivability and similar levels of mobility.

The MOD wrote: “The Challenger 2 Life Extension Project will be the first significant upgrade since it entered service in 1998; once in service, it will be comparable – and in certain areas superior – to the latest version of Leopard 2 and Abrams.”