The European battle tank saga. In late August, France reportedly offered Italy to participate in the development of the Main Ground Combat System it shared with Germany. The project was launched in 2012 but suffered extensive delays because of friction from both sides. Now, according to Handelsblatt, Berlin has apparently reacted by agreeing to develop a next-generation battle tank with Madrid, Rome and Stockholm.
- If confirmed, this could spell the end for the partnership between Rheinmetall and KNDS, a joint venture set up in 2015 by Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and France’s Nexter.
- Reportedly, the German companies want to keep the Nexter group out – as would be highlighted by the official launch of a parallel tank programme that could potentially rival the MGCS.
Flagging cooperation. The Franco-German battle tank development project was launched in 2012. It has however struggled to gain momentum due to a series of delays and discontent among both industrial partners, as well as the governments in Paris and Berlin. It’s indicative that France has not earmarked funding for the MGCS in its 2023 defence budget. The same applies to the next-generation Future Air Combat System (FCAS) fighter jet development programme, also developed jointly with Germany.
- Meanwhile, equipping European countries with up-to-date tanks is adding more pressure on the MGCS future. Instead of waiting for the decades needed to design and put such battle tanks into production, European capitals could choose to immediately buy already-available products.
- That’s what Poland did when it decided to buy 250 American Abrams M1A2 tanks in 2022.
From the French ultimatum… In this context, the French offer to bring Italy into the MGCS fold looked like an ultimatum to Germany, along the take-it-or-leave-it lines of either extending the project to Italy (through defence giant Leonardo) or ending the collaboration. It would have been a French attempt to rebalance their relationship with their German partners, especially Rheinmetall, by leveraging the excellent relations between Paris and Rome.
- La Tribune, which broke the news, wrote that Italy was France’s “new favourite partner.” That’s based on an expanding range of joint projects, such as Mbda’s Aster missile, Rome’s recent entry in the Franco-British FMAN/FMC missiles, and above all, the agreement for the mid-life upgrade of four Fremm frigates (two French and two Italian).
… to Germany’s EU-wide countermove. Germany’s reported agreement changes the cards on the table. Along with KMW and Rheinmetall, Leonardo and the Swedish defence group SAAB would participate by obtaining funds from the European Defence Fund (EDF), of which some €5 billion has been made available precisely for joint armament projects between EU countries.
- Rome already boasts very solid relations with Berlin in the land sector, as demonstrated by its recent decision to purchase Leopard 2A8 tanks starting in 2024, to be added to its own 125 modernised Ariete C2 tanks.
- Italy aims to have around 256 main battle tank (MBT) systems capable of equipping four tank regiments, and its decision to include the Leopards is about speeding up their deployment.
Fixing the EU’s fragmented arsenal. Of all the different weapon systems, the one that best represents the incoherent state of the European defence sector is precisely the main battle tank. Today, the roughly 6,000 MBTs in service within the EU countries’ armed forces belong to seventeen different models, to say nothing of the modified variants and the varying degrees of modernity in service simultaneously.
- A quick comparison shows the 2,500 tanks in the United States are all a single model, the M1 Abrams, which serves as the base for different variants to meet the forces’ operational needs.
Are next-gen jets next? Finally, this reported EU tank development could also signal a future rapprochement of the parallel programmes on the sixth-generation fighter, i.e. the FCAS and the Global Combat Air Programme (the GCAP, featuring Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom). While the latter enjoys a great deal of momentum, the former is also plagued by heavy delays and lack of cooperation.
- Crucially, Stockholm has expressed a strong interest for entering the GCAP programme during a meeting between Italian and Swedish defence officials in early 2022.
- As it were, these developments could ultimately lead Paris and Berlin to open up to the idea of coalescing around the GCAP instead – and push the integration of European defence further.