The AMX-56 "Leclerc" has become the pinnacle of French combat tank design in the modern world. It represents the current main battle tank of the French Army and provides a powerful - albeit complicated and ultimately expensive - solution for French armored corps needs. Despite its modern qualities and promising specifications, the AMX-56 Leclerc - as a combat tank at least - remains largely unproven on the modern battlefield while its comparable Western sisters - the German Leopard 2, American M1 Abrams and British Challenger 2 - have all given a good account of themselves throughout various actions. The Leclerc has been operationally deployed in peacekeeping endeavors in both Kosovo (both French and UAE Leclercs featured) and Lebanon. At the time of its inception, the Leclerc was the first combat tank in production on French soil over some 30 years marking it as a national symbol of pride to a certain extent. To date, the Leclerc is utilized by only the French and the United Arab Emirates while the UAE also shared in some of the project's developmental and manufacture costs.
As early as the mid-1960s, French authorities reviewed their armored corps (at this time being spearheaded by the AMX-30 B2 Main Battle Tank, a contemporary to the American M60A3 Patton, the German Leopard 1 and the British Chieftain) and found their forces lacking against the might of the upcoming Soviet types. As such, work began on a more modern solution even while the AMX-30 was beginning to manage a foothold in the French Army inventory. Requirements were refined throughout the 1970s to which, in 1980, the Germans and French entered into a collaborative main battle tank initiative in an effort to replace their respective aged Leopard 1 and AMX-30 stocks. The partnership intended to keep development and production costs to a minimum while producing a capable, modern solution that was both sound and logistically-friendly. However, as with most multi-national MBT development initiatives, the partnership fell to naught with each party going their separate ways. The Germans went on to produce their excellent Leopard 2 family of vehicles while the French persisted with a design all their own under the designation of AMX-48/"Engin de Combat Principal" - or "ECP" - beginning in 1983. Over a lengthy period, various developmental components were tested and further developed before the first true prototype (along with five others) was realized in 1989. After formal testing by the French Army, the new tank - now designated as the "AMX-54" - was adopted into service. Production began in 1990 (at GIAT Tarbes for the turret component and GIAT Roanne for the hull and final assembly) to which deliveries began in 1991 and formal service entry beginning in 1992. The tank was given the name of "Leclerc" after French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque who commanded Free French Army forces (2nd Armored Division) towards German-occupied Paris in World War 2 (which led to its ultimate liberation). Procurement of the tank was granted to the UAE in 1993 to which formal operational use by the UAE Army began in 1996.
Compared to other main battle tanks of Western origination, the Leclerc took to some rather alternative design directions. Dimensionally, she followed in line with Western tank offerings as a whole though she became one of the lightest modern main battle tanks in service at 54,500 kilograms (54.5 tons). Internally, and unlike the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams or Challenger 2, the Leclerc was completed with an autoloader (manufactured by Creusot-Loire) to manage the loading/reloading function of the main gun. This feature is more commonplace in Soviet tank designs which allows a smaller overall profile while reducing the required crew to just three personnel - the tank commander, gunner and driver. In the Leclerc, the driver is seated at the front left of the hull with the gunner seated right of the main gun in the turret and the commander seated left of the main gun, also in the turret.
Design of the Leclerc showcases a sleek and modern appearance with its slim turret and side profile. The turret sports a definitive overhang of the turret bustle which incorporated the autoloader and ammunition stocks. The main gun is seated at the front-center and enters the turret through a heavy gun mantle installation. Various periscopes atop the turret roof allow the gunner and commander good views of the surrounding action. Communications antenna for the 2 x radio sets are mounted at the rear turret roof. The hull itself is equally slim and clean with a well-sloped glacis plate and driver's position identified by the vision blocks and access hatch offset to the left hull side. Headlamps at the front hull sides allow for dusk/night time driving while fenders protect from mud and dirt being flung upwards onto the various surfaces of the tank. The track system consist of six road wheels to a hull side, managed by a front-mounted track idler and a rear-mounted drive sprocket. Track return rollers manage the upper portions of the track though this is largely unseen as the Leclerc makes use of side "skirt" armor - common practice for modern MBTs. The engine is housed at the rear of the hull and separated from the crew. Suspension is via a hydropneumatic system which provides the excellent cross-country performance required of armored combat vehicles today.
Primary armament of the Leclerc Main Battle Tank is the 120mm GIAT CN120-26/52 series smoothbore main gun, a powerful instrument in a widely accepted tank gun caliber. The crew has access to no fewer than five types of 120mm projectiles in AP (Armor-Piercing) and HE (High-Explosive) forms. The primary types are an APFSDS (Armor-Piercing, Fin-Stabilized, Discarding Sabot) round and an HEAT (High-Explosive, Anti-Tank) round. As such, the Leclerc crew can engage anything from enemy armor to troop concentrations (including fortified positions). The ammunition types are also of NATO-standard dimensions for logistical reasons in the West. The main gun is seated at the front of the turret which is fully-powered (electrical with manual back-up) and allows for a full 360-degree rotation and engagement of enemies at any attack angle. Additionally, the main gun is stabilized across both axis which allows for firing "on the move" with accurate results. The fire control system (FCS) is fully-digital and centered around a COTAG FCS which is assisted by the onboard laser rangefinder, passive night vision and various sighting optics. Assistance is granted through the FINDERS (Fast Information, Navigation, Decision and Reporting System) and its full-color map display showcasing currently active targets, mission route-planning and friend or foe (FoF) management. A fume extractor is settled on the main gun barrel in the conventional way and makes use of a compressed air system to expel the potentially dangerous gasses away from the firing compartment. The firing action - with its autoloader - returns a rate-of-fire of 12 rounds per minute. Another detail element uncommon in Western tanks is the installation of a 12.7mm GIAT M693 (F2) coaxial heavy machine gun (coaxial machine guns are usually in 7.62mm in caliber). This weapon supplies an anti-armor "punch" at range against light-armored vehicles. Aerial threats are countered by a 7.62mm NFI anti-aircraft machine gun fitted to the turret roof. No fewer than 27 x smoke/anti-personnel grenade dischargers (in 3 x banks of 9 launchers) allows the Leclerc crew to either screen its movements from enemy eyes or engage nearby enemy infantry attempting to storm the vehicle. The grenade dischargers are part of the active GALIX combat vehicle protection system (CVPS). The Leclerc's inherently low-profile design also makes for a tougher target to identify and, to an extent, engage at range.
Ammunition is stored all about the vehicle's hull and turret. An ammunition drum of 120mm projectiles is set to the right front hull next to the driver's position. 22 x 120mm projectiles are "ready-to-fire" in the automatic loading system (with one chambered) while the tank carries a total of 40 x 120mm rounds in all (18 located in the hull itself). The ammunition based in the turret is separated from the crew by an armored bulkhead to which blast panels are integrated in the event of the tank receives a direct hit from the enemy (projectile, missile or otherwise). This adds to a heightened crew survivability feature while ensuring that the exploding ammunition blast is diverted away from the tank itself. Up to 1,100 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition are carried as are 3,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the two machine guns.
Beyond the aforementioned survival features of the tank, the Leclerc sports an automatic fire suppression system which identifies and extinguishes internal flames in an attempt to keep ammunition stocks from detonating. An NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) system protects the crew from various airborne threats while the armor is of an original French armor composition made up of steel with titanium and NERA - "Non-Explosive/Non-Energetic Reactive Armor". The turret and hull both feature welded steel with modular composite armor added for a truly reinforced contact surface. The high power-to-weight ratio of the Leclerc design means that additional armor blocks can be introduced without much detriment to performance.
Power for the Leclerc series is granted by the installation of a SACM UDU V8X T9 Hyperbar 8-cylinder diesel-fueled engine developing an impressive 1,500 horsepower. The engine is tied to an SESM ESM500 series automatic transmission system. This allows the tank to reach road speeds of 44 miles per hour on ideal surfaces, less so when going cross country (down to about 30 miles per hour in that respect). The Leclerc fields a listed operational range of 340 miles though external fuel stores can be added externally to the rear hull for a full 400 mile range. All of these performance qualities ensure that the tank can keep up - or lead as the case may be - accompanying mechanized forces into combat while its speed can also be considered for use as a defensive tactic. When idling, the Leclerc operates on minimal power through the onboard Turbomeca TM-7038 gas turbine engine used in powering various vehicle functions allowing the main powerplant to be brought to rest and minimize the tank's auditory and visual signatures.
The Leclerc has been released in a variety of variants since its arrival. Development produced the Leclerc T1 and T2 marks which were preproduction mounts delivered through 17 examples. The Leclerc T3, T4 and T5 production-quality marks were produced between 1992 and 1996 and some 132 of the types were completed. The Leclerc T6, T7 and T8 marks were given air conditioning systems for operations in high-temperature environments. The Leclerc T9 was given the newer IRIS thermal camera system. The Leclerc T10 and T11 marks were modernized with a command display and improved armor protection. The Leclerc AZUR became a modified Leclerc tank developed with urban fighting in mind, a combat environment very different from the expected "open warfare" intended of MBTs in the past. Defensive-minded initiatives like this have also greeted other tank types such as the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2.
Beyond the combat versions, the Leclerc chassis has become the basis for a family of related vehicles designed to undertake various battlefield roles. This includes the Leclerc EPG armored engineering vehicle, the Leclerc DNG battlefield repair tank and the Leclerc MARS armored recovery vehicle. While these types of vehicles generally lose their direct combat roles, they are modified with appropriate equipment (dozer blades, powered winches, etc...) to help accomplish their given tasks.
UAE Leclerc tanks were slightly modified for the rigors of high temperature operations in the desert environment and have been given a German-produced MTU 883 diesel engine, an external auxiliary power unit (APU), a remote-control system for the roof-mounted 7.62mm machine gun (allowing for firing of the weapon when the tank is fully "buttoned") and other subtle changes/refinements to suit UAE Army needs.
To date there have been approximately 862 Leclerc tanks manufactured. The French military operates 426 (406 x MBTs and 20 x ARVs) of these while the United Arab Emirates makes use of 436 examples (388 x MBTs, 46 x ARVs and 2 x trainers). While originally being manufactured under the GIAT Industries brand label, the tank now falls under the Nexter brand. Nexter also produces the French Army FAMAS assault rifle, the FRF2 sniper rifle, the LG1 Mk II 105mm towed field gun and the 8-wheeled VBCI armored infantry fighting vehicle. Qatar has been mentioned as a possible suitor to receive the French Leclerc, though these from existing French stocks and not "new-build" models. A similar procurement deal with Columbian authorities was never finalized between the participating governments. The French Army manages some 254 Leclerc tanks across four active regiments and reserve stores.