In 2018, France and Germany agreed to jointly develop a successor to their respective main battle tanks (MBTs), the Leclerc and the Leopard 2. Representing next-generation technology, the weapon system – provisionally designated the ‘Main Ground Combat System’ (MGCS) – will constitute a quantum leap in both offensive and defensive capabilities.
The decision to develop MGCS reflects the fact that battlefield threats to even the heaviest main battle tanks (MBTs) are growing. This includes more sophisticated anti-tank weapons, long-range precision artillery, armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) s, loitering munitions with shaped charge warheads, and unarmed reconnaissance UAVs to aid over-the-horizon (OTH) weapons in targeting armoured formations. Conversely, improvements in vehicle armour and defensive systems threaten to erode the effectiveness of today’s front-line MBTs against the MBT fielded by of peer- and near-peer opponents. Next-generation technologies need to be integrated into MBTs in order to continue to dominate the future battlefield. The current Leopard 2 and Leclerc tank families – while superb weapon systems – have reached the end of their growth potential, and need to be replaced by new designs.
A Multinational Programme
Following years of operational needs analysis and initial concept development, in June 2018 Berlin and Paris formally agreed to jointly pursue the MGCS programme, with the German government taking the political lead on the project. In October 2019, the two ministers of defence reconfirmed their nations’ commitment to MGCS. The decision reflects a recent trend toward a multinational approach to major European armament programmes. This trend has been driven by economies of scale. Next-generation technologies require financial investments and a broad array of expertise and infrastructure which cannot always be mustered in one nation, which to date has put European industry at a significant disadvantage vis-a-vis the competition from the United States. With future vehicles and weapon systems expected to be fully networked, it also makes operational sense for allies who will deploy together to share the same technology.
To ensure harmony – and satisfy domestic lobbies – it was agreed that work would be apportioned evenly to industry from both nations. The obvious choice for prime industry partner was KNDS (KMW+Nexter Defence Systems), a holding company founded in 2015 by German arms producer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and the French defence firm Nexter Systems. The two firms are evenly represented on KNDS’ board and in management, and bring undisputed expertise into the programme. KMW manufactures the Leopard 2 MBT, while Nexter produces the Leclerc. Going one step further, KNDS and Germany’s Rheinmetall formed a MGCS-focussed joint venture (German: Arbeitsgemeinschaft or ARGE) in December 2019. The ARGE acts as the single contractual party in dealing with the government procurement authorities.
The ARGE’s government counterparts are the procurement agencies of the French armed forces (Direction Générale de l’Armement – DGA) and of the Bundeswehr’s BAAINBw (Bundesamt für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr; ENG: Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support). The BAAINBw takes the lead as the programme’s joint procurement authority acting in the name of both Germany and France. Within the agency, the BAAINBw’s Combat Directorate is directly responsible for the MGCS programme. Since 2020, the directorate’s branch K5.6 programme office is set up as the MGCS Combined Projects Team (CPT), staffed by personnel of both nations, under the direction of a German officer.
Timeline and Major Phases
Going forward, the MGCS programme is divided into three major phases:
1) TDP: Technology Demonstrator Phase (ongoing, 2020-2024);
2) FSDP: Full System Demonstrator Phase (planned for 2024-2028);
3) Implementation and Pre-Production Phase (2028-2035).
Initial fielding is expected in 2035, with full operational capability (FOC) by 2040.
Technology Demonstrator Phase (TDP)
The ongoing TDP consists of two activities running parallel to one another. Both initiatives are being conducted by binational industry teams formed by the ARGE members, under contracts awarded by the BAAINBw. Work is apportioned equally between the partner nations. In principle, these efforts remain open to participation by new industry partners from other NATO or EU nations.
The first element of the TDP is focussed on researching and evaluating key technologies and components for their suitability for MGCS. These include propulsion systems, passive and active protection systems, weapons (including future weapons technologies), sensors, and vetronics. Each of these technologies is being investigated separately at this time.
Simultaneously, other teams are pursuing a multi-part System Architecture Definition Study (SADS). As summarized by Nexter, SADS Part 1 (May 2020 – March 2022) assessed such aspects as: technical feasibility within the projected timeframe allotted for the programme; ability to fulfil the operational needs of both armies; efficiency and compatibility with national networked command and control systems (SCORPION for France and Digitisation of Land-Based Operations (D-LBO) for Germany). The follow-on architecture studies are currently evaluating the operational utility of various comprehensive platform concepts using digital simulation scenarios of varying intensity. SADS is expected to wrap up in late-2023 and lead to a definitive proposal for the common multi-platform architecture.
Full System Demonstrator Phase (FSDP)
During the FSDP, the most promising system architecture concepts will inform the design and production of one or more full system demonstrators. These will integrate the individual technologies which were determined to be most promising during preceding studies, and evaluate their performance within the operational system. By the end of the FSDP, the complete MGCS design is intended to achieve technological maturity.
In April 2022 KNDS co-director Frank Haun, formerly CEO of KMW, expressed support for opening the FSDP for new partners: “Once we complete the system architecture studies, we could add more partners,” Haun told the magazine Wirtschaftswoche. He explicitly cited Italy, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom as welcome additions to the programme. “All of them have technology to offer […] to an army to be equipped, like Kongsberg from Norway or Leonardo from Italy,” Haun said.
Implementation and Pre-Production Phase
The Implementation and Pre-Production Phase is expected to be open for participation by industry from other European nations. This phase will test operational prototypes and lead to low-rate initial production (LRIP), enabling the fielding of MGCS with the first operational units in 2035.
A System of Systems Design Approach
MGCS will not be a single vehicle, rather, it is conceived as a system of systems built around a manned heavy combat vehicle. This core MBT will be teamed and networked with external platforms featuring a variety of capability sets. The team is likely to include both manned and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In addition to being a heavily armed combat vehicle, the MBT will thus serve as a “command centre” for the various peripheral systems.
This factor alone underscores MGCS’ status as a revolutionary rather than evolutionary development in armoured warfare. For decades, the cumulative strength of MBTs has been defined by a triad of characteristics: firepower, protection and mobility. As Lt. Col. Sascha Uyanik, staff officer in the Land System Roadmap Group of the German MoD’s planning directorate, has summarised, changing battlefield conditions require future MBTs to be defined by an expanded set of attributes which include: mobility, survivability, effectors, C4I, and SDRI+T (Surveillance, Detection, Recognition and Identification plus Targeting). This bundle of capabilities can no longer be accomplished by a single vehicle, nor could a single MBT carry all the requisite mission systems and weapons. Multiple platforms working in concert will be required in order to ensure the lethality and survivability of the team as a whole. The MBT’s peripheral land and aerial platforms, equipped with specialised sensors and effectors, will assume a portion of the workload under direct or indirect control of the central vehicle.
The Main Vehicle
The MGCS core vehicle will feature a hybrid propulsion system. In addition to being environmentally friendly during peacetime, this may have operational advantages including a reduced logistics chain, greater operational range between refuelling, lower acoustic and thermal signatures, and a ‘silent watch’ capability (allowing the vehicle to keep its main weapons and mission systems powered without assistance from the main engine).
Weight management will be another essential factor. Current MBTs have added weight with every new variant and every new component. This ultimately effects transportability, speed, and mobility, including the ability to cross bridges or manoeuvre in urban terrain. Higher weight also increases fuel consumption, adversely impacting range, and usually lead to higher wear of the drivetrain and running gear, resulting in lower reliability and requiring increased maintenance. Various measures to limit vehicle weight are being considered, including: reduced crew size by using a two-person turret or even an unmanned turret; use of lighter composite armour; and greater reliance on active versus passive protection – especially active protection systems (APSs), enabling the vehicle to potentially make do with less passive armour. In this context, Nexter is proposing the PROMETEUS (PROtection Multi Effets Terrestre Unifiée) APS it is jointly developing with the Thales Group.
Further concepts include the possibility that the main vehicle’s hull could also be used as the basis for support vehicle variants. For example, the German MoD has published a (purely notional) graphic depicting three vehicles based on the same hull, but mounting different effectors: a manned command and control (C2) vehicle with the large-calibre main gun; a manned vehicle with a turret-mounted launcher for guided hypersonic projectiles; and an unmanned support vehicle with a high energy laser, a counter-UAV (C-UAV) system, sensors and several on-board UAVs. The graphic indicates that an optionally manned capability for the main gun carrier and the hypersonic effector carrier could be added in the long term, however both France and Germany have underscored that deployment of heavy weapons will always require a ‘human in the loop’.
Turret and Main Gun
The MBT will feature a large calibre main gun with significantly enhanced performance compared to the 120 mm guns used on the Leclerc and Leopard 2.
Nexter is proposing the newly developed ASCALON (Autoloaded and SCALable Outperforming guN) as the MBT’s main gun. The 140 mm ASCALON will accommodate a wide range of munitions and enable operators to choose among various desired terminal effects. Projectile range and penetration will be enhanced to defeat reactive armour and other defensive technologies. According to Nexter the gun will also accommodate future intelligent tank munitions capable of engaging targets at beyond-line-of-sight/non-line-of-sight (BLOS/NLOS) ranges. The firm predicts that the technical solutions on which ASCALON is based will be fully mature by 2025. KNDS’ ARGE partner Rheinmetall for its part is advocating for its 130 mm Rh-130 L/52 autoloaded smoothbore gun, which also promises a significant improvement in rate of fire, range and penetration over current MBT artillery.
At some point the MGCS team’s arsenal is expected to include a directed energy weapon (DEW) and a hypersonic guided effector. The latter has been discussed as a potential anti-tank weapon for MGCS as early as 2019, with the hypersonic projectile envisioned as a means for overcoming reactive armour as well as APSs. Indirect fire weapons for combatting BLOS/NLOS targets are also likely, at least in the form of loitering munitions carried on vehicle-mounted launchers. Other likely additions include a high energy laser (HEL), machine guns or automatic cannons for use in C-UAV and air defence roles, as well as against soft ground targets. An electronic warfare suite is also likely.
Vetronics, Sensors and Automation
Digitisation, maximum application of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, as well as the development of a secure tactical network will be essential in order to realise the new force concept. The Surveillance, Detection, Recognition and Identification plus Targeting (SDRI+T) mission will be served by a wide range of sensors using a broader band of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors will be fitted to the main vehicle as well as on the team’s own UGVs/UAVs (to be carried and launched by support and combat vehicles). These sensors are intended to provide the MGCS with improved real-time situational awareness, thereby enhancing both survivability and lethality. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality will be required to reduce the human crew’s workload, helping them focus on primary tasks and maximising their reaction time on the battlefield.
Sensor fusion within and beyond the individual MGCS vehicle will be critical to establishing tactical battlefield dominance. Each MGCS team will not only be networked with its immediate component units, but also integrated across the battlefield through a data cloud. This will enable MGCS to access a wide variety of distributed off-board sensors to create a high level of situational awareness and obtain targeting data for BLOS/NLOS targets.
Alternate or Interim Solutions
History has shown that unforeseen technological challenges, as well as political considerations, can prevent major weapons development programmes from completing on schedule. This risk is particularly high when the development project is based on new technologies which were not fully mature when the project began. At best, such obstacles can delay completion of the development programme; at worst, a programme can be terminated when it becomes obvious that a key enabling technology cannot be matured within an acceptable timeframe.
It remains imperative for France and Germany to begin replacing their current MBTs in the 2030s (the same holds true for many users of the Leopard 2). Should MGCS run into major delays, an interim solution will become necessary. Fortunately, KNDS and Rheinmetall have presented new concepts which could bridge the gap between retirement of legacy MBTs and the introduction of MGCS (or an alternative next-generation solution).
One is the Enhanced Main Battle Tank or EMBT. In 2018 KNDS presented an initial demonstrator consisting of a Leopard 2A7 MBT hull, engine and chassis mounting the Leclerc turret from Nexter. Based completely on mature technologies, EMBT is considered a short-term response to demand for a modern MBT, combining the mobility and robust features of the German tank with the lower weight of the French turret design. According to Nexter, the EMBT retains six tons of growth potential, leaving open the option of integrating future technologies in the medium term. During Eurosatory 2022, KNDS revealed a further-developed example of the EMBT concept, featuring a radically revised turret fitted with Rafael’s Trophy APS, a combined commander’s independent panoramic sight and remote weapon station (RWS), as well as an ARX30 RWS, which was primarily intended to provide the vehicle with an organic counter-UAV capability. The newer vehicle also featured space for a fourth crew member in the hull, known as the ‘system operator’, who would be responsible for operating the ARX30 RWS, the battle management system, and UAVs deployed by the vehicle.
Also at Eurosatory 2022, Rheinmetall presented a competing solution dubbed the Panther KF51 (KF – Kettenfahrzeug; ENG: Tracked Vehicle). Although based heavily on Leopard 2, the KF51 incorporates numerous new elements which are expected to appear, in some form, on the MGCS as well. This includes a lighter two-person turret (with potential to use an unmanned turret instead), a larger calibre 130 mm autoloaded gun, providing a claimed 50% improvement in kill range, and a loitering-munition launcher to engage NLOS targets. Rheinmetall stresses the KF51’s fully digitised NATO General Vehicle Architecture (NGVA) and Battle Management System (BMS) optimised for networked operations, including manned-unmanned teaming with UAVs and UGVs, as well as cross-platform sensor-to-shooter datalinks. The firm presented the vehicle as a production-ready prototype rather than as a concept vehicle.
(Corporate) Politics at Play
Twenty foreign countries currently operate either Leopard 2 or Leclerc family tanks, with several more planning to purchase them. Both from a market standpoint and in the interest of interoperability among allies, it is inevitable that the future weapon system will be available for export. France and Germany agreed from the beginning that the MGCS programme would open up at some point to cooperation with additional EU and NATO nations and other security partners. Several countries have openly expressed interest in joining as development partners or observers, but so far none have been invited in. To what extent expansion of the programme can ultimately be implemented will depend on whether the parties can agree on the terms of the development programme. Factors to consider would include national preferences regarding system capabilities, re-apportionment of the development budget, representation of new partners in the government project office, priority receiving the operational system once production begins, and of course, apportionment of work to industry of the new partners. Satisfying all parties without compromising design integrity or production quality, and thereby avoiding a weapon system ‘built by a committee’, will be paramount.
As it stands, the programme already faces numerous challenges approaching the next phase. As enumerated by German Air Force Colonel Jürgen Schmidt, head of the BAAINBw Combat Directorate, these include: a definition of contractor structures for further research and technology activities, assignment of the overall System Demonstrator Phase to a single prime contractor, manoeuvring the very complex balance of strategic interests of the original partner nations, France and Germany, ensuring financing despite the tight budget situation, and meeting the very challenging timeline.
As in previous multi-party arms development programmes, there is some tension between the current participating contractors. Industry observers note that negotiations regarding progression to the next phase of the programme are stagnating. A major stumbling block appears to be disagreement regarding which firm will act as consortium leader going forward. German press reports describe efforts by Rheinmetall to displace KMW in this role, while some French observers accuse Rheinmetall of aiming to derail the programme if the firm cannot gain control. KNDS has called upon the German and French governments to make a definitive decision regarding project leadership, insisting that “this signal must originate at the political level,” according to a 21 November 2022 quote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Already in April 2022, Frank Haun had advocated for “an end to committee proportional representation” in favour of a single firm as consortium leader. Any such decision will need to consider the companies’ respective experience and track records in systems integration of various contractors’ components.
One thing is certain: if a decision is not made in a timely manner, the MGCS’ timeline could slip. Depending on the length of the delay, this could risk significant consequences ranging from cost overruns to a potential capability gap if the initial operational capability (IOC) date is pushed too far to the right.
Sidney E. Dean