Call it a sign of enemies reconciling. Or, an ironic twist of history.
Just days before the 80th anniversary of the German mechanized blitzkrieg that conquered France in six weeks, Germany and France signed an agreement to jointly build a new tank.
The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) idea has been floating around since 2012 as a replacement for Cold War-era German Leopard II and French Leclerc tanks. Last month, German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and her French counterpart Florence Parly inked an agreement that lays out organization and management of the project, which includes a two-year study.
Not surprisingly, the German Ministry of Defense announcement emphasized that both nations would equally share the cost of building a next-generation tank.
“Both countries should benefit equally from the cooperation, which is why the contracts to be concluded are based on a 50 percent financing between Germany and France,” said the announcement. “In addition, both nations are to receive sufficient intellectual property rights for the intended future use of the work results,” The ministers have therefore also signed an Implementing Arrangement 1, which forms the basis for commissioning a system architecture definition study. Only recently, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag cleared the way for commissioning this two-year study. Again, Germany and France share the costs. The system architecture is a prerequisite for the development of a technology demonstrator with which the German and French requirements for the MGCS can be verified.”
A 2018 document by a Franco-German research institute describes an MGCS concept that sounds much like American or Russian next-generation armored vehicles: a highly automated family of light, medium and heavy tanks equipped with advanced sensors, and designed to work in a manned-unmanned team with robot vehicles and aircraft. It could be armed with a laser cannon, though French defense firm Nexter has developed a 140-mm cannon – far more powerful than the 120-mm cannon on current NATO tanks – that could give the MGCS a formidable punch.
Cold War designs such as the Leopard II, Abrams and T-72 have served well for decades. While the panzers of 1940 were obsolete by 1941, constant upgrades in sensors, defensive systems and armament have enabled Cold War designs to remain viable even today. But time marches on, and inevitably Europe will need new tanks to keep pace with 21st Century U.S. and Russian models.
Given the coronavirus and the resultant global economic depression, whether Berlin and Paris will actually spend the money to develop a new tank remains to be seen. Will other European nations join to spread out the costs? What are the export prospects of the vehicle versus American and Russian competitors? Note that France, along with Germany and Spain, have announced plans to develop a sixth-generation fighter that would be more advanced than the fifth-generation U.S. F-35 stealth jet. Even nations with far larger defense budgets have had problems: the U.S. has spent years trying to find an affordable and reliable replacement for the M-1 Abrams, while Russia’s military has balked at the cost of the cutting-edge T-14 Armata.
But perhaps money – or even military effectiveness – isn’t the point. France and Germany were bitter enemies for centuries, including two horrific world wars. A hundred years ago, the thought of them allying to build a tank – or just allying at all – would have been considered insane. With the U.S. stepping back from its role as Europe’s protector, Europe will have to be prepared to defend itself. What better symbol than a French and German tank?