You are currently viewing Enhancing European Military Potential Through Interoperability: Opportunities and Perspectives for the Franco-German Eurotank

Enhancing European Military Potential Through Interoperability: Opportunities and Perspectives for the Franco-German Eurotank

11 May 2021

In light of current poor cooperation, inadequate upgrade programmes and insufficient investments in European armament capacities, the development of a new generation Main Battle Tank (MBT) is particularly awaited, as it could heavily stimulate defence integration and military interoperability in Europe. Over the past decades and in the context of emerging hybrid threats, European land forces suffered from an increased deterioration of their equipment and capabilities. Priority was and is still given to advanced hybrid weapons technology. While these technologies are crucial in the new war theatres of cyber and space, conventional forms of military deterrence shouldn’t be overlooked as they remain one of the most effective and integrated military capabilities in Europe (Sabatino, 2020).

In this sense, upgrading heavy land weapons should be the main priority in European armies’ agendas as it could entail a more rapid and effective response in ground combat and deterrence operations. However, despite the opportunity to foster defence integration and interoperability through military capacities, MBTs have severely suffered from insufficient investments in Europe causing their current obsolescence (Sabatino, 2020).

The current state of MBTs in Europe has led to a reduction in the total number of available platforms: the number of MBTs across the European Union Member States has dramatically decreased from 15, 000 in 2000 to 5, 000 in 2017 (Sabatino, 2020; European Defence Agency, 2017). In face of this drastic reduction and the significant interoperability challenges it has generated, modernisation plans for existing MBTs are to be expected in the next years especially from the ambitious ‘Eurotank’ project developed by the Franco-German couple. Since the recent rapprochement between Paris and Berlin, the two military powers are working on the next-generation European main battle tank, the so-called “Main Ground Combat System” (MGCS), also dubbed as ‘Eurotank’.

The Franco-German joint venture is intended to replace the Leopard 2 of the Bundeswehr and the French Leclerc main battle tank to become the next standard tank in Europe by 2035.

The bilateral programme has been developed by three defence contractors: Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall from Germany and Nexter from France. The EMBT is based on the combination of the Leopard 2 chassis and the turret of the Leclerc.

The production of a future Franco-German MBT falls within the scope of an ageing European tank manufacturing industry which needs a serious upgrade with regards to the recent political and diplomatic threats in South-Eastern Europe and the security risks related to the obsolescence of around 300 out of the 5, 000 MBTs currently in service in Europe.

Besides the 300 MBTs that need to be immediately replaced, it has been counted that around 2, 500 out of the 5, 000 will be called for an upgrade or a replacement in the next 20 years (Michel, 2018). As a result, some EU countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Latvia, Slovenia, and Slovakia will see the removal of their entire fleets of Soviet-era MBTs (Sabatino, 2020). Across the European armies, many battle tanks will need to be upgraded or replaced in the next 20 years. In this sense, the Eurotank could be the next European standard main battle tank especially in the eastern flank of NATO where most countries still use Soviet-era equipment. For this specific area, the European Defence Agency has raised concerns over the dependency on Soviet legacy technology and highlighted the necessity for the next-generation MBTs to be purchased from “sources that can guarantee security of supply in the longer term” (EDA, 2017).

In the context of Russian threats in the eastern flank, a single main battle tank would allow European armies to foster and enhance their military capabilities as well as transform the EU into the next biggest military power in the region.

The Franco-German plan has shown how heterogeneous and fragmented the European defence capabilities are: between 11 and 14 different tank models in the European armed forces have been counted in total (Müller, 2020).

In face of Europe’s conventional platforms backlog, European armies should take into consideration NATO’s objective of providing deterrence and defence against any type of attack as suggested by Sabatino, especially when MBTs are capable to provide immediate protection and mobility to troops engaged in ground combat operations. Consequently, the lack of functioning MBTs and cooperation in European military capacities could result in compromising the European challenge of strategic autonomy in defence and security matters (Sabatino, 2020).

The challenge of putting a European main battle tank into production and service would then be significant, as it would mainly participate in closing the gaps between technologically-impaired EU Member States and others with large and costly overcapacities (EDA, 2017).

Italy, Poland, and more recently the United Kingdom requested to join the MGCS project together with France and Germany. However, both Paris and Berlin agreed on not allowing third parties to join the consortium only after the end of the definition study as the two countries prefer to keep each 50% of the shares of the Eurotank project through their respective contractors Nexter, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, and Rheinmetall.

Yet, the introduction of a third actor would allow the MGCS project to be eligible for both PESCO and EDF funding and therefore permitting a multi-level and a multi-player European cooperation through military interoperability.

Despite the reluctance from the Franco-German couple to welcome third parties to its project, Sabatino notes the existence of two PESCO cooperative projects that could entail European cooperation on heavy tank technologies: the integrated Unmanned Ground System (UGS) and the Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle/Amphibious Vehicle/Light Armoured Vehicle projects. The UGS involves the cooperation of Estonia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Spain, France, Latvia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Finland on “the development of a modular architecture system capable of carrying different payloads and sensors”. The project even received funding under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) with a total contribution of €30.6 million (Sabatino, 2020). This joint programme could consequently be the first step towards multiplayer cooperation on MBTs in the scope of European defence integration. In this sense, it should be noted that when reaching a plurality of actors to jointly cooperate on a specific product – here a tank – three main assets are worth considering at this level of advanced cooperation: i) economy of scale could be reached and lower the total production costs as well as maintenance costs especially in a time where defence budgets are declining, ii) developing European cooperation on a next-generation MBT is the step towards more interoperability between armies which is a goal pursued both by NATO and the EU and iii) allowing third countries to join the cooperation could increase the deterrence of their own respective armies especially for the Central-Eastern Member States like Poland, where most of its MBTs fleets originate from the Soviet-era (Sabatino, 2020; Müller, 2020).

Besides the question of the integration of Poland and other Eastern Member States to the Franco-German consortium, the prospect of the UK joining the EMBT programme has mainly raised political issues rather than being military capacities-centred. As of April 2021, the UK has been granted the unprecedented status of observer in the Franco-German programme after long talks between Paris and Berlin in the context of the Brexit saga. As opposed to the rapid German green light in the British case, the French remain quite sceptical and are still in the process of deciding whether to include the British in the programme as they have always been more reluctant about expanding the scope of cooperation in European defence programmes like the FCAS (Future Combat Air System) and Eurodrone (Sprenger, 2021).

Ultimately, the Franco-German programme will have to allow further cooperation with both the EU and NATO on military mobility in the land domain. This ambitious and needed cooperation enters an era of emerging hybrid threats and geopolitical risks arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, this cooperation should be taken forward in full fairness and without prejudice to any countries and the specific disposition of their defence industry.

Written by Ikram ABOUTAOUS, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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