The Leclerc is a very underappreciated tank. For better and for worse, it got its design completed just before the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, this is bad, because order numbers were slashed, and there weren’t large quantities of surplus tanks to drive the price down in the 90s, when no one in Europe thought tanks were cool.1 On the other hand, it meant it got a lot of really innovative design features pretty early. It’s still a formidable and competitive tank today, held back only by the lack of upgrade budget.
The Leclerc was designed to (finally) replace the venerable AMX-30, after a joint Franco-German project and the AMX-40 project had both failed. The French were the first western power to put an autoloader in a production tank. It’s a ‘belt-type’, and is contained in the turret bustle. It has a capacity of 22 rounds. A further 18 rounds are stored next to the driver in the front of the hull. The bustle is provided with blow-out panels. All ammunition is marked with a barcode, so that the autoloader knows what round types are where.
The gun is a 120 mm L52 smoothbore, developed in France. At the time of introduction, this was the most powerful tank gun in production. It can keep up with the newer Rheinmetall L55 given appropriate ammo design. The gun is fully stabilized.
In a reverse from other western designs, the coaxial machine gun is a 12.7×99 mm HMG, and the commander’s gun is a 7.62×51 mm GPMG. In its original design, the commander’s machine gun was pintle mounted. More recent improvements have replaced it with a remote weapons station mount.
The Leclerc was an early adopter of the Commander’s Independent Sight, giving the commander the ability to use optics to look in a direction other than where the turret faces. The Leclerc was also one of the first tanks to give the commander his own laser rangefinder in the sighting unit, an ability still not found on the Abrams or Leopard 2.
Leclerc came with a battle management system from the factory, though it initially did not have a video display. This was rectified on later models. Just like on other modern tanks, a battle management system provides a huge coordination bonus to vehicle crews and unit commanders, and just like on Abrams, the BMS on Leclerc is integrated with the communications suite.
Leclerc’s protection hasn’t been as upgraded as much as its contemporaries, and here it suffers. The best estimates I can find give it a protection somewhat less than an M1A2 SEP or a Leopard 2A6/2E. Given the era, it’s not terrible, but it could use some work today. It’s an interesting armor array because it uses a lot of materials chosen to reduce weight but are somewhat more costly to work with.
The protection of Leclerc is somewhat improved by the inclusion of the Galix combat system, which is a computer controlled array of 14 smoke grenade launchers. Current modernization plans increase this to 24 launchers. These are capable of launching the usual smoke grenades in quick-blooming and long duration versions, but can also launch antipersonnel grenades. While this system would make an excellent soft-kill component of an active protection system, I do not know of any plans to link it with a missile approach warning system.
Leclerc’s powerplant is my favorite part of the tank. It’s a diesel engine, but it’s a little bit different. Instead of a conventional V-12 diesel with twin-turbochargers, it has a 16.4L V-8, called the V8X, and its equipped with a hyperbar system. The hyperbar system is neither a supercharger nor a turbocharger. Rather, it’s an externally-powered compressor, driven by a small gas turbine engine. This yields absolutely massive boost pressures of 32.1 bar mean effective boost pressure, no turbo lag, and no loss of power at the driveshaft. It also yields big gains in horsepower. For comparison, the V8X generates 1,500 hp, and the same basic engine with a conventional twin-turbocharger instead of the hyperbar system generates 1,000 hp.
This come at a cost of course. You might have guessed the V8X engine is expensive, and it is. The hyperbar system adds quite a bit of bulk, though the gas turbine can also be used to drive an integrated APU quite easily. Finally, there’s the question of fuel consumption. The then brand-new Leclerc didn’t fare so well in the Swedish tank trials, though GIAT hadn’t really done much optimization of the engine settings. Once they had, the result was probably about what you might expect: better than gas turbines, worse than diesels.2
So what do we think? Well, that depends on the timeframe. Today, the Leclerc is good but in need of some upgrade funds, and the reduction of orders from 1,400 to 460 didn’t do anything kind to the price. But at its debut it was extremely modern, introducing a number of new features that were on the Want List of every modern tanker.3
- Looking at you, Leopard 2. ↩
- The numbers I have are about 4.5 L/km in M-1 and T-80, >3 L/km for more modern experimental gas turbines like the LV 100-5, about 2.8 L/km for the V8X, and 2.2 L/km for Leopard 2A6. I think newer diesels are supposed to get a bit under 2 L/km. Of course, I don’t have acceleration data for any of these vehicles. A drag race would be very illuminating. ↩
- Look at some early 90s vintage issues of ARMOR magazine, especially the ones from 1993. Plenty of great tank designs in there. Or look at K2. ↩