The return of high-intensity war on the European continent has revived interest in the role and future relevance of the main battle tank (MBT).
Despite the staggering destruction suffered by Russian and — to a lesser extent Ukrainian — tanks in Ukraine, several countries in Europe and elsewhere are investing significant resources to modernize their aging main battle tank fleets and procure additional systems to fill identified short-to-medium term capability gaps. At the same time, discussions and projects regarding future tank platforms have gained new impetus both in the US and European capitals.
But European efforts seem some considerable way behind those of the US, the legacy of three decades of shying away from defense investment after the end of the Cold War.
Divergent national approaches to the heavy land component and competing national defense industries have also stymied cooperation over the creation of a single European MBT. Today, EU member states operate 14 different systems and variants, although 47% are based on the German-made Leopard family, which is also the only model among the four main MBTs manufactured in Europe that has been exported to other EU countries.
Tank fleets have not been well-treated and have not been well-regarded. Some analysts, even within the military, too hastily heralded the demise of the main battle tank in light of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. As this author and other commentators have pointed out, this has just underlined the inherent risks of predicting momentous changes in the character, conduct, and instruments of warfare.
European MBTs are too often at a low state of readiness, with issues ranging from discontinued production lines to an investment drought that has progressively atrophied European fleets and forced many countries on the continent to look elsewhere for readily available platforms, mostly from the US and South Korea, as a stopgap.
In the meantime, while companies like the German Rheinmetall have autonomously launched technological demonstrators, multinational projects for a next-generation MBT have struggled to gain momentum due to industrial competition and disagreements about the system’s operational requirements.
However, the most promising of such initiatives, the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), was revived on September 21 by a new injection of political support after years of quarrels and delays between Paris and Berlin (the project’s origins date back to 2017.) According to recent statements by the French and German defense ministers, Rheinmetall and KNDS, a 50-50 joint venture established in 2015 by Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and France’s Nexter, will work together with the two countries’ militaries to define the project’s operational requirements and workshare by the end of the year.
Contrary to recent speculation about a possible derailment of the MGCS, the expected official kickstart of the project early next year could pave the way for new partners to join. Italy, for example, has already expressed interest in the initiative and would provide substantial know-how and a robust industrial capacity, especially in areas such as electronics and sensors, complementing the French and German experience in the land component. Moreover, the participation of other countries would bring not only technological expertise but also financial resources for what is going to be an expensive venture.
The UK is also a potential candidate for the MGCS. “London’s involvement is possible only within a solid international framework but for now it remains an interested observer without being a driving force,” according to RUSI’s Trevor Taylor. “Currently, the main item on the UK’s agenda is the upgrading of the Challenger 2 MBT, in particular in terms of re-gunning it with a 120mm smoothbore gun. That’s where the money is going.”
However, according to Taylor, “the UK is also looking to rebuild its ability to design, develop, and integrate heavy armor, having neglected it for 20 years, and companies such as BAE Systems – alongside foreign partners — would be in a good place to contribute.” The UK is currently upgrading just 148 of its tanks to the new Challenger 3 variant, with the rest being retired.
The MGCS, designed to replace the aging French Leclerc and German Leopard 2 MBTs, is revolutionary in nature and centered around two major principles: first, it is conceived as a “system of systems” combining a variety of networked next-generation offensive and defensive capabilities for maximum lethality, survivability, and operational flexibility; second it will consist of a larger family of vehicles built around a crewed heavy combat platform. These will include both crewed and autonomous vehicles, which would operate as a single formation while focusing on different tasks, from maneuver air defense to infantry transport, to reconnaissance and command-and-control.
Given the significant costs involved, the participation of additional countries in the MGCS would help share the burden and has been encouraged by Germany and France, as their respective defense ministers have confirmed. At the same time, it is worth noting that the French military budget for 2024 does not include funding for the project, with $535m currently spread over seven years, according to French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu.
While fresh political backing seems to have revived the MGCS, crucial disagreements over the requirements of the main platform, chiefly regarding the choice between a German 130mm and French-proposed 140mm guns, could still hamper the project. According to Taylor, “the very name of the MGCS confirms that nobody is sure about what kind of vehicle the militaries should have and need.”
Furthermore, the news of a multinational proposal presented by the industries of Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Belgium to a recent European Defense Fund tender for a “Main Battle Tank Platform System,” casts a new shadow on the MGCS. Despite Lecornu’s and his German colleague Boris Pistorius’s attempts to minimize the tender’s implications, it is hard to imagine the peaceful; coexistence of two such initiatives, not least because Germany would have a foot in both camps.
Germany’s decision to participate in the EU-funded proposal may just be a way to keep multiple options on the table, perhaps in the hope of eventually merging the two projects. But it may also be a signal to France about Berlin’s alternatives, centered on the cooperation with other countries like Italy. The incentives of such a course would be high for both Berlin and Rome, given the strategic bilateral ties on heavy land systems, recently boosted by Italy’s acquisition of the Leopard 2A8 MBT. There is a broader history here — the Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon projects were both based on an Italian-German-UK cooperative grouping, while France went its own way.
At present, the only certainty regarding the deployment of a next-generation European MBT is the very long timeframe, with an in-service date estimated to be somewhere from 2040-2045.
Any project seems certain to undergo significant change as it progresses, both because technological advances are so swift and because lessons from recent conflicts offer more questions than answers on how future tanks should be built and employed in battle.
But for now, and for some years to come, the most modern platforms are likely to be either updates of old European tanks, or new MBTs from countries outside Europe.
Poland, for example, has shaken the defense market by buying 366 US-made M1 Abrams tanks, worth some $6.15bn, and signing a massive deal with South Korea for up to 1,000 K2 Black Panther MBTs, with the first tranche of 180 (three battalions) of K2s to be delivered by 2025. Romania followed in Warsaw’s footsteps and a few months ago greenlighted an estimated $1.1bn deal with the US for 54 M1A2 SevP3 Abrams MBTs, including related equipment and services.
Germany remains the continent’s main producer. Norway decided to acquire 54 (with the option to buy an additional 18) German Leopard 2A7 MBTs, worth $1.9bn. The same platform was recently picked by Italy to beef up its armored capabilities, with the delivery of 133 new Leopard 2 (in their A8 configuration) from German manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann scheduled between 2024 and 2037.
In the United States, there are also debates about the future of heavy armor, but with the reassuring proviso that it really only has one customer to please — the US Army. The service has decided to terminate the development of the M1A2 Abrams System Enhanced Package Version 4 (SEPv4) and focus on a next-generation Abrams M1E3. According to the US Army, the M1E3 will be lighter and better protected “with the latest modular open systems architecture standards, allowing quicker technology upgrades and requiring fewer resources”.
But what will it be asked to do? In a blunt assessment expressed in an August report, the Army Science Board — a US federally-authorized independent group of experts — stated that “the M1 Abrams will not dominate the 2040 battlefield, as all of the M1’s advantages in mobility, firepower, and protection are at risk in [a scenario where] near transparency in all domains will significantly increase the lethality our forces will experience”.
So, is the end of the MBT as we know it imminent?
Not really. First, it is worth noting that the same report refers to 2040. Second, the authors reiterate that “armored combined arms forces remain decisive to land combat, are central to conventional force deterrence and, if deterrence fails, victory.” After all, recent conflicts have also shown the importance and virtues of the tank, especially in terms of protected mobility. Thanks to their superior armor, Western MBTs (and armored personnel carriers too) have saved countless lives among Ukrainian soldiers. In other words, we will likely continue to see present MBTs in action well into the 2040s.
The key takeaway is the recommendation to immediately focus on the requirements and design of a fifth-generation combat vehicle that integrates the latest technological solutions to increase survivability, mobility, and lethality while making the platform more sustainable from a logistical and sustainment standpoint.
Some industry actors have already started this exercise. Last year, General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the Abrams, unveiled the AbramsX technological demonstrator, which boasts robotics, uncrewed turrets, distributed aperture sensors, artificial intelligence, and human-machine teaming capabilities, among other technologies. Its hybrid electric-conventional propulsion, combined with reduced weight, is said to decrease fuel consumption by 50% compared to the fuel-hungry gas turbine engine currently in use on the Abrams, thus easing its logistics and cutting operating costs. However, the AbramsX’s weight is still projected to be around 60 tons, which is quite a lot.
Perhaps more interesting is the US Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV) Program, which aims to field different remotely piloted or semi-autonomous RCV variants to conduct reconnaissance and escort for crewed fighting vehicles, providing an outer layer of survivability to mechanized formations. Current prototyping efforts are focusing on a lightweight, modular, and upgradeable platform, with four “non-traditional” defense contractors involved.
Certainly, lighter and less logistically-intensive tanks have gained new traction in the context of increasingly contested and complex combat logistics. A telling example is the new M10 “Booker”, a 38-ton vehicle sporting a 105mm gun that will soon be integrated to provide mobile protected firepower within US Army infantry brigade combat teams. In total, it is planned to acquire 504 such vehicles.
Yet, lighter designs that prioritize mobility typically sacrifice protection in what is the tank’s archetypal tradeoff triad together with firepower. As Taylor of RUSI put it, “These three characteristics tend to play against each other rather than fitting harmoniously together.”
Paradoxically, despite the huge number of tanks deployed by both sides, the war in Ukraine has fewer insights to offer in terms of tank-on-tank engagements compared to other combat situations involving heavy armor. While the evidence is still partial, drone-corrected artillery, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), and mines, rather than other tanks, appear to have been the main tank killers. Lack of combined arms coordination, crew inexperience, and many other factors are part of the equation. (Nearly 2,400 Russian tanks are confirmed lost, along with 664 Ukrainian MBTs.)
Against this backdrop, an emphasis on agility, sustainment, and modularity may be a good start, considering the need to quickly relocate to avoid being rapidly tracked and targeted.
More broadly, there is a whole operational concept issue to be addressed regarding the future MBT, which entails the understanding and balancing of competing necessities, including logistical (e.g., strategic lift), financial, technological, and industrial, among others.
Some famous formations have decided on even more radical approaches. The US Marine Corps has opted to get rid of its entire Abrams MBT fleet to lighten the force’s logistical footprint and focus on rapidly deployable capabilities better suited for the demanding conditions and mobility constraints of the Pacific theatre. The Pacific theater is not Europe of course, but it’s a sign of the profound questions now being asked about the MBT’s future.
Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is also a NATO 2030 Global Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His main research interests include security and defense dynamics, transatlantic security relations, and the impact of new technologies on warfare.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.