France may be the next country to send its tanks to Ukraine, but officials worry they could be 'a poisoned chalice'

French army Leclerc tank
French army Leclerc tank  
  • Western countries have committed to provide dozens of tanks to Ukraine in recent weeks.

  • France is also considering sending its Leclerc tanks to Ukraine.

  • Some French officials are worried that their tanks would create new logistical problems for Kyiv.

With several Western nations already pledging tanks for Ukraine, speculation is mounting that France may send its Leclerc main battle tanks.

But French defense officials question how useful the Leclerc would be, as Ukrainians already face the challenge of incorporating multiple Western tanks, including the US's M1 Abrams, Britain's Challenger 2, and Germany's Leopard 2.

These designs are more complex than the Soviet- and Russian-designed tanks that Ukraine had before the war, thus requiring Ukrainian crews to learn new equipment, tactics, and maintenance. Those concerns appear to trump previous worries that supplying tanks to Ukraine could inflame disputes within NATO or provoke Russian retaliation.

"There's no political objection," a French defense official told news service Agence France-Presse this week. "We are just wondering whether the Leclerc would be a poisoned chalice. The aim is to be useful and effective."

French Leclerc tank Champs-Elysees in Paris during Bastille Day
French Leclerc tank Champs-Elysees in Paris during Bastille Day  

Ukraine would beg to differ. Desperate for any tanks they can get, Ukrainian troops would gladly take the Leclerc, one of the more advanced tanks in the world.

Designed for speed and firepower, the Leclerc can use its French-designed 120 mm smoothbore cannon and advanced sensors to engage targets while on the move. The latest version of the Leclerc can reach a speed of 50 mph and destroy a target as far as 2.5 miles away, the commander of a French tank regiment told Le Monde.

As with other French weapons through the years, the Leclerc is a little different than its foreign counterparts.

Weighing in at around 57 tons, it is smaller and lighter than the 80-ton M1A3 Abrams, the 64-ton Challenger 2, and the 62-ton Leopard 2. It is probably less well armored than a late-model Abrams or Challenger 2, though it does mount Explosive Reactive Armor charges to deflect anti-tank rounds.

Also unusual is that the Leclerc only has a three-person crew rather than the four typical in Western tanks. (Russia tanks such as the T-72 and T-90 have a crew of three.) The Leclerc, as well as Russian tanks, use an autoloader to feed shells into the cannon.

While this allows the vehicle to be smaller, the autoloader is more vulnerable to malfunction. It also means one less crewman to stand watch and perform maintenance, which leads to more work for the three-person crew.

French Leclerc tank Hohenfels Germany
French Leclerc tank Hohenfels Germany  

Assessing the performance of the Leclerc is somewhat difficult given the tank's limited combat record. It first entered French service in 1991, when it was considered the most expensive tank in the world, which may have hampered its export prospects.

Other than France, only the United Arab Emirates purchased the Leclerc (some of which it later donated to Jordan). The UAE operates 258 vehicles, some of which saw combat when it intervened in Yemen's civil war. Some claim it performed better than the M1 Abrams tanks that Saudi Arabia has used in that conflict.

Some 862 Leclercs were built before production ceased in 2008: France operates 222, and 50 of those were recently slated for upgrade to the XLR version.

The Leclerc's lighter weight may make it more maneuverable than the other Western tanks headed to Ukraine. On the other hand, yet another tank model means the Ukrainian army will have to deal with yet another set of tactical and logistical changes.

If France only sends a small number of tanks - just as Britain is only sending 14 Challenger 2s - then it would require a lot of overhead for a relatively small combat capability.

French Leclerc tank Kosovo Yugoslavia
French Leclerc tank Kosovo Yugoslavia  

Also significant is that unlike the Abrams and Leopard 2, there are only three nations that operate the Leclerc. Should problems arise with French deliveries, Ukraine would have difficulty finding other sources of vehicles and spare parts.

Nonetheless, the Leclerc would be a formidable - and probably superior - opponent of Russian tanks such as the T-72 and T-90. At the least, France would be giving Ukraine a real tank.

The AMX-10RC, which France recently pledged to Ukraine, has been called a "light tank." In reality, it's an armored car with a big cannon but light armor, and it isn't designed for slugging it out with enemy tanks.

France has also sent Caesar self-propelled 155 mm howitzers, as well as Crotale mobile anti-aircraft missiles. Ukraine may also receive the more advanced French-Italian SAMP-T/Mamba air-defense system. But other than Rafale jet fighters, the most powerful weapon - symbolically and militarily - that France could provide would be Leclerc tanks.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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