European main battle tank project – not open to all EU members?

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is a journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Germany and France are working on a concept for a joint battle tank of the future. The so-called Main Ground Combat System – MGCS for short – is not only intended to replace the Leopard 2 of the German Bundeswehr and France’s Leclerc main battle tank in the mid-2030s, according to the claims from Berlin and Paris, the new weapon system is also expected to become the standard tank in Europe.

Quelle: Armin Papperger, "Mobility, Security, Passion", Rheinmetall, 2019.
Source: Armin Papperger, “Mobility, Security, Passion”, Rheinmetall, 2019.

There are currently 11 different tank models in the armed forces of European countries. This shows how heterogeneous and fragmented the European military potential is. A single main battle tank from Poland to Portugal would be a decisive step in the EU’s plan to make Europe a serious military power. Poland would be a crucial test case for opening up the Franco-German initiative into a European tank project. The country on the eastern flank of NATO plays an important role when it comes to the conflict with Russia in defending the military alliance and the EU. The government in Warsaw is aiming to build up strong armoured forces. It has already made clear its wish to participate in the Franco-German  armaments project. However, the Poles have doubts as to whether Germany and France are serious about the prospect of third parties participating.

The impression in Poland is that there is a lot of talk about European weapons systems and European armaments programmes. However, France and Germany primarily mean bilateral Franco-German programmes. The intention is for the arms industry in France and Germany to increase its market share in Europe – at the expense of the defence industry in other countries such as Poland.

Marcin Terlikowski – armaments expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw.
Quelle: Armin Papperger, "Mobility, Security, Passion", Rheinmetall, 2019.
Source: Armin Papperger, “Mobility, Security, Passion”,
Rheinmetall, 2019.

In fact, Germany and France have been fixated on dividing up the relevant stakes in the production of a new main battle tank between the German and French armaments industries. For almost five years up until 2019, the German tank forging companies Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and Rheinmetall contended to lead the armaments project. KMW founded with the French company Nexter the KNDS holding as early as 2015 to procure an advantageous position early on during the MGCS project. CEO and chairman of the executive board of Rheinmetall, Armin Papperger, later pursued the ambitious plan to take over the majority of KNDS. France then feared that this could jeopardise Nexter’s agreed 50 percent production share. In October last year, the three companies finally agreed on an MGCS project company in which Nexter holds 50 percent, and KMW and Rheinmetall each hold 25 percent. The procurement office of the Bundeswehr recently awarded the contract for the system architecture study to the project company. The first results should be available in 2022. Poland, which has until now been left out, could bring its influence to bear in its favour on being a future main customer of the future tank:

Poland will soon need at least 500 main battle tanks to fill gaps in its armoured brigades. 

– Terlikowski

The problem of the Polish armed forces is that the tank units are still largely equipped with older Soviet models. The most modern tanks are outdated German Leopard 2 versions. Poland is, therefore, interested in participating in the Franco-German main battle tank:

Our defence industry is not geared towards European armaments cooperation. We are not involved in European projects. Soviet technology still takes centre stage. And that’s the reason why we want to have access to Western expertise. We want to develop our industrial skills, thereby further.

– Terlikowski
Das 2013 auf der MSPO-Ausstellung in Kielce von OBRUM aus Gleiwitz- Łabędy vorgestellte Designkonzept eines zukünftigen polnische Unterstützungspanzers PL-01 hat sich bis jetzt nicht realisiert.
The design concept of a future Polish PL-01 support tank presented by OBRUM from Gleiwitz-Łabędy at the MSPO exhibition in Kielce in 2013 has not yet been realised. 

Central-Eastern European countries such as Poland are still not partners in major European armaments projects such as the A400M transport aircraft. The Western European countries dominate here, with their large corporations such as Airbus. The use of Soviet-based technology excludes Eastern Europeans. For Terlikowski, the Franco-German tank project would be an excellent opportunity for Poland to overcome this exclusion:

The only armaments area where we could bring something to the table is land systems. Here, we are able to produce some sophisticated platforms and to integrate components available on the global market. For example, we can offer an armoured howitzer on a Samsung chassis or a Czech artillery gun with integrated Polish fire control and communication system. 

– Terlikowski

Poland, therefore, has a significant interest in participating in the Franco-German main battle tank project. However, joining it is not an automatic process. There are reservations against Poland, especially from the French side.

It is noticeable that bilateral relations have deteriorated since 2014. They have also deteriorated in the field of armaments. First of all, from the French perspective, no sustainable reform of the national armaments industry was discernible. On the subject of MGCS, especially, it has not been forgotten in Paris that Poland initially supported an Italian counter-project. Secondly, the American preference seems so dominant that it is hardly compatible with the European preference that Paris supports. The best example is the so-called Caracal Treaty – in 2016, the Polish government cancelled the purchase of Caracal military helicopters in favour of American helicopters. Of course, these gestures between Paris and Warsaw are not ones to inspire confidence. 

Gaëlle Winter – security expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) in Paris.

In addition to the poor relationship with France, there is also the question of how Poland could contribute to the MGCS project. Because when it comes to the upcoming tank of the future, the German and French military want more than just an improved version of tried and tested tank technology like the Leopard 2. The aim is to develop a high-tech system in which robotics and weapons such as high-speed missiles play a crucial role. The new weapon system is meant to become a military “game-changer”. Christian Mölling, Research Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin, is skeptical about whether the Poles can contribute to this by pursuing an arms strategy that would be necessary to achieve this:

Does that fit into a larger plan of how they actually want to build up a military defence base? Poland’s current development is that we practically have a centralisation of the Polish defence industry in one large industrial centre. I do not know if this is productive. At least, that is not how innovation has worked in recent years and decades. 

– Mölling

Poland has been trying for some time to reorganise its arms industry. Under the leadership of the Warsaw Ministry of Defence, more than 60 factories have been grouped in the so-called “Polish Armaments Group” (PGZ). The PGZ includes rifle manufacturers and shipyards. The PGZ is to mature into a powerful state arms holding company with the help of increased defense spending. Poland wants to be thereby able to equip its armed forces comprehensively and act as a strong player in the global arms market in the long term. However, there is practically no competition in the country for the “Polish Armaments Group”, which is usually poison when it comes to willingness to invest in research and innovation. Even during the founding phase of the PGZ in 2016, the Polish Audit Office criticised that there was no clear strategy for the political goal of building up a large arms company. For example, no investigation into possible synergistic effects of the companies concerned was carried out in advance. Against this background, Mölling warns against too high expectations of any Polish participation in the Franco-German tank project:

If you look from a competition perspective – from a Polish competition perspective – how many research and development investments have been made in other countries, then you might find that unfair or feel it is a denial of participation. However, in the end, it will not help the Polish industry, nor the German or French industry, to take on board a partner with whom one can subsequently produce products that either cannot be resold at all or are difficult to resell on just one accessible market; because you can’t sell to just anywhere. That also applies to the Germans and the French. It is not as if they were swimming in wealth due to their tank production. The fact that we have one tank production operation between KMW and Nexter – which is the only operation for which the Main Ground Combat System was even made – shows that there is not enough volume on the market. So it is also prudent to have a sense of realism here. 

– Mölling

The example of Poland clearly shows how difficult it will be to turn the Franco-German main battle tank project into a European armaments undertaking in which other EU countries can also participate. As is often the case, there is also a gap here between the declared goal of a common European defence and armaments policy and the national interests and opportunities of the actors. Overcoming these is a Herculean political task.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, Security Policy, Technology.

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