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Germany and France: Still keen on joint defense projects?

Andreas Noll
September 22, 2023

Germany and France decided to jointly develop key weapons systems, but several have been abandoned. And now, the MGCS battle tank prestige project is meeting a lot of resistance.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius (L) and French Armies Minister Sebastien Lecornu address a press conference during a joint-visit to the Evreux aerial base on September 21, 2023
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius (l) and his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu have been keen to show solidarityImage: Lou Benoist/AFP

The development of the Franco-German battle tank MGCS has taken a step forward this week. Army inspectors from both countries signed a document on the requirements for the joint main battle tank of the future.

"This is a milestone that will enable the work to come," said German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius at a joint press conference with his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu.

To overcome the crisis in Franco-German armaments cooperation, Lecornu invited Pistorius to Evreux in Normandy, from where the binational airlift squadron operates. It was seen as a milestone for the close military cooperation agreed upon by both countries in the Elysee Treaty in 1963. While the Franco-German Brigade separates almost all units by nationality, mixed Franco-German crews fly the transporters in Evreux — and the ground personnel also come from both countries.

Shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron was elected in 2017, he and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on a list of joint armaments projects costing more than €100 billion ($106 billion).

The FCAS air combat system was one item on the list, as was a maritime reconnaissance aircraft, an armament-capable drone — and a new main battle tank: The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) was to replace the French Leclerc and the German Leopard 2 from 2035.

However, industrial rivalries and differing political interests weigh heavily on the prestigious Franco-German MGCS project.

Paris or Berlin? Dispute over leadership

Both governments had agreed to share the development costs for the tank and for Germany to take the lead on the project. France, in turn, will take the lead on the FCAS combat aircraft.

The MGCS was initially to be developed by KNDS, a holding company formed by Germany's Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and France's state-affiliated tank builder Nexter — two of the leading European manufacturers of military land systems. Then Rheinmetall entered the project in 2019, and the French began to complain of a German overreach.

Now, the project could be opened up to more countries. Italy and the Netherlands would be interested in observer status, French Defense Minister Lecornu said.

Jacob Ross of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) sees this as tactics and points to a change in the timetable for the development — the tank is now not to be operational until after 2040.

"This not a breakthrough for the project, though," Ross said.

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Neighbors with different priorities

The MGCS's main gun is at the center of the discussions. Germany's Rheinmetall favors a 130mm gun, Nexter insists it should get the 140mm gun it has developed in France. The struggle over millimeters is vital from a military point of view because the caliber determines the weapon's capabilities.

Whoever prevails on this issue will likely set the NATO standard for decades to come. An informal meeting between current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Macron over the summer failed to produce an agreement on the issue.

The fact that the two countries have different strategic goals and the companies involved are pursuing conflicting interests has repeatedly thrown a spanner in the works. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, demand for Germany's Leopard 2 main battle tanks has been strong, so German tank builders want to secure this market quickly by modernizing the Leopard 2 model.

But France is insisting on a fundamentally newly developed system, arguing that in addition to classic combat, the new battle tank should also enable electromagnetic fire and laser fire and network via artificial intelligence. The plan is to have the tank be operated by soldiers but also accompanied by autonomous vehicles.

Is Germany reaching for more power?

So far, the achievements in connection with the 2017 Franco-German armaments initiative are modest. Plans for a joint maritime patrol aircraft have been canceled, and Germany is buying US aircraft instead. Berlin has also withdrawn from the joint Tiger combat helicopter project.

The "Zeitenwende" (turning point) Scholz spoke of after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to shifts in power, Elie Tenenbaum of the foreign policy think tank IFRI in Paris told DW. He said that Germany has decided to become the driving force in NATO's European pillar.

"Germany wants to cooperate, as it did with European missile defense, with a group of smaller European nations. France has no place in this formation," according to Tenenbaum.

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Only symbolism is not enough

During their meeting in Evreux, the two defense ministers made a show of friendship and unity. Germany's Pistorius emphasized his love for France, where he has often traveled on vacation, and from his time studying French at the Catholic University of Angers.

However, whether the billion-euro tank project can be saved with symbolism alone seems doubtful. The two countries' parliaments may end up with the unpleasant task of burying another Franco-German armaments project. After all, the deputies must approve funding for every major development step, and criticism of the project is growing louder in Germany's Bundestag.

In the National Assembly, Macron even has to rely on the support of the opposition for the approval of projects, which is highly critical of MGCS. However, Jacob Ross of the German Council on Foreign Relations believes that it will probably not be possible to give up on the battle tank plans without collateral damage:

"If MGCS fails, then the end of the FCAS fighter jet will also follow. German lawmakers have clearly indicated that," Ross said. "For Macron in particular, that would be a huge loss of face, which the opposition would exploit accordingly."

This article was originally written in German.

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