Eurosatory 2024 – From Leopard 2A8 and Leclerc XLR to MGCS: the KNDS roadmap towards the future MBT

Paolo Valpolini

At Eurosatory 2024 KNDS, the Franco-German land defence player, unveils its roadmap leading towards the MGCS, the Main Ground Combat System, MGCS in short, the starting points being the Leopard 2A8 and the Leclerc XLR

With the Leopard 2A8 set to become the standard main battle tank (MBT) of many European armies, and with the Leclerc XLR, the upgraded version of the original tank, delivered to the 501st French Regiment of the Armée de Terre in November 2023, KNDS is providing NATO with state-of-the-art MBTs capable to deal with current threats. Although decisions were taken on April 26th by French and German Ministers of Defence to boost the MGCS programme, the appearance of such a system cannot be expected before 2040.

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Confronted to a changing battlefield, with new threats appearing, the MBT must react to that evolution, and this is the word selected by KNDS France that presents on the company stand at the Parc des Expositions de Villepinte its Leclerc Evolution.

“This wants to be an intermediate system, between the current MBT and the future MGCS,” François Groshany, Director for Next Generation Tracked Armoured Programmes tells EDR On-Line. The evolution affects both the turret and the chassis, one of the key elements of the Leclerc Evolution being the new Ascalon gun.

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This has been seen in the past in the 140 mm calibre, and in this configuration it has continued its evolution, with several firing tests that involved both the gun and ammunition. “We are concentrating on the APFSDS ammunition as this is the one that dictates the gun design, as it is generating a higher energy compared to the other types of rounds,” François Groshany states. What is totally new is the fact that the Ascalon has also be declined in the 120 mm calibre, compatible with all NATO standard ammunition. The new turret of the Leclerc Evolution will remain a manned turret and can be also fitted with the 120 F1 gun of the current Leclerc XLR, however if fitted with the Ascalon gun system, this can easily shift from the 120 to the 140 mm calibre, the chamber being part of the barrel assembly. It is therefore just a matter of changing the barrel; at Eurosatory, a video is visible where the gun, installed on a static gun carriage, fires six 140 mm rounds, the barrel being then removed and replaced by a 120 mm barrel, firing with the smaller calibre rounds. The automatic loader will remain the same, the maximum diameter of the complete ammunition being practically the same, 2 mm difference; the one developed for the Leclerc Evolution can accept both rounds, the 300 mm length difference between the two being compensated by a different setting of the system that pushes the round from the loader into the breech.

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The Leclerc Evolution wants to be an intermediate solution between current tanks and the MGCS, therefore it is designed exploiting state-of-the-art but available technology, to answer new battlefield scenarios. It is fitted with a KNDS ARX30 remotely controlled weapon station armed with the 30M781MPG gun chambered for 30×113 mm rounds, an airburst munition capable system that can be used effectively in self-defence against UAVs. To allow long range engagements, a must in today transparent battlefield, the turret is also fitted with loitering munitions, a three rounds canister being visible on the prototype. “The idea is to exploit the core of the Leclerc MBT adding a good 360° self-defence capability as well as stand-off weapons in the form of loitering munitions,” François Groshany explains.

Adding new systems means also adding workload for the crew. As the gunner and commander located in the turret will play their usual roles, who will be responsible for the new capabilities? The answer is a fourth crew member, who will be hosted in the chassis. “On the right side of the hull, the Leclerc MBT was including a drum containing additional rounds to the 22 hosted in the autoloader. This has been removed and that space exploited to create the fourth crewmember station. The Leclerc Evolution fitted with the Ascalon 120 gun has a combat mass of around 62 tonnes, equipped with the Azur armour kit for urban operations. The mass difference when equipped with the Ascalon 140 is very limited, around 200 kg, the bigger calibre gun mass being marginally higher.

Together with the Leclerc Evolution, at Eurosatory KNDS is exhibiting another interim tank, this time developed by the German branch of the company, the Leopard 2 ARC 3.0, the two solutions looking at different customers and markets, in the aim of enlarging the business portfolio of the KNDS Group.

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Looking forward towards the MGCS, Nexter is presenting another first at the Paris exhibition, the ADT 140, for Ascalon Demonstrator Turret, an unmanned turret shown on the EMBT chassis. Some of the features concerning the evolution of the Ascalon programme have been already mentioned.

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“We are working intensively on the kinetic energy ammunition,” François Groshany tells EDR On-Line, “and we are testing penetrators with a very high aspect ratio.” EDR On-Line understood that KNDS is also working on lighter sabots, reducing their mass increases the muzzle velocity hence the energy on the target, as well as new primers. At Eurosatory a new 140 mm APFSDS ammunition was visible, with the sabot developed by KNDS for the 120 mm SHARD APFSDS round. Moreover, the company ammunition R&D centre in Bourges is also working at technologies aimed at the development of 140 mm guided ammunition and, although the company does not confirm, some of the work done on artillery guided rounds should be exploited at least partially for those new developments.

Back to the ADT 140 itself, being an unmanned turret, its mass should be lower compared to that of a manned turret. “This is one of the objectives of having no crew in the turret, as moving all the crew in the hull allows reducing the volume, however no crew does not mean no armour,” the Director for Next Generation Tracked Armoured Programmes explains. The need to protect the gun and especially ammunition remains, as these are the raison d’être of an MBT, hence discussions are ongoing with potential customers on which protection level must be maintained. The ADT 140 will be equipped with a hybrid armour package with passive, reactive and active elements. “For active protection we look at a new form of hard kill system that will be capable to deal with slow moving threats, such as missiles, high velocity threats such as kinetic energy rounds, as well as top attack threats, Francois Groshany tells us. The latter can be of different types, UAS, loitering munitions, top attack missiles, no details being provided as this solution seems to be among the various technology programmes currently underway in the KNDS R&D division.

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Comparing the Leclerc Evolution turret with the ADT 140, the latter maintains the ARX30 unmanned turret but will lack loitering munitions. “We are working looking at the MGCS concept, in which the manned platform will operate with other platforms, mostly unmanned, providing support capabilities such as longer-range C-UAS as well as longer range engagements with loitering munitions,” François Groshany explains.

Adding an RCWS and loitering munitions led to a four-man crew for the Leclerc Evolution; how many people will serve in the future tank fitted with an unmanned turret and operating in team with unmanned platforms, which will however need some human monitoring especially when a fire mission is called? “We will have only three of them on board, as the tank will be fitted with a next generation on board electronics, the much higher embarked computing capacity coupled to artificial intelligence algorithms replacing the fourth crew member,” Groshany states.

Having all three crew members in the hull means that all vision will be through digital channels, that will bring on the screens the view of the surroundings, no direct view backup system being available anymore for the gunner and the commander. “This requires a very capable and resilient electronic infrastructure, and we are leveraging part of the work done in the automation domain,” he explains adding that the driver will however maintain vision blocks as backup. “We aim at having on board main vision sensors which quality will be close to that of the human retina,” François Groshany adds, which obviously generates a huge amount of data to be processed. “This needs to develop and mature new technologies, which means considerable investments in human resources as well as on money,” he underlines.

Moving the crew from the top of the tank means that operators used to look at the surroundings from an elevated position with direct view are now in the lower part of the platform. It is highly probable that tankers of the “old generation” will have more problems to get used to next generation tanks layout than young people who spend most time of the day looking. Image quality and demonstrated reliability will help overcoming that issue, the KNDS representative speculating that a bird’s eye view system and other advanced functionalities might also be added.

The general architecture of the ADT 140 is quite peculiar especially at the back. One of the reasons for this comes from the autoloader, which will have a high rate of fire, no more details being available. When the ADT 140 will be ready, it will be the first time the Ascalon 140 will be integrated into a turret and will not fire from a fixed stand. Industry tests will be conducted before a fire on the move demonstration, which is planned for late 2025.

Photos by P. Valpolini