In 1964 studies were initiated about a possible replacement vehicle for the AMX 30: the Engin Principal Prospectif. In 1971, in view of the inferiority of the AMX 30 in comparison to the new generation of Soviet tanks about to be introduced, the Direction des Armements Terrestres ordered the beginning of the Char Futur project. In 1975 a working committee was created that in 1977 agreed on a list of specifications. In February 1980 however, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Federal Republic of Germany involving the joint development of a MBT, called the Napoléon I in France and Kampfpanzer III in Germany. Fundamental disagreements about its desired configuration led to a failure of this cooperation in December 1982. It was announced that a purely French battle tank would be developed, called "EPC" (Engin Principal de Combat). Importation of foreign equipment, like the M1 Abrams, the Leopard 2, or the Merkava had been studied and rejected.
In contrast to most Western programmes of the time, much consideration was given to active, besides passive protection, to limit the overall mass of the vehicle. Mobility for evading enemy fire and fire control systems were given particular attention. Nevertheless, it was a stated design goal to achieve at least double the protection against KE-penetrators in comparison to the level attained in then current MBTs of the fifty ton weight class, the latter indicated at about 400 mm RHA equivalency, the higher level at the same time protecting against shaped charges.
Partnership with a foreign state was sought to limit the cost per unit, and this was found when the United Arab Emirates ordered 436 vehicles, adding to the 426 units already planned for the French Army.
In 1986, the project was started under the name of "Leclerc", six prototypes being built swiftly. Mass production started in 1990 with the four-unit Batch 1, used mainly for comparative tests in foreign countries. The 17 units of Batch 2 were shipped, with improvements in the turret and in the hull armour. These units were diagnosed with problems in the engine and suspension, and were quickly retired. Batch 3 followed with some improvements and have been used to define the doctrine of use, and instruction.
Batches 4 and 5 were better built, eliminating the recurrent problems in the powerplant, and are still in service, after having been refitted at the end of the 1990s. The second series started with Batch 6, with an added climate control system in the right rear of the turret. Batch 7 introduced a transmission system to the command vehicle, and a data system giving instantaneous vision of the state of all battle tanks and acquired targets. It also incorporated minor improvements in the visor. Batch 8 was a modernisation of the electronic system, and Batch 9 replaced the thermal imaging ATHOS by a SAGEM Iris with better resolution.
All previous batches will be modernised up to the standards of Batch 9 from 2005. In 2004, Batch 10 was presented, incorporating new information systems which could share the disposition of enemy and friendly units to all vehicles on the battlefield, and a new armor package. This was the beginning of the 96-unit third series. By 2007, 355 tanks should have been operational, 320 of them incorporated in four regiments, each of 80 Leclerc vehicles.
As of 2010, after a French defence review, each of the four regiments operated 60 Leclerc tanks for a total of 240 in operational units; with a further 100 Leclerc in combat ready reserve. Due to finance cuts, only 254 tanks were fully operational in 2011.
The four regiments are:1er Régiment de Chasseurs stationed near Verdun, part of the 7th Armoured Brigade
4e Régiment de Dragons stationed in Carnoux-en-Provence, part of the 7th Armoured Brigade
12e Régiment de Cuirassiers stationed in Olivet, part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade
501e Régiment de Chars de Combat stationed in Mourmelon-le-Grand, 2nd Armoured Brigade
The Leclerc is equipped with a GIAT (Nexter) CN120-26 120mm smoothbore cannon. This cannon is capable of firing the same NATO standard 120mm rounds as the German Leopard 2 and US M1 Abrams, but in practice only French-produced ammunition is issued. The gun is insulated with a thermal sleeve and has an automatic compressed-air fume extraction system instead of the usual bore evacuator. The Leclerc has a unique autoloading system which was specifically designed for it, and reduces the crew to three by eliminating the human loader. The turret of the Leclerc was designed around the auto-loading system in order to avoid the problems common to other tanks with an autoloader. The Leclerc autoloader allows a rate of fire of 12 shots per minute and holds 22 rounds of ready ammunition; it can accommodate up to six different types of ammunition at once, although like most autoloader systems it cannot change ammunition types once a round has been loaded. The most common types are the armour piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) with a tungsten core and the high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round. There are 18 other rounds available for reload. A Leclerc tank can fire while traveling at a speed of 50 km/h on a target 4,000 metres away. The gun is 52 calibres long instead of the 44 calibres common on most tanks of the Leclerc's generation, giving the rounds a higher muzzle velocity.
The Leclerc is also equipped with a 12.7 mm coaxial machine gun and a remote-controlled 7.62 mm machine gun, whereas most other NATO tanks use 7.62 mm weapons for both their coaxial and top machine gun mounts; the major exception is the American M1 Abrams, which has a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun and two top-mounted machine guns, one 7.62 mm and one 12.7 mm.
The Leclerc has the GALIX combat vehicle protection system from GIAT, which fires a variety of smoke grenades and infra red screening rounds, as well as anti-personnel grenades.
The hull and the turret are made of welded steel fitted with modular armour, which can be replaced easily for repair or upgraded over the years. The French army in the late 1970s rejected Chobham armour as being overly specialised in its optimisation to defeat hollow charge-weapons; it, therefore, opted to develop their own composite arrangement to defeat both hollow charge and sabot round. Due to the introduction of modernised threats, the batch 3 has a new armour package, including composite armour, titanium insert and on the sides of the turret, ERA blocks.
The last 96 MBT XL Leclerc have the ICONE TIS battle management system with digital communication system which integrates data from other tanks and upper levels of command. Since 2009, All Leclerc in service (S2 and SXXI) have ICONE BMS.
The Leclerc tank features the HL-60 gunner's primary sight from SAGEM. The sight's day channel offers X3.3 and X10 magnification (x14 in case of the UAE version). The night channel thermal intensifier offers X3, X6, X10 and X20 magnifications. No emergency or auxiliary sights are mounted. The laser range finder is of the Nd:YAG type. The tank commander can observe the surroundings through 7 periscopes and the HL-70 Panoramic sight. The HL-70 is equipped with a day channel at X2.5 and X10 magnification and a night channel with X2.5 magnification. On the Series XXI and UAE variant the HL-120 and HL-80 commander's panoramic sight are mounted respectively. The sight offers X2.5 and X10 magnification (and an electronic zoom X2) for the thermal intensifier and a laser range finder of the Nd:YAG type. Both sights are also equipped with a semi auto tracker for target acquisition. The combination of the gunner's primary sight and commander's panoramic sight allows the Leclerc to operate in a hunter-killer mode.
The Leclerc's digital fire control system can be operated independently by the gunner or the commander, and it offers real time integrated imaging from all of the tank's sensors and sights, including the gunner's SAVAN 20 stabilised sight, developed by SAGEM.
The Leclerc has an eight-cylinder SACM (now Wärtsilä) V8X-1500 1,500 hp Hyperbar diesel engine and a Renk AG automatic transmission, with five forward and two reverse gears. The official maximum speed by road is 72 km/h and 55 km/h cross country (speeds in excess of 80 km/h were reported on road). The maximum range is given as 550 km, and can be extended to 650 km with removable external tanks. The "hyperbar" system integrates a Turbomeca TM 307B gas turbine in the engine, acting both as a turbocharger and an APU giving auxiliary power to all systems when the main engine is shut down. The Hyperbar name comes from the unusually high boost pressure of 7.5 bar and the resulting mean effective pressure of 32.1 bar. To compare, the largest diesel engine in the world (the Wärtsila RTA96) has a mean effective pressure of 18.6 bar. In addition, with boost available even at idle, this arrangement also works as an anti-lag system.
At a combat weight of just 56 tons, the Leclerc is one of the lightest main battle tanks in the world; this gives it one of the best power-to-weight ratios among the Western tanks (27 hp per ton) and makes it one of the fastest MBTs of its generation (0 to 32 km/h in 5 seconds).
The engine exhaust, exiting at the rear left, is cooled to reduce the thermal signature of the Leclerc. Transmission is a hydromechanical type with five forward and two reverse gears. Fuel tanks carry 1,300 litres and act as extra protection for the tank; two 200-litre external tanks can be fitted on the rear of the turret, but have to be jettisoned before entering combat since they limit turret rotation.
The gear box is equipped with a hydrokinetic retarder which can slow the Leclerc down at a deceleration rate of 7 m/s² (0.7 g) which is automatically used over 30 km/h.
In service since 1992 (after the Persian Gulf War), the Leclerc has mostly seen deployment on low-intensity conflicts, including 15 Leclerc stationed in Kosovo (KFOR) and others in Lebanon (UNIFIL) within UN peace-keeping operations, where their performance was judged satisfactory by French officials.
Until 2010, 13 Leclerc were deployed in the south Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission with UNIFIL.
As of August 2015, Leclerc tanks of the United Arab Emirates were deployed in combat operations in Yemen (near Aden) as part of the Saudi-led coalition. It is estimated 70 Leclerc MBTs were deployed by the UAE in Yemen, 15 of them equipped with the AZUR package. 3 tanks were damaged, 2 by antitank mines and 1 by a RPG which damaged the grid without piercing the hull. In a single incident; one Leclerc tank was hit and penetrated in the front hull by an ATGM, possibly of Konkurs or Konkurs-M type, resulting in the death of the driver and injuries to the legs of the commander. None of these tanks were lost.
Séries 1: Original production model
Séries 2:new NBC system which integrates a hybrid air conditioner.
independent air conditioning unit installed on the back roof behind the gunner's hatch.
In order to balance the turret since the adding of the air conditioner, the turret frontal armor is thickened a few centimeters ahead the commander's station.
revised sprocket cooling fins.
extra splash guard added to the front hull.
Remote operated hydraulic track tensioner.
bolt-on appliqué armor on each hull sponsons.
Athos thermal camera on the gunner's sight is replaced by the new Iris thermal camera since the block 9 (T9).
SIT ICONE battlefield management system added in 2009
Séries XXI:New composite armor package, the additional weight caused by the adding of tungsten is avoided thanks to the titanium that replace the steel previously used in each armor modules. Turret bustle modular armor includes also semi-reactive layers made of explosive materials.
Turret storage bins have been tailored for the larger armor package.
The commander has now the HL 120 panoramic sight which now features a laser rangefinder and the Iris thermal camera.
Higher electrical turret output.
SIT ICONE battlefield management system.
Leclerc AZUR Action en Zone Urbaine: proposed urban warfare kit for actions in urban areas.
Leclerc EPG Engin Principal du Génie: "main engineering vehicle": armoured engineering
Leclerc DNG Dépanneur Nouvelle Génération: recovery tank
Leclerc MARS : Moyen Adapté de Remorquage Spécifique: provisional armoured recovery vehicle prior to the arrival of the DNG.
Leclerc EAU Tropicalized: version of the United Arab Emirates; it is fitted with :
EuroPowerPack with the MTU MT883 diesel engine of 1,100 kW. The United Arab Emirates have interests in the German company which builds them (MTU) and preferred an engine of their own.
Externally mounted diesel auxiliary power unit with a tank infantry telephone fitted on its armored box.
Redesigned engine compartment (louver, access panels).
Engine-driven mechanical air-conditioning mounted in the left part of the hull to cool the tank without the use of electric current which could reveal the position of the tank.
HL-80 commander panoramic sight with Alis thermal camera and laser rangefinder.
ATO (Armement Télé-Opéré) remote-controlled mount for a 7.62 mm FN MAG machine-gun operated under-armour by the HL-80 panoramic sight.
Leclerc Battlefield Management System (LBMS).
Completely automated driving and turret functions with pictograms on the buttons for use by crew with only basic training.
Some bustle storage bins are replaced by baskets.
Leclerc Koufra, or Leclerc T40 : A proposal from the late 2000s to convert existing Séries 1 vehicles into a 'heavy' reconnaissance scout, primarily for urban warfare. The conversion included a brand new turret incorporating a CTA CT40 Case Telescoped Weapon System (CTWS) as well as grenade launchers, along with provision for two side mounted anti-tank missiles. France 406 + 20 armoured recovery vehicles.
United Arab Emirates 388 + 46 armoured recovery vehicles