France sends AMX-10RC tank destroyers to Ukraine

  • On January 5, France said it would send the AMX-10RC armored vehicle to Ukraine.
  • French and Ukrainian officials and others refer to the AMX-10RC as a “light tank.”
  • It doesn’t quite qualify as a tank, but it will be a valuable addition to the Ukrainian arsenal.

France’s decision to send the AMX-10RC to Ukraine prompted statements that the West was finally supplying tanks to Ukraine.

The “tank” vs. “armored vehicle” debate is long and often contentious, but the AMX-10RCs are armored reconnaissance vehicles, not tanks, which typically have large-caliber guns, heavy armor, and tracks.

While the symbolism of the delivery to Kyiv is important, it remains to be seen how useful the lightly protected armored vehicle from the 1970s will be on the battlefield in Ukraine.

That France and Ukraine describing the AMX-10RC as a “light tank” is significant. Despite pleas from Ukraine, the US and other countries refused to send the first tanks such as the M1 Abrams.

As a result, Ukraine relied on a motley collection of Soviet-designed tanks acquired before the war, Russian tanks captured in battle, or refurbished models supplied by countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

French Foreign Legion AMX-10RC

A French Foreign Legion AMX-10RC during an exercise at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in October 2017.

US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Damarko Bones

The AMX-10RC is actually an armored car with six wheels. Designed in the early 1970s and first used by the French Army in 1979, it is a 16-ton vehicle that can travel at 50 mph.

Its wheeled design means it can move quickly on roads and smooth terrain – and requires less maintenance – than a heavy tracked vehicle such as the 70-tonne Abrams.

The thin armor of the AMX-10RC protects against small arms and shrapnel, but not against large-caliber tank shells or anti-tank missiles. Although its manufacturer, Giat Industries, offers an optional kit with additional armor and missile countermeasures, the AMX-10RC is better suited to locating enemies – and preventing a hasty retreat if necessary – rather than going toe-to-toe with main battle tanks.

France has 245 AMX-10RCs and deployed the vehicle in Operation Desert Storm and in counter-insurgency operations in Africa. Morocco, Qatar and Cameroon also use the AMX-10RC, although the French military is replacing it with the Jaguar, a 25-tonne armored reconnaissance vehicle armed with a 40mm rapid-fire cannon and two anti-tank missiles.

Wheeled armored reconnaissance vehicles are not uncommon. Russia, for example, still uses the 7-ton BRDM-2 from the 1960s, Japan the 15-ton Type 87, and the US the 19-ton M1127 Stryker scout variant.

French soldiers in AMX-10RC in Afghanistan

French soldiers practice shooting from an AMX-10RC in Afghanistan’s Surobi district in September 2010.

JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

But what’s striking about the AMX-10RC—and perhaps why it’s called a “light tank” or “tank destroyer”—is that it has a 105mm gun rather than the usual small cannon or heavy machine gun.

Although smaller than the 120mm high-velocity guns found on main battle tanks, the AMX-10RC gun is powerful enough to destroy a tank at close range and would be lethal against lighter armored vehicles and infantry.

“The U.S. military has never been fond” of wheeled armored fighting vehicles, said Steven Zaloga, an author and armored vehicle expert, who compared the AMX-10RC to the U.S.’s now-retired M551 Sheridan and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, both of which have tracks.

The AMX-10RC also resembles the US M1128 Mobile Gun System, a wheeled fire support variant of the Stryker armed with a 105 mm cannon, which the US Army decided to discard.

The AMX-10RC is “a bit strange,” according to Olivier Schmitt, a professor at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

“Designed for reconnaissance and fire support, in the 1980s it was the heaviest armored vehicle assigned to the ‘rapid reaction force'” deployed by France to sweep across Germany in response to a Soviet attack, Schmitt tweeted this week.

French troops AMX-10RC on board

French troops return an AMX-10RC to the ship at Toulon in June 1995.


In other words, the AMX-10RC was designed to be part of a light mechanized force riding to the aid of NATO forces desperately defending against Soviet blitzkrieg. This is not the situation in Ukraine now. Fighting there became trench warfare, with incremental gains rather than all-out armored offensives featuring fast armored reconnaissance vehicles.

Indeed, Ukraine has shown that modern reconnaissance relies on drones and satellites. Armored vehicles are still vital on the battlefield, but an armored car can be of limited use against a barrage of anti-tank missiles, attack drones, and smart artillery shells.

However, the military value of the AMX-10RC is not really the point. It is essential that the West sends armored combat vehicles.

France’s announcement was quickly followed by announcements by the US to send M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and by Germany to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. Both vehicles are tracked and heavier than the AMX-10RC, but have less main armament, although they also carry anti-tank missiles.

Tank or not, if the AMX-10RC boosts Ukrainian morale – and reminds Russia that heavier Western armor may be coming – then it’s a valuable weapon.

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

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