JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
- France said on January 5 that it would send the AMX-10RC armored vehicle to Ukraine.
- French and Ukrainian officials and others have referred to the AMX-10RC as a “light tank.”
- It doesn’t quite qualify as a tank, but it will be a valuable addition to Ukraine’s arsenal.
France’s decision to send the AMX-10RC to Ukraine sparked pronouncements that the West is finally delivering tanks to Ukraine.
The “tank” vs. “armored vehicle” debate is a long and often contentious one, but AMX-10RCs are armored reconnaissance vehicles and not tanks, which usually have large-caliber main guns, heavy-duty armor, and tracks.
While the symbolism of delivering it to Kyiv is important, it remains to be seen how useful a thinly protected, 1970s-vintage armored vehicle will be on the battlefield in Ukraine.
That France and Ukraine have described the AMX-10RC as a “light tank” is significant. Despite Ukraine’s pleas, the US and other countries have refused to send first-line tanks such as the M1 Abrams.
This has left Ukraine reliant on a motley collection of Soviet-designed tanks acquired before the war, Russian tanks captured in battle, or refurbished models provided by countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.
A French Foreign Legion AMX-10RC during an exercise at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in October 2017.
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Damarko Bones
The AMX-10RC is really a six-wheeled armored car. Designed in the early 1970s and first deployed by the French Army in 1979, it is a 16-ton vehicle capable of traveling 50 mph.
Its wheeled design means it can move fast on roads and smooth terrain — and requires less maintenance — than a heavy, tracked vehicle such as the 70-ton Abrams.
The AMX-10RC’s thin armor protects against small arms and shrapnel but not large-caliber tank rounds or anti-tank missiles. While its manufacturer, Giat Industries, does offer an add-on kit with extra armor and missile countermeasures, the AMX-10RC is more suited for locating the enemy — and beating a hasty retreat if necessary — rather than going cannon-to-cannon with main battle tanks.
France operates 245 AMX-10RCs and has deployed the vehicle in Operation Desert Storm and in counterinsurgency operations in Africa. Morocco, Qatar, and Cameroon also operate the AMX-10RC, though the French military is replacing it with the Jaguar, a 25-ton armored scout vehicle armed with a 40 mm rapid-fire cannon and two anti-tank missiles.
Wheeled armored scout cars are not uncommon. Russia, for example, still uses the 1960s-era 7-ton BRDM-2, Japan the 15-ton Type 87, and the US the 19-ton M1127 Stryker scout variant.
French soldiers practice firing 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 been called a “light tank” or “tank destroyer” — is that it packs a 105 mm cannon rather than the usual small cannon or heavy machine gun.
While smaller than the high-velocity 120 mm cannons found on main battle tanks, the AMX-10RC’s gun is powerful enough to take out a tank at close range and would be deadly against lighter armored vehicles and infantry.
“The US Army was never very fond of” wheeled armored fighting vehicles, said Steven Zaloga, an author and expert on armored vehicles, who compared the AMX-10RC to the US’s now-retired M551 Sheridan and M3 Bradley cavalry fighting vehicle, both of which have tracks.
The AMX-10RC also resembles the US’s M1128 Mobile Gun System, the fire-support variant of the wheeled Stryker armed with a 105 mm gun, which the US Army has decided to discard.
The AMX-10RC is a “bit of an oddity,” according to Olivier Schmitt, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for War Studies.
“It was conceived for recon and fire support, and, in the 1980s, was the heaviest armored vehicle assigned to the ‘rapid action force'” set up by France to rush across Germany in response to a Soviet attack, Schmitt tweeted this week.
French troops back an AMX-10RC onto a ship in Toulon in June 1995.
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images
In other words, the AMX-10RC was designed to be part of a light mechanized force that rides to the rescue of NATO forces desperately defending against a Soviet blitzkrieg. That’s not the situation in Ukraine now. Fighting there has become trench warfare, with incremental gains rather than sweeping armored offensives in which fast, armored scout vehicles excel.
Indeed, Ukraine has shown that modern reconnaissance relies on drones and satellites. Armored vehicles are still vital on the battlefield, but an armored car may have limited utility against swarms of anti-tank missiles, attack drones, and smart artillery shells.
Yet the military value of the AMX-10RC isn’t really the point. What’s important is that the West is sending armored fighting vehicles.
France’s announcement was quickly followed by the US announcing that it would send M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Germany announcing that it would send Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. Both vehicles are tracked and heavier than the AMX-10RC but have smaller main weapons, though 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 — than 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 holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.