VBCI: France’s Wheeled APCJun 17, 2012 12:14 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
Many European countries are abandoning tracked APCs entirely, for good or ill, and France is joining that trend by replacing its existing tracked AMX-10Ps with the 8×8 wheeled VÃ©hicule BlindÃ© de Combat d’Infanterie (Armored Infantry Combat Vehicle). This article looks at the VBCI platform, discusses the program and export opportunities, and follows associated contracts & key events.
France’s orders give it a strong base, and an additional order has just come in from that quarter. Still, the VBCI is arriving late to the competitive game. Whether it ends up being fashionably late, or just too late, still depends in large measure on one of France’s age-old allies – and age-old rivals.
The VBCI Vehicle Family
Wheeled armored personnel carriers may have hit the spotlight in the late 1990s, but they’ve been around for much longer. South Africa and its neighbors have used wheeled APCs for many years, due to their suitability on the region’s hard-packed grassland terrain. France’s Foreign Legion and Army has had their VAB wheeled APC since the late 1970s, and successfully exported it to 14 other countries. The US Marines gave Swiss firm MOWAG’s wheeled armored personnel carriers a big boost at about the same time, by selecting its Piranha for their amphibious Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) family. Interest really took off in the 1990s, however, as US General Shinseki and many European countries made a strong push to displace tracked APCs with wheeled alternatives in many land armies. The limitations of wheeled APCs have been made glaringly apparent on the front lines in Afghanistan, but their usefulness in scenarios where heavy mileage is required and protecting roads is part of the mission set has also been demonstrated on the front lines.
The 8×8 VBCI off-road armored vehicle is designed to replace the tracked AMX10P, and weighs 25-28t in operational configuration (18t+ empty). This precludes airlift by C-160 Transall or C-130 Hercules aircraft, but would allow transport in the future Airbus A400M, the Boeing C-17, or larger aircraft. Structurally, the VBCI uses a high strength aluminum alloy body with add-on modular THD steel and titanium armor, and is designed for additional carrying capacity. The usual centralized variable tire inflation and adjustable suspension are present, with the central axles protected by armored housings. Ground clearance is 50-70cm/ 20-25 inches, and the system is powered by a 550 hp diesel engine. Nexter also says that it has anticipated projects for vehicles requiring a higher body (i.e. ambulance), and has designed the chassis accordingly.
The VCI/ICV infantry carrier version will embark 8 soldiers, plus a 3-man crew of a vehicle commander, gunner and driver. Standard armament will be a DRAGAR single operated turret equipped with laser and thermal imaging equipment and firing a twin-fed 25mm autocannon with 150 rounds and a 7.62mm machine gun. The VPC/CPV command post variant will have only a 12.7mm FN remote-controlled cupola.
Range is about 470 miles/ 750 km maximum, with maximum speeds of up to 60+ mph/ 100 kph and a circle turning radius of 17m. Fording capability is only 1.2m (about 4 feet) depth, rising to 1.5m with preparation. Its armor claims to withstand “medium caliber fire” (this usually means .50 cal/ 12.7 mm), shell shrapnel and improvised explosive devices (IED), together with an unexplained claim for a high level of mine protection. Additional protection includes the standard fire suppression equipment, NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) overpressure protection, a GALIX self-protection system to launch smoke and other projectiles, and a LIRE 30 anti-missile infra-red decoy system. A “hard kill” system to protect against incoming rockets and missiles is also expected in the near future.
VBCI: Program, Team, and Competitors
France’s overall requirement was expected to be 550 VCI infantry carriers and 150 VPC command posts, with delivery expected to begin in 2008. The vehicle has been qualified by the French Army before end of 2007, and is already in full series production. A late 2008 modification cut back on the planned buy from 2009-2014, reducing the overall buy from 700 to 630 vehicles, of which 520 would be VCIs and 110 VPCs. The overall program total is currently reported as EUR 2.86 billion (about $4.085 billion at Sept. 2009 conversion).
The VBCI is produced by a joint venture between Giat Industries and Renault Trucks Defense called GME. Renault equips the driver’s station, engine, gearbox, suspension and axles and on-board electrical networks. Giat is responsible for the armored hull, interior furnishing, assembly and integration of the turret and vehicle, observation, command and control, weapons and self-protection systems. Other participants in the program include:
- Renault-Volvo engine with a ZF gearbox
- EADS (electrical turret aiming systems, SIT battle management system in French vehicles)
- FN Herstal (remote weapon system for the command post version)
- Galileo Avionica (commander’s sight)
- Michelin (pneumatics)
- SAGEM (panoramic observation sight)
- Thales (gunner’s sight)
The VBCI has come late to the field with respect to wheeled armored personnel carriers, and faces long-entrenched competitors including General Dynamics’ MOWAG (Piranha family) and Steyr (Pandur II) subsidiaries, and the popular AMV Armored Modular Vehicle from Patria Oyj, a joint venture of the Finnish government (75%) and EADS (25%). These 3 systems have spent the last several years fighting and winning competitions across Europe for future APCs, which will limit the VBCI’s opportunities. BAE’s SEP modular vehicle, which comes in both wheeled and tracked configurations, is another key competitor, as is its RG-41 and the joint Dutch-German ARTEC consortium’s Boxer MRAV.
One could argue that the popular BAE Hagglunds CV90 family and KMW/Rheinmetall’s Puma tracked IFV also represent current competition. The VBCI is positioned as the main battle tank’s companion in France’s army, and pursues the same positioning in competitions like Britain’s FRES. It has already found itself facing the CV90 in Canada’s competition, and will likely do so again in future.
While the VBCI will have opportunities in the 3rd world, especially among France’s African clients, the British FRES-Utility competition was its biggest opportunity by far. Wins in France and Britain would have offered Nexter an excellent production base, vaulting it immediately into the top ranks of global wheeled APCs. Unfortunately for Nexter, that opportunity has become much more distant. The collapse of British FRES-U negotiations with General Dynamics MOWAG re-opened the opportunity, but it also pushed the FRES-U variant to the backburner in favor of the FRES-Scout vehicle, based on General Dynamics’ tracked ASCOD IFV. With budget pressures in Britain building, FRES-U has become an extremely distant prospect.
To date, the VBCI remains confined to its home market.
Contracts & Key Events
2010 – 2012
June 11/12: FELIN. At Eurosatory 2012, France’s DGA unveils the 1st VBCI vehicle wired to work with the FELIN 21st century soldier system. FELIN integrates wearable computers, optics etc. into a complete soldier kit. “Felinise” vehicles will be able to pass data from their battlefield management and communications systems to equipped soldiers, and will also serve as a hub for keeping all of the required batteries recharged. DGA [in French].
August 2011: Canada. The VBCI is reportedly one of the 3 finalist contenders for Canada’s CCV infantry fighting vehicle, alongside BAE’s tracked CV90, and GDLS-C’s wheeled Piranha V. The contenders reportedly provide test vehicles for blast and other trials at the US Army’s Aberdeen Test Center.
The end of tests in October 2011 were supposed to be followed by a decision, initial delivery of 8 CCVs within 24 months, and delivery of the remaining 100 CCVs within 48 months. Instead, the competition was canceled, again, in April 2012. CASR | Ottawa Citizen.
July 7/10: A parliamentary defense committee hearing gets initial details from defense minister Hervé Morin on future programs. Morin said that the French A400M orders would go ahead as planned, as would its Barracuda nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, Felin advanced infantry set, FREMM multimission frigate, Rafale fighter and VBCI armored vehicle.
Plans to field 14 new A330 MRTTs to replace France’s C-135FR aerial tankers would be delayed, and so would a EUR 700 million life extension and air defense upgrade for France’s Mirage 2000D strike aircraft, a major upgrade to the national airspace command-and-control system, and elements of the Scorpion land systems modernization program. Defense News.
June 14/10: Sub-contractors. Safran Group subsidiary Sagem announces an order from Nexter Systems for 285 MOP panoramic observation systems, and 285 EPS-LT stabilized turret components, to equip its VBCI 8×8 APCs. Including previous acquisitions, this latest contract brings the total number of VBCIs using Sagem’s MOP and EPS-LT to a total of 521.
The MOP is a stabilized 2-axis panoramic observation system using a non-cooler thermal imager, intended for the vehicle commander. It comprises a pointing platform with a non-cooled thermal imager. With functions slaved to the episcope and the chassis centerline, the MOP also provides driving assistance.
The EPS-LT pointing system is a key component of Nexter’s DRAGAR turret. It’s fitted with gyrometric sensors and stabilized, allowing accurate fire on the move from the turret’s 25mm cannon and coaxial 7.62mm machine gun.
May 11/10: Deployment. The French Army announces that its VBCIs are embarking on the chartered ship MS Eider, and will arrive in Afghanistan this summer. They’ll deploy with the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment and the 126th Infantry Regiment, in Afghanistan’s Kapisa and Surobi regions.
Kapisa is the top point of an equilateral triangle, whose base is the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. That road stretches east to Peshawar in Pakistan, and Surobi is on that road at roughly at the midpoint between Kabul and Jalalabad.
Sept 5/09: +332. France’s DGA announces an order for another 332 VBCI vehicles, bringing the total to the full planned buy of 630.
As of this date, over 100 VBCI vehicles have already been delivered, and the first combat unit (35th infantry regiment) to receive the VBCI used it in the 2009 Bastille Day parade. The last vehicle is scheduled for delivery to the French Army in 2015. DGA | Nexter.
2007 – 2009
Dec 5/08: +116. France has decided that part of its industrial stimulus package will be military, and part of that effort is a 116 vehicle order that will bring France’s VBCI fleet to 298 machines.
Over the longer term, France’s 2009-14 military budget law cut total numbers of VBCI units to 630, giving an estimated value of EUR 2.6 – 2.7 billion ($3.8 – 3.9 billion), down from the original plan of just under EUR 3 billion for 700. In total, France is moving EUR 2.3 billion of spending from the military budget law forward in time, as part of a wider EUR 26 billion economic stimulus package. France’s DGA | Defense News.
Aug 29/08: Multi-Year Support. The French DGA procurement agency awards a 5-year, EUR 320 million performance-based contract to support its VBCI vehicles. The contract covers the period from mid-2009 to 2015, during which period Nexter commits to an availability rate of 95% in foreign theaters, the complete maintenance of VBCIs operated by French Army training bases, and spares delivered directly to French Army maintenance workshops in France. In return, payments from the DGA will vary as vehicle usage rises or declines.
The recent French White Paper on defense and national security gives a planned figure of around 650 VBCIs, to be fielded by the end of 2015. DGA release [Francais].
May 8/08: Loss in Britain. Nexter’s VBCI loses to General Dynamics MOWAG’s Piranha-V in the finals of Britain’s FRES-Utility competition. DID’s FRES FOCUS article | UK MoD release | General Dynamics UK release.
Oct 19/07: +117. France’s DGA procurement agency issues a purchase order for 117 VBCI vehicles, with configuration splits and costs undisclosed. These 117 vehicles will thus be produced within a period of one year, starting early in 2008.
Nexter, with a keen eye on the British FRES contract opportunity, adds that: “the assembly line has the potential to provide a further substantial increase in production rate to meet any export contract requirements.” DGA release [PDF] | Nexter release.
June 8/07: British finalist. Britain’s MoD announces the FRES finalists. Surprisingly, the SEP vehicles don’t make that list, nor do other test platforms. All of the finalists are wheeled: General Dynamics MOWAG’s Piranha V, Nexter (formerly Giat’s) VBCI – and the KMW-ARTEC Boxer, which program Britain abandoned several years ago in order to pursue FRES.
The vehicles will go on to the “trials of truth,” and the MoD says the outcome of the trials will be announced by the end of November 2007. At that point, “one or more utility vehicle designs will go forward for detailed assessment.” UK MoD release | Nexter release | Nexter DESi brochure | KMW release.
Nov 2000: Initial 65. the French DGA orders 54 VBCIs in the infantry combat version, and another 11 in the command post version. The first 20 vehicles will be delivered to the French Army in July 2008, and personnel training was conducted during the 2nd quarter of 2007.
- Nexter (formerly GIAT) – VBCI
- French DGA – Le VBCI, tout un programme [video]
- Army Technology – VBCI Wheeled Infantry Fighting Vehicle, France
- Defense Update – VBCI Armored Personnel Carrier (GIAT Industries)
- Nexter – 40mm Cased Telescoped Armament System (CTAS): Cannon (CT C)
- France’s DGA – Le canon de 40 mm à munitions télescopées CTCA (Cased Telescoped Canon and Ammunition). Eventually slated to replace the 25mm cannons on France’s VBCIs.
- Army Technology – AMX 10RC Wheeled Armoured Reconnaisance Vehicle, France
- Army Technology – VAB (Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé) Wheeled Armoured Fighting Vehicle, France
- DID FOCUS Article – The UK’s FRES Transformational Armored Vehicles
- Army Technology – Patria AMV (Armoured Modular Vehicle) 8×8 Wheeled Vehicle, Finland
- ARTEC Boxer official site. Boxer uses a fully modular concept, where specialized mission modules can be slid into and out of a base chassis.
- Army Technology – Boxer MRAV Wheeled Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle, Europe
- Army Technology – Pandur II 6×6 and 8×8 Light Armoured Vehicles, Austria
- Army Guide – Piranha IV 8×8. See also MOWAG’s 2001 release unveiling the vehicle at DSEi 2001.
- Army Technology – Piranha III / LAV III Wheeled Armoured Vehicles, Switzerland
- Army Technology – SEP Modular Armoured Tactical System Wheeled and Tracked Vehicles, Sweden
- Army Technology – CV90 Tracked Armoured Combat Vehicles, Sweden
- Army Technology – Puma Tracked Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Germany
- Army Technology – BMP-3 Tracked Infantry Combat Vehicle, Russia