The AMX-30 was the French Army’s main battle tank (or Char de Bataille) for the second half of the Cold War. In June 1966 as the first production AMX-30 rolled off the production line, the French arms industry was an innovative and successful armoured vehicle design, production and marketing center.
France had a relatively strong economy and a large degree of government control and subsidization in its strategic industries.
Great things were expected of the AMX-30 design, which had been conceived as a weapon to arm the armoured forces of Western Europe. The AMX-30 did not achieve the degree of export success met by its lighter predecessor for a variety of reasons, but the battle tank and its derivatives have ultimately served the French army for over 46 years. The AMX-30 series was France’s most significant land weapon system for two generations and represented a significantly different approach to tank design than most of its western contemporaries.
Why a 30-Ton Tank?
Between the early 1950s and 1966, France had arguably already succeeded beyond any other European nation in two domains of the market for land warfare systems: creating light armoured vehicles with exceptional firepower, and the development of guided antitank missile technology. The AMX-13 light tank was the epitome of how successful the French tank design philosophy could be. The French government had every aspiration to become the arsenal of Europe by extending this expertise into the production of battle tanks for their European allies and for export markets.
The expertise accumulated in the AMX-13 program became the guiding force for the design and production parameters of the Char de Bataille AMX-30. The Char de Bataille or Battle Tank concept adopted in France specified a 30 ton medium tank design for the role equivalent to the Main Battle Tank seen in other NATO armies. The choice of a lighter tank design than contemporary armies might have found ideal came because of the failure of earlier French designs of the 45 to 60 ton class. French success in combining relatively powerful guns on light chassis drove French design philosophy towards a lighter battle tank as much as factors like cost did.
The AMX-30’s development was heavily influenced by the failure of previous attempts to create a viable French medium tank design in late 1940s and early 1950s. Attempts to revive the French tank industry in the period following 1945 were crippled by the lack of necessary funding and by a lack of modern designs. Tanks in France had traditionally been built by both the government arsenals and by the private sector heavy engineering firms, a trend which gradually shifted towards a government dominated enterprise by the 1950s, a position consolidated in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time tank design by French private sector companies ceased.
The first step towards government domination of France’s tank manufacture came before the war ended, the ARL-44. The ARL-44 marked an important change in how tank construction was coordinated in France, with government control in the design and production of the vehicle. The ARL-44 was unfortunately a technical anachronism in most respects, comparing unfavourably to contemporary designs like the M26, the Centurion and the T44. The vehicle took nearly four years to reach operational status and its design was not representative of what the French Army required or wanted in a medium tank. Production of the ARL-44 served more as a test of the government’s ability to direct a weapons program.
As could have been expected, the experience of building the ARL-44 showed up very serious deficiencies in the French defence industry’s ability to produce all the necessary components for a complex weapon system like a medium tank. The French government, in order to centralise control over the state arsenals tasked with domestic armoured vehicle production established the Direction des Etudes et Fabrication d’Armament (known by the acronym DEFA). DEFA served as a bureau tasked to direct army weapons procurement, design and production as a logical step forward from the ARL-44 program.
DEFA’s first large ground-up project was the AMX-50 M4. The new design started off under the direction of Ingenieur-Général Joseph Molinié. Like the ARL-44, the AMX-50 M4 was intended to be a medium tank on the grand scale of the wartime Panzerkampfwagen V Panther. The project’s design work was conducted by the Atelier de Construction d’Issy-les-Moulineaux (the state arsenal known commonly by the abbreviation of AMX). The resulting 45 to 50 ton designs were projected for construction by the Atelier de Roanne, and design work was commenced no sooner than the ARL-44 project went into production. Perhaps as a hedge because of the ARL-44’s serious problems under government direction, the private firm of SOMUA was tasked by the army with designing a heavy tank to the same specification as the AMX-50 (which was designated SOMUA SM).
The oscillating turret designs employed on the 50 ton project resembled scaled-up versions of the FL10 and FL11 designs used on the AMX-13 light tank and EBR armoured car with automatic loading. The SOMUA project was dropped as a duplication of effort once the AMX-50 prototypes were deemed sufficiently satisfactory in 1954. With prototypes eventually ranging from 50 to 62 tons, the AMX-50 quickly exceeded the designed weight limit of 45 tons. The AMX-50’s power train was a separately sourced sub-system, because DEFA did not control any automotive organizations and was devised with the intention to cooperate with France’s existing automotive companies. Since France did not have a large enough engine in domestic production for a modern medium tank, the German wartime Maybach HL295 series of engines from the German Panther and Tiger tanks was selected to power the prototypes and would have served as the basis for the production engine.
The five AMX-50 prototypes all differed in detail and were repeatedly upgraded. On the AMX-50 M4 prototypes the main armament grew from the Schneider 90mm gun, to an Atelier de Tarbes 100mm piece. The prototypes also differed in the turret and hull configurations tried out on each vehicle. The use of overlapping wheels in the suspension and Panther tracks ensured that the AMX-50 hull appeared decidedly Teutonic, while the oscillating turret design gave all the AMX-50 prototypes a futuristic look. In terms of gunnery the design was expected to be able to engage targets rapidly due to its automatic loading system and at long range due to its use of an optical rangefinder.
The AMX-50 deliberately drew on German engineering where French component designs were still lacking and the design avoided American content. The first AMX prototype was ready in 1949 armed with a 90mm Schneider cannon in an oscillating turret at 53 tons, a commendable achievement for France’s recovering industrial complex. It was refitted with Atelier de Tarbes’ 100mm gun a few months later and was joined by a second prototype. Bearing in mind that at this point the ARL-44 was only just entering service, the AMX-50 project had already achieved a strong result by producing two prototypes so quickly. The two AMX-50 prototypes actually participated in the 1950 Bastille Day parade, a moment symbolic for a nation that had been in ruins a mere five years before.
The possibility of rearming the West German army with French-built armoured fighting vehicles was a second impetus for getting the AMX-50 into production. This was an impossibly tall order due to the other conflicting funding priorities France then was faced with, which included the war in Indo-China. It was obvious that production of the AMX-50 would require the economic support of the United States. There was already a fatal flaw in the AMX-50 design in 1950, more as a result of the state of France’s heavy vehicle industry than as a result of poor tank design.
The basic weakness of the AMX-50 design was that it was powered by Maybach engines derived from those used in the wartime Panther and Tiger. These engines had been hard pressed to deliver enough power reliably in 1944, and still lacked sufficient power to deal with any increases in vehicle weight. The spin-on effect of the Maybach engine left the AMX-50 less well armoured than contemporary tanks of its size. It also meant that the powertrain was overtaxed and the level of reliability required could not be reached, despite repeated attempts to redesign the engine and transmission components. The hoped-for interest from other European Union armies did not materialise because of the long delays getting the design to a stage where production was a realistic option, and also due to the growing cost per unit of the vehicle. Ultimately American M47s were provided as military aid to France, West Germany, Belgium and Italy as a short term solution to rearmament needs. The offer of the M47 was too good for France to refuse in 1952, and the AMX-50 specification was changed from a medium to a heavy tank.
After the adoption of the Patton, the AMX-50 Surblindé project was re-specified as a heavy tank vehicle of some 60 tons, armed with a French built version of the 120mm American T53 gun made by the Atelier du Havre. Heavy tanks were not built in large production runs and the likelihood of exporting such a vehicle was slim. The changes in specification caused other delays and indicated that the basic concept behind the specification had to be re-evaluated at the general staff level. The AMX-50 program began to founder when the vehicle’s end use was redefined into a class of vehicle that many considered a luxury (and especiallyfor an army still fighting in the colonies). As the cost of French military commitments in the colonies escalated, the utility of limited production, specialist weapons programs like heavy tanks began to cause doubts in the general staff. The last three AMX-50 prototypes got progressively heavier, which drove up unit costs and reduced the vehicle’s horsepower per ton ratio and engine reliability. As a matter of national pride, the AMX-50 program continued into 1956 regardless of these difficulties, with Maybach engineers brought in from Germany to solve the powertrain issues. By 1955-56 the lightened AMX-50 Surbaissé design was sufficiently well developed for production, but a tentative order for 100 vehicles for 1956 was delayed because the power output problems with the Maybach engine were as yet unresolved. Second thoughts arose during the delay, and the French Army was left to ponder the tactical implications of the heavy and costly AMX-50 in light of guided antitank missile development, and competing priorities such as the nuclear weapons program.
The funding arrangements that the French hoped the United States Military Aid Program would provide were never secured. The successful development of French light armoured tactics based on the AMX-13, guided missiles like the SS-11 then under development, and the availability of M47 Medium tanks weighed heavily against the AMX-50 program. The French Army re-examined the need for a heavy tank, and the AMX-50 program was suspended at the end of 1956, although the vehicles continued to be tested and modified until 1958. By 1955 the first of over eight hundred M47 Patton tanks had been delivered to the French Army as military aid from the United States. The arrival of the Patton proved to be the fatal blow to the AMX-50, whose future as a design would surely have been brighter had it not been so often delayed and had funding been available.
French tactical priorities shifted towards the ideal of an armoured force operating within all-arms divisions. The army wanted a formation capable of strategic maneuver warfare in Europe or counter-insurgency in the colonies. The Indochina and Algerian campaigns had changed how the army prioritised its funding for weapons production. The dual role the army had to fill in the colonies and NATO meant that the equipment required for the armoured regiments emphasized firepower and mobility. The organizations used for infantry and armoured formations deployed in colonial warfare and in West Germany had to be interchangeable. The colonial battlefields demanded relatively simple and light armoured vehicles, while the European battlefield demanded all the latest technology to deal with potential enemy threats. The value of hollow charge warheads, rocket and guided missile technology, airborne forces and the battlefield helicopter all changed how France’s strategists expected to configure their future armoured forces. With the failure of the AMX-50, the requirement for France’s medium, or battle tank was re-evaluated with new eyes. [...]