The creation of the AMX ELC 90 for French airborne units reflected post-war France's desire to return to the superpowers club. The enormous colonial empire of the Fourth Republic was splitting at the seams, and the creation of highly mobile and well armed airborne forces was a pressing issue for the French army. What stopped this tank from entering mass production?
The first attempt at an airborne tank was made right after the war. In November of 1946, a 12 ton tank project was completed, armed with a 75 mm gun. The tank never got its wings, but further evolution of this design culminated with the AMX 13, the first truly mass produced French post-war tank, which is still in service in some countries.
The next attempt at an airborne tank came almost 10 years later. In 1954, the Engin Léger de Combat (light fighting machine) program was launched to create a 6 ton tank, or rather a tank destroyer. Two companies made a bid for the ELC tender, Ateliers de construction d'Issy-les-Moulineaux (AMX), a part of the DEFA conglomerate (later GIAT, now Nexter) and Brunon-Vallette (EVEN) from Rive-de-Gier, a small town south-west of Leon. Both companies made unusual vehicles, worthy of their own articles.
AMX's engineers used the Hotchkiss CC-2 APC as their base, making their tank a relative of the German Spahpanzer SP 1C, created on the same basis. Indexed Chenillette 4–120SR, the AMX project was initially envisioned as a rather unusual design, similar to the American M50 Ontos. Presented in March of 1954, it was a two-seater vehicle armed with four 120 mm recoilless rifles. AMX engineers didn't move this idea past paper, unlike EVEN ones, who made a similar vehicle.
Another project was proposed in July of 1954, the Chenillette 6–105SR. The vehicle was radically redesigned and the armament was changed to six 105 mm recoilless rifles. In both projects, the driver was positioned forward and the turret rotated fully. This design also did not progress further than paper.
The hero of this piece was first drawn on April 27th, 1954. The project was first called Chenillette biplace avec casemate tournante de 90 (two-seater tankette, 90 mm gun in a casemate turret) and had both crew members in the turret. On one hand, this simplified the layout. The engine was placed in the front, which made the vehicle very compact.
On the other hand, this created a ton of problems. The turret could only rotate fully if the vehicle was still. The turret could not rotate on the move, as the driver would lose access to his controls and observation devices. In an attempt to solve this problem, the driver was moved to a cockpit to the right of the tank's center. To achieve this, the engine and transmission were moved to the rear, and the turret moved to the front.
The driver would only inhabit his cockpit during battle. On the march, he remained in the turret. However, the battle conditions were so inhumane that AMX returned to their original idea. Interestingly enough, EVEN engineers managed to house their driver in this fashion.
The first AMX ELC 90 prototype started trials in 1955. Instead of a tank destroyer, it was a tank, a curious tank, but a tank nonetheless. The vehicle received a 90 mm D915 gun in a two-seater TC 910 turret developed by FAHM (Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt). After two years of trials the AMX ELC 90 bis came to be.
The vehicle differed noticeably from the prototype. The tank was equipped with roof-mounted smoke grenade launchers. The observation devices were redesigned, and the gun mantlet changed. The engine compartment roof and upper front plate changed, as well as the fenders and the equipment mounted on them. The amount of road wheels grew to five.
Trials continued until 1961 when the Engin Léger de Combat program was cancelled. The French army never received its airborne tank, even though the AMX ELC 90 bis was far from the worst tank for the role. Of course, it had its problems, mainly with maneuverability of fire and convenience for the driver, but it was very appropriate for certain tasks. Finally, the even weirder M50 Ontos was not only produced, but actually fought.
Both AMX ELC 90 prototypes survive to this day, but the fate of the first one is shaky. It was last seen in the forested storage yard of the Saumur tank museum in the mid-1980s. It's most likely still there, but there are no photos confirming the fact. As for the AMX ELC 90 bis, it was much luckier. It stands as one of the central exhibits in a room dedicated to unusual post-war designs.
Original article by Yuri Pasholok.
Detailed photos of the AMX ELC 90 bis can be seen here.