Back in 2018 defence analyst Stuart Crawford wrote an article in the UK Defence Journal entitled ‘Challenger 2, the wrong tank for the British Army?‘, in which he argues Challenger 2 was selected due to patriotic reasons rather than practical reasons.
While Mr Crawford raises some legitimate criticism of the vehicle, and regardless of one’s personal opinions his position as an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment must earn him some respect and authority on the subject.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Harry Bulpit.
I, nevertheless, have my own criticism of his argument and within this article I hope to argue why Challenger 2 was the correct tank for the British Army, at least at the time of its selection.
The initial concept for Challenger 2 can be found as early as 1980 with the “Future Tank Policy Study an Examination of The British Army’s Tank Requirements Post 1995” report. Which highlighted, due to the acceptance into service of what is now known as Challenger 1 to replace only half the tank fleet, the requirement to replace the Chieftains still in service by 1995. This meant that from the very outset what was to become Challenger 2 was expected to serve alongside Challenger 1.
As such on the 30th November 1987, the MOD released Staff Requirement (Land) 4026 (SRL 4026), otherwise known as ‘Staff Requirement for the Replacement of Chieftain’. This was an outline of the criteria that any new tank was expected to meet if it was to be selected as a replacement for Chieftain, with the requirement for interoperability with Challenger 1 being paramount.
Here lies the first major criticism of Mr Crawford’s article. One of his primary arguments against Challenger 2 is the inability for it to use NATO standard two-piece 120mm ammunition. While this indeed has become an issue in recent times, it neglects the reality at the time of the trials that the MoD placed a greater emphasis on the tanks ability to have round commonality with the then in-service British tanks as opposed to other NATO tanks. Even when considering the Leopard, the MoD was interested in whether it was feasible to install a rifled gun into the vehicle.
The other significant argument of Mr Crawford is the perceived reliability of Challenger 2 steaming from the supposed “poor record of Chieftain and Challenger 1”. This, however, seems to be a rather odd comparison to make retrospectively given Challenger 1 exceptional performance in the Gulf War.
It is also worth noting that another individual who was part of the in-service trials, noted that when evaluated Challenger 2 had a reliability rate of 67%. While below the initial target of 75%, it was significantly higher than Leopard 2 at 32% and the Abrams at 14%. Mr Crawford also makes the argument that often the purchase of a foreign vehicle by multiple nations is an indication of its credibility. He even points out the export success of the M1 and Leopard compared to that of Challenger. While this can sometimes be proof of a design’s success, it is not always the case, even the Chieftain which is described in the article as a “sluggish and unreliable vehicle” saw much export success. Also, it should be considered that Challenger 2 was designed to meet the need of SR(L)4026 and it was within this context that it was judged.
It was not judged by the British Army with the same requirements as say Greece and Denmark may use to judge a tank.
Mr Crawford instead argues that Leopard or the Abrams should have won the design competition and that Challenger 2 was selected on the bases of national pride. Besides the counter arguments given above it is important to appreciate that when spending a large amount of governmental and therefore public money, the government is not only concerned about the end user but also how to benefit as many people within the country as possible. Mr Crawford does state his appreciation of the “argument for Britain to maintain its own tank design and production expertise” but seems to suggest this is a moot point since “both foreign contenders pledged to set up their production lines in the UK”.
Indeed, while Krauss-Maffei believed that 60% of production of a British Leopard order could be fulfilled within the UK this did not necessarily mean it would bring much benefit. This was shown with the Swiss experience of domestic Leopard manufacturing which took two years of additional contract negotiations following the actual selection of Leopard. This resulted in the Swiss purchase cost increasing by 25%. Plus, Vickers defence industry required as much work as possible to maintain jobs in its factories across the North of England, with one worker at the time stating that contracts for Vickers defence was crucial for maintaining employment within his area of residence. Trying to maintain the livelihoods of as many citizens as possible is not a sign of jingoism but rather of decency on the part of a government.
It is also important to appreciate the support provided by Vickers defence industry at the time of the First Gulf War to the British Army. This demonstrated the usefulness of having a totally domestic supply chain at a time of war.
Overall, perhaps it is true the Challenger 2 is not the best tank in the world, nor has it perhaps produced the best outcome for the British military and industry and perhaps it is time for Challenger 2 to step aside for a new foreign built tank. But besides the multiple practical benefits of the challenger 2 over its rivals in terms of Britain’s specific requirements.
It is important to remember that the armed forces of a country are an extension of that country’s Government and people and as such should support those people in anyway it can. With this in mind, it would seem that at the end of the 20th Century, Challenger 2 may not have been the best tank in the world, but it was the best tank for the British Army, British industry, and the British people.