The UK now fields only 227 main battle tanks, a far cry from the 900 or so strong inventory only a couple of decades ago.
This article was written by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. During his military career he attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University. He now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator on military and defence topics in the print and broadcast media.
The present British MBT, the Challenger 2, had its origins in the Chieftain Replacement programme of the 1980s, when I was a staff officer at the Headquarters of the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (HQDRAC) at Bovington Camp in Dorset.
My personal previous experience of tanks had been primarily on the old Chieftain, a sluggish and unreliable vehicle but one for which we came to have a grudging affection. I led a troop and subsequently a squadron of Chieftains during my time with the 4th Royal Tank Regiment in the 1980s.
We used to say that Chieftain was the best tank in the world as long as it broke down in a good fire position, and there was a strong element of truth in that statement. Its armour protection was good, its 120mm rifled gun powerful and accurate, but its automotive systems let it down. And by the time I commanded my squadron it was obsolescent if not obsolete.
Meanwhile, Germany’s 105mm-armed Leopard 1 showed new levels of mobility and reliability, and the Soviet T-64 and T-72 models with their auto-loaded 125mm guns overmatched Chieftain. Brief respite for the Royal Armoured Corps came with a part-fleet MBT replacement in the shape of Challenger 1, essentially a cancelled export order model for Iran which fell through with the removal of the Shah in 1979, but it was clear then that Britain needed a new tank.
The first draft of the Chieftain Replacement operational requirements paper dropped on to our desks in early 1987. I was straight out of Staff College and armed with a year’s technical training gained at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, and was raring to go. Staffing the Chieftain Replacement paper became the major and most important aspect of my work over the next two years.
To go into all the technical requirements for the Chieftain Replacement would be boring in the extreme, and I dare say some of them are still classified. However the usual design parameters, including levels of armour protection, range, crew survivability, gun performance and communications fit amongst others, were set out clearly. And so I and my colleagues spent literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hours discussing and debating what the best option for Britain’s next tank might be. We represented the end user, after all, and we wanted to get it right.
In the end there were three and a half main contenders for the contract in our eyes. The “half” contender was the French Leclerc MBT, the most modern western tank at the time, and attractive because it had an autoloader for its 120mm smoothbore gun and a three man crew. It could also fire the same ammunition as the Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore of other NATO nations. However, at the time, and rightly or wrongly, it was deemed too much of a risk. There was also some totally fatuous opinion from elsewhere that a three man crew would make dismounted guard duties unduly onerous when in leaguer. Such was the level of debate at that stage.
This left three main contenders – Germany’s Leopard 2, the US M1A1 Abrams, and Vickers Defence Systems’ (now BAE Systems) Challenger 2. We lived and breathed the project, discussing every aspect in minute detail time and again. In the end the recommendation of the HQDRAC staff officers was clear; Britain’s next tank should ideally be the Leopard 2, mainly for reasons of reliability, impressive mobility, and because of its 120mm smoothbore gun, which would give Britain ammunition compatibility and interoperability with our NATO allies (many of whom opted for Leopard 2) and the perceived advantages of economy of scale of production.
Second choice was the M1A1 Abrams, which was attractive for many of the same reasons and mounted the smoothbore gun, but we had reservations over its gas turbine engine’s fuel requirements and the logistics implications of catering to that demand. Last came Challenger 2, because we didn’t rate its potential for reliability – given the poor record of Chieftain and Challenger 1 – and we thought it mounted the wrong rygun. There wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the Royal Ordinance Factory’s 120mm rifled gun (the CHARM gun) in terms of its overall performance, it was just that it was non-NATO ammunition compatible.
So Leopard 2 was our recommendation. And obviously we were ignored. We weren’t entirely oblivious to the furious lobbying that was going on in favour of Challenger 2 and recognised that the “strategic necessity” argument for Britain to maintain its own tank design and production expertise might win the day – even when both foreign contenders pledged to set up their production lines in the UK. A final plea that at the very least Challenger 2 should mount the 120mm smoothbore fell on deaf ears.
Obviously the Royal Armoured Corps ended up with Challenger 2, and in fairness if has proved to be not a bad MBT even although it has never been confronted by a peer or near-peer enemy. But with an out of service date of 2025 the same question faces the UK; what, in anything, should replace Challenger 2 as Britain’s next MBT? One of the options is updating Challenger 2 to allow it to soldier on until 2035, and experiments have been undertaken to, believe it or not, mount the 120mm smoothbore gun as part of that upgrade. The smoothbore has advantages including greater armour penetration than the British rifled gun and uses a tungsten penetrator that has none of the political and environmental baggage that comes with the British DU one.
It’s sometimes useful to gauge a weapon system’s general utility and effectiveness by having a look at its export sales. Word gets round if equipment is good and other countries tend to buy it. Leopard 2 has been bought by 18 countries with 4 more prospective purchasers. M1 Abrams has been bought by 7 countries with two more in the offing. Challenger 2 has been bought by two – the UK and Oman.
Maybe this time around the UK will be able to swallow its national pride and opt for the best option on offer no matter its country of provenance?