Well, what do we think of that then? The Defence Command Paper has now been published and much of the speculation of the last few months can stop, although possibly only temporarily.
We know only too well from bitter past experience that there’s usually a huge gap between what is written and what actually happens, of course, but let’s run with what the Paper says for the moment.
There’s lots of stuff to digest and comment upon across all three Services here, and I’m only to aware that others are far more qualified and competent to discuss matters RN, RAF, and most of the Army. I’ll leave it to them and look forward to reading their views. What I do feel qualified and competent to comment on, nay rant about, is tanks.
As heavily trailed in the national media over past weeks, the Challenger 2 Life Enhancement Programme (henceforth CR2 LEP) will only be applied to approximately 148 of the current UK tank fleet.
There is good news and bad news here, the latter far outweighing the former, I’m afraid. The good news is that the UK is still in the MBT game, albeit at much reduced numbers, and that we have at long last adopted – ‘Hallalujah’ – the German 120 mm smoothbore gun, something we should have done 30 odd years ago.
So at least the Royal Armoured Corps will have ammunition commonality with its main NATO allies at long last, plus a gun with higher muzzle velocity and greater penetration to boot. And we shouldn’t forget the less sexy but important other enhancements – including new sights, a new modular armour package, and an active protection system (although speculation is that only 60 each of the latter two will be procured) – which will allow the creaking CR2 to soldier on for a bit longer.
Now for the bad news, of which there is rather a lot more. Most disappointing by far is that we have once again failed to grasp the nettle and plumped for CR2 LEP rather than Leopard 2A7, thereby once again missing out on the future developments and economies of scale that the German tank would offer.
A reminder: Leopard 2 is fielded by over 20 countries in its various iterations, CR2 by two.
It is true that the £750 million allocated for the LEP programme is probably less than the cost of purchasing an equivalent number of Leo2A7 in its stead. It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much the German tank might cost to buy these days, if only because every contract seems to have different parameters, but a figure of $10 million (£7.15 million) per unit might be in the right ballpark.
So more expensive, yes, but who says we need to buy them? Leasing is an option worth exploring, as previously expounded, and has risk transfer and financial advantages for conventional military budgets.
There then arises the question of what is to become of the remaining existing CR2 which are not to be upgraded on present plans.
The UK will be left with roughly 250 of them, and it’s difficult to see what, apart from scrapping them, is likely to be their fate. The only other operator, Oman, might take a few, I suppose, to bolster its current fleet of 38, but that’s it. I’m not sure there are sufficient spares to support any sale to another operator, and indeed I’m not sure that the UK manufactures the 120 mm rounds and bag charges for the rifled gun any more either. So the 250 left may ultimately end up as razor blades.
What is undoubtedly true is that 150 odd CR2 LEP is far too few for a credible deterrent or foe for a peer or near peer enemy. It’s basically three regiments’ worth without reserve, or two with. Or possibly two regiments’ worth at 75 apiece with no reserve. However you look at it that’s not very many at all, and confirms the sad fact that our armoured brigades can only play a bit part in someone else’s military in alliance or coalition, as arguably they have had to do for the last 70 years or so.
During Britain’s last experience of intensive, continuous tank warfare against a peer enemy in NW Europe in 1944-45, attrition rates were high. During Op Goodwood for example, between 18-20 July 1944, the British and Canadians lost 470 tanks, or 34% of their overall strength in the armoured regiments. In three days. Taking into account repairs and replacements, overall tank losses during the operation were 41% of average tank strength.
It’s difficult to extrapolate this forward to today, of course, but let’s just for argument’s sake assume a likely daily loss of 10% of tank strength is any future high intensity conflict against a peer enemy. And let’s also presume that an armoured unit’s effectiveness and cohesion ends when losses reach about 50% of strength (others would say less than this). A rough calculation indicates that the UK tank fleet would last about a week but, unlike in 1944, there are no replacement vehicles immediately available.
What would we do in such circumstances? Why, we’d have to buy foreign to make up the numbers! Now, I’m not suggesting that the UK will ever enter a high-end intensity conflict alone, nor that the scenario described herein is probable; it isn’t.
But what I think we can say with some accuracy is that the armoured element of the British Army is essentially a “use once” resource. With only 148 tanks in the inventory it is unsustainable in any combat for more than a few days, and there is no backup to fill the gaps.
When I joined my regiment in 1980, the British Army of the Rhine alone had 900 tanks. Now we will have roughly 1/6th of that number. It’s far too few, and indicative I’m afraid of the decline of our land forces over successive defence reviews. How are the mighty fallen!