In a recent evidence gathering session of the Defence Committee, a discussion unfolded regarding whether or not the UK has the capacity to upgrade enough Challenger 2 tanks to Challenger 3.
This conversation took place on November 15, 2023.
The Committee Chair highlighted the significant budget cuts and their effect on the Army’s capabilities, remarking, “Let’s talk about the Army for a second. We have concentrated on the Air Force thus far, but the Army has had a £30 billion loss in budget since 2015. This is reflected in capability, is it not? We see 32 AS-90s that have been gifted to Ukraine being replaced by 14 Archers; the loss of Warrior; and only 148 Challenger 3s expected, at a time when mass is all-important.”
This reduction in budget was noted as having a direct impact on the Army’s operational capacity, with a notable example being the replacement of 32 AS-90s with 14 Archers and the loss of the Warrior programme.
Despite these challenges, Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps, stated,
“We have never spent more on our defence in recent years… The Army is in line for some very, very significant upgrades.”
However, doubts about the feasibility of upgrading the Challenger 2 tanks were expressed by Kevan Jones MP, who said:
“You know that you have very few Challengers that you can actually use… That will create a problem for the company doing it, because you are going to hold up the programme in terms of being able to supply the actual body frames to be upgraded. At the end of the day, things like Ajax might be a good piece of kit, but it is not a pretty story. You are just about to head into the next one with Challenger 3. We were told that the prototypes would be ready by Christmas, but I can tell you now that they will not be ready by Christmas. I know that for sure from talking to people.
Challenger 3 can be done, but the worrying thing and the problem you have with it is that, as Mark just said, you are putting new technology on to an old vehicle. Is it capable of that? Yes, I think it is. But you know that you have very few Challengers that you can actually use—where you could put the keys in tomorrow and drive out the door. That will create a problem for the company doing it, because you are going to hold up the programme in terms of being able to supply the actual body frames to be upgraded. Two prototypes were supposed to be in by Christmas—that ain’t gonna be met. You always have this optimism that these things are going to work out. With that, it is not that you can’t do it, but it has delay written all over it, because some decisions that you took on Challenger in the past—in terms of mothballing a lot of them—are going to create problems.”
Drawing parallels with other defence projects, Mark Francois MP said:
“On the Challenger 3 upgrade, you are trying to put a new turret and a bigger gun on an armoured vehicle. That is exactly what you did on Ajax, and it was an unmitigated disaster.”
While there is evident commitment to enhancing the Army’s capabilities, reflected in increased defence spending and ambitious upgrade programmes, the practical challenges, notably in the Challenger 3 upgrade programme, are of concern to many.