As is the norm with all defence reviews, a number of rumours of cuts has began to emerge. This time with Challenger 2 being at the focus of the media attention, raising the often-divisive question as to whether or not tanks have a place on the modern battlefield.
This article was submitted by Harry Bulpit. Harry recently completed a degree in war studies at York St John University. While he has a general interest in military history and development, one of his primary areas of interest is in armoured vehicles. As such his final piece of work for his degree was a 10,000 world dissertation on Challenger 1 and 2 and its impact on the British Army.
This essay will examine why tanks continue to maintain relevance on the battlefield, and why if Britain wishes to maintain a significant position militarily within NATO and on the International stage it must maintain its tank force both today and in to the future.
While Challenger 2 did not deploy to Afghanistan. Foreign MBT such as Danish Leopard 2 did. Where, sometimes wile working with British forces, they proved themselves valuable assets. Able to not only provide direct fire support but could also monitor areas of interest using their sophisticated optics. Indeed, it was suggested that the simple presence of such tanks was enough to make the Taliban leave the area. Although there was good reason not to send Challenger 2 to the conflict such as the logistics involved in deploying and sustaining such a large vehicle in the region. As well as the escalation of theatres that the presence of Challenger 2 would have caused.
The performance of other MBTS in Afghanistan along with that of Challenger 2 in Iraq proved the viability of tanks in modern asymmetric warfare. On top of this the increasing risk of a conflict with peer states such as Russia, means not only is more emphasis being placed back on conventional forms of warfighting. Specifically, tanks. But also serves to demonstrate how quickly world affairs, and with it the types of conflicts that can be realistically expected, can change.
Nevertheless, doubt has emerged over the viability of tanks on the modern battlefield, in both conventional and unconventional conflicts. Since the Second World War, the prevalence of man portable anti-tank weapons has made tanks more vulnerable to ground forces. This has led some to say that the tank can no longer survive on the modern battlefield. However, the reality is nothing is invulnerable. Even during the height of the tank in WW2, many vehicles were knocked out by anti-tank guns and later handheld weapons. Just because the enemy has the capacity to kill an asset, it does not mean that asset should not be used. Not that the existence of weapons such as ATGMS on the battlefield necessarily means it will be effective. There are multiple active protection systems in existence to counter ATGM that disrupt the missile before impact, further still Challenger 2 demonstrated that in some cases physical armour can protect against potable anti-tank missiles as well. It is also worth noting that ATGMS will not be the only threat AFV will have to deal with in the future, such as airburst munitions, indirect fire, and mines, which active protection cannot protect against. As such conventional armour would still be desirable, if not necessary. However, both systems our only a last resort and often situation awareness and proper command is the first and best line of defence against any threat. With many of the high profile MBT defeats actually being a result of poor use, rather than an actual weakness of the tank. It is also crucial to note that an ATGM is susceptible to the armaments of a tank, and that their position is likely to be exposed after firing.
Nevertheless, ATGM and RPGs, are incapable of taking ground, therefore infantry will still have to advance, meaning they will continue to need vehicles for mobility, protection, and fire support.
Many have therefore suggested that the future of AFV lies in 8X8 wheeled vehicles since they are often faster and more mobile then tracked vehicles. While this is indeed true no matter how fast a vehicle is, it will never be able to outrun a missile. This was why the Germans sacrificed the mobility of the Leopard 1 for the armour of Leopard 2, due to lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War. Further still a combat vehicles speed is likely to be dictated by the operational terrain, then the actual capability of the vehicle. Even in regard to the advantages a wheeled vehicle fleet has in terms of moving to the battlefield, these can be mitigated in practical terms. It is often said that tracked vehicles are too slow and complicated to react to an ongoing conflict and require a heavy logistics train. However, as an island nation this is a somewhat moot point. Unlike a continental power, wherever the British Army deploys an armoured force it will have to transported them there. likely by ship.
This would reduce much of the time spent traveling to a conflict zone by the vehicle itself, regardless of being wheeled or not. Even in regard to a European conflict, the fastest and most practical way of moving a fighting forces will be by rail, and not by a road march. Also, in the recent conflicts that the British Army has been involved in, they have been the ones taking the initiative with the preceding political negotiations and air campaign providing enough time for ground forces to form up and prepare.
This is not to say that wheeled AFV are not useful, indeed it is an area in equipment that Britain has long wished to fill and is on track to do so, but just as the tank is not the right tool for every situation, neither is the wheeled AFV.
There are about 25,000 MBT in service with potential adversaries around the world, with some nations procuring both upgrade kits and completely new designs. Such as Russia’s recent T14. While wheeled vehicles have come some way to closing the gap between them and tanks only a few have the ability to mount 120mm guns and even then, most platforms only mount relatively small autocannons or 105mm guns at most. While tanks are progressing on to even larger guns such as 130mm. Further still, a wheeled vehicle will never be capable of taking the ever-increasing wait of armour on modern vehicles.
This will become ever more important with the increasing risk of a conflict with a major power. Even if war were not to occur, in order to continue our conventional deterrent, it is important that we can demonstrate a viable threat to any possible aggressor. As such we will continue to need heavy tracked AFV.
Tanks are certainly no longer the most important part of an army that they once were, nor can they resolve every issue. However, just as a good builder has multiple tools for multiple jobs, the military must be able to respond to any threat and have the tools to do so. Therefore, if the British Army wants to remain relevant on the wide spectrum of the modern battlefield it is crucial it maintains as many conventional assets as possible, for whatever the future brings. This includes heavy armoured forces and tanks.