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Britain’s tank fleet is set to shrink by a third with only 148 out of 227 Challenger 2 (CR2) Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to be upgraded via the Life Extension Programme (LEP) which aims to extend its out-of-service date to 2035.
The news sparked lamentations in the press that Britain will have fewer MBTs than, say, Cambodia. Yet there is a lot more to tanks than counting chassis, and the headline figures do little to elucidate a wider debate that needs to be had over the future of UK heavy armour.
Not all tanks are equal. The 72-ton CR2 is one of the world’s most formidable tanks. To continue using the analogy made in the media, it is generations ahead of Cambodia’s worn out T55s which, at half the weight, have correspondingly limited protection, sensors and firepower. Whereas the only CR2 to date to be destroyed was by another CR2 in Basra, one Iraqi unit I visited in 2016 had lost no less than 12 of its T55s to a mixture of rockets, recoilless rifles and mines. Of course, modern MBTs are not impervious. Turkey lost several Leopard 2A4s – a comparable tank to the CR2 – to anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in Syria. ATGMs are one of the threats that the CR2 LEP is intended to address by the addition of an active protection system. Still, no one should be under any illusions that 148 CR2s are a formidable formation which goes beyond just sheer numbers.
Following the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review the British Army sought to maintain one deployable division comprising one to two mechanised infantry or Strike brigades, and two armoured infantry brigades, each with a tank regiment. At 56 tanks per regiment, the envisaged deployable force includes 112 CR2s. With a proportion of the fleet invariably requiring repairs and maintenance, 148 tanks will make keeping 112 ready to go a serious challenge. It also leaves no significant reserve to replace destroyed platforms.
At present, however, it is difficult to see how the CR2s would make it to the fight. During the Cold War, when British armour was based in Germany, the prospective front line was comparatively close to the barracks, with all necessary combat service support on hand to get the tanks into combat. Today, an escalation on NATO’s eastern border would take place 2,000 kilometres away.
In 2001 the British Army entered a Public Finance Initiative arrangement with Fasttrax – a subsidiary of KBR, an American engineering, procurement, and construction company – to supply 92 Heavy Equipment Transporters (HETS) to move its CR2s. Three of these HETS are recovery variants, and a further 18 are supporting the US Army in Europe. It is therefore difficult to see how 112 tanks can move 2,000 kilometres on the remaining 71 HETs, especially since these same transporters would be needed to move the army’s AS-90 self-propelled artillery, as well as bridging and recovery assets.
Current projections suggest a 60-day deployment period for Britain’s heavy forces. The HETS contract runs out in 2023, and it is not yet clear that it will be renewed. But rather than purchasing HETS to move lighter systems – to allow for dual-use – the British Army is currently pursuing Modified Light Equipment Transporters for its AJAX vehicles to reduce costs.
While preserving chassis numbers maintains the capability, the utility of Britain’s heavy armour is only assured by retaining sufficient logistics and enablers to deliver a fighting force. If Britain is serious about deploying heavy armour it would need to upgrade its CR2s, and replace or upgrade its Warrior and AS-90 platforms. Moreover, it would likely need to forward-base these units in, say, Poland if they are to be closer to where they may see action. The problem is that doing these things is exceedingly expensive and would likely be undertaken at the expense of several army modernisation programmes, and the new Strike Brigade concept.
Fully upgrading Britain’s heavy forces – and forward-basing them – would also fix the British Army to a rigid deterrence posture with limited resources to address other contingencies. For, while a high-intensity conflict in Europe is the most dangerous threat, it is far from the most likely. There is also a severe risk that if the army fully upgrades its existing heavy armour at the expense of modernisation it would begin to fall behind emerging critical capabilities, from autonomous systems to long-range precision fires.
The alternative would be to fully fund the next generation of platforms, and embrace lighter and more adaptable vehicles. At present, the army is trying to sustain both tracks. There is a risk however – given fiscal constraints – that this approach falls between two stools: maintaining too few tanks to be credible, without critical enablers, while developing medium forces that lack sufficient lethality.
Ultimately the choice is political. The critical question is what the British government expects to call upon the army to deliver, and whether the army is sufficiently funded to meet that requirement. The prioritisation of heavy, medium or next-generation platforms can only be made with a clear steer from policymakers as to the role Britain thinks it is likely to have moving forward. Without that steer, the army will likely continue to lose platforms piecemeal.
Unfortunately – as Parliament votes down all options on Britain’s future relationship with Europe – clarity over Britain’s global posture is sorely lacking.
Jack Watling is the Land Warfare Fellow at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: A Challenger 2 during Operation Telic outside Basra, 2004. Courtesy of MoD/Graeme Main/OGL v.1.0
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.