The debate about the future of the UK’s heavy armour has been reignited by the recent revelation that the British Army is considering retiring its main battle tanks in the Integrated Review. While changes are necessary, to abandon heavy armour would be a mistake.
Under its current structure, the British Army aims to be able to deploy a heavy armoured division for warfighting by 2025, the fate of which is now under discussion. Doctrine for an armoured division requires a minimum of three battalion-sized armoured regiments, with four being ideal, and six armoured infantry battalions. Yet the current force comprises two armoured regiments of obsolete tanks, while one brigade has been converted to a medium-weight Strike Brigade.
This forms the core of the UK’s current land contribution to NATO’s conventional ‘hard power’ in Europe to deter Russia. While the Trump administration’s accusations that its allies are free-riding under an American security umbrella are unhelpfully blunt, most NATO members have been under-resourcing their militaries. Russia, on the other hand, has been steadily modernising and expanding its armed forces, Notably, Russia’s armoured forces are at the forefront of its modernisation efforts.
Having delayed the modernisation of its main battle tank fleet, the UK is now facing the prospect of an expensive upgrade or replacement programme which is already long overdue. With the coronavirus pandemic having exacerbated already-present fiscal constraints, the UK is struggling to resource its armoured formation appropriately; this is what is driving the reappraisal of the UK’s use of armour.
Even if the British Army were to invest in an expanded and modernised tank fleet, the fielding of a credible warfighting division would also require a significant increase in aviation, anti-tank weapons and artillery, along with the enablers – especially in relation to strategic mobility. The division would require its fleet of heavy equipment transporters to be expanded if it were not to be forward-based in Germany or Poland. These investments would be necessary for the division to be both relevant and survivable. At present the UK has too little firepower for the warfighting division to make up for the loss of armour. To ensure it had the required level of lethality the division would therefore require a serious investment even if armour were abandoned and the division were to take a form other than that of a heavy armoured force. Following the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which did not match resources with ambition when it committed to the warfighting division, the investment required now for rebuilding the UK’s heavy armour and enablers in such a manner looks to be politically and economically prohibitive.
If the UK determines to maintain an armoured capability it must consider the changing threat environment. Increasingly capable persistent battlefield sensors, able to detect armoured vehicles even when they are camouflaged and integrated with accurate and lethal precision fires, make concealing and using heavy armour a challenge. There are technical responses to these threats, from countering electronic direction-finding through spoofing and jamming to mounting active protection systems on vehicle hulls. However, this must increase the cost of main battle tanks, while the British Army’s current tank fleet lacks any of these defences.
The UK therefore must choose between three courses of action. The first is to modernise the entire existing fleet or buy new tanks. This would preserve the UK’s warfighting division, but likely consume a majority of the budget for modernising the Army at the expense of capabilities, such as long-range precision fires, that are expected to be pivotal on the future battlefield. Nevertheless, if the resources can be found this would send a clear message to NATO that the UK is firmly committed to its mission and ensure the UK’s prominent position in the Alliance.
The second option would be for the British Army to divest itself of heavy armour completely. The prospect of specialisation has been floated as an alternative, whereby the UK would follow other European NATO countries and only maintain some of the components of its armed forces, so that together the Alliance can generate a credible force more efficiently. Given that other NATO members such as the German Bundeswehr have expressed every intention of focusing efforts on its large heavy armoured ground force, the idea of the UK specialising in aviation, recce, cyber and other areas of competitive advantage has some merits. The British ground commitment to NATO could be redefined as three Strike Brigades, which are much easier to project, sustain, and – if paired with fires – could offer a credible reconnaissance strike framework.
The final course of action would be to modernise a portion of the existing fleet. Unlike abandoning tanks entirely, this would mean the British Army retained the expertise in how to employ armour and could regenerate the capability if it proved essential. Fielding less than a division, however, would render British armour dependent on NATO allies to make up the remainder of the formation, and for enablers and sustainment, which would make interoperability critical. The UK would likely need to purchase Leopard 2A7s – which are fielded by numerous European allies and have repeatedly outperformed other designs in trials – rather than maintain a British tank.
Of these options, the first is desirable but unlikely given available resources. The second is radical, but contrary to the direction of travel in Russia, China, France, Germany, the US, Israel, India, and most other militaries. Moreover, the loss of expertise would make reversing the decision exceedingly difficult if it proved a mistake.
The intermediate position, however, raises a wide number of intriguing questions. A reduced armoured force would require further work on the Strike Concept as the alternative armoured ground formation that could theoretically fulfil a similar strategic role, and a rewriting of existing armoured doctrine to formally recognise that the UK is no longer operating heavy armour at division strength. Solutions such as maintaining a medium division with a smaller heavy tank reserve that can be called on to break through, exploit or counterattack as required have been suggested as a hypothetically viable balance of economy and operational potency. This option could also increase the UK’s willingness to deploy and use its heavy armour, because this armour would no longer be the centre of gravity of Britain’s warfighting capabilities.
Whichever option is chosen, a credible roadmap for modernisation and an updated concept of operations for heavy armour is likely to be required. It is also an open question as to how the offence–defence paradigm will shift.
The UK’s defence establishment should make every effort to maintain heavy armour in some form, and it should be accepted that to not do so at scale would come with strategic costs. If the UK does not, it risks being left behind as its allies and adversaries continue to invest in what will remain a potent ground combat capability.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Analyst, Land Warfare