Following much speculation, Minister of Defence Procurement Alex Chalk provided tacit confirmation last week in a Defence Select Committee hearing that the UK Government intends to gift up to 14 Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks (inclusive of support vehicles) to the Government of Ukraine in order to assist that country in its continuing defence against the illegal invasion by Russia.
The move was confirmed by the Prime Minster, Rishi Sunak in a confirmation telephone call with the Ukraine President on Saturday. No further details about the level of training and support for the Challenger 2 MBT’s was provided alongside confirmation although it is anticipated that 12 MBT’s will be on their way to Ukraine very soon along with two further Challenger MBT support vehicles for training and engineering support. We may also assume that the Challenger 2 MBT’s to be sent will have gone through recent maintenance, this being undertaken by Babcock International through its ten-year Defence Support Group (DSG) land support vehicles maintenance and repair contract which was awarded following the acquisition of DSG by Babcock International from the MOD in 2015.
Training of Ukraine army soldiers in the operation, maintenance and ongoing support will be crucial to successful battlefield operation. Although little detail has so far emerged, it is known that soldiers from Ukraine have been in the UK during 2022 for a variety of training with the British Army although whether specific training in regard of Challenger operation is not known.
Deborah Haynes of Sky News confirmed over the weekend in addition to Challenger MBT’s around 30 AS90 large, self-propelled guns would also be supplied. Although no replacement capability has yet been confirmed by the MOD and the current Out of Service Date for AS90 is placed for 2032, the AS90 has been gradually being reduced in numbers over the past few years. Reports on Twitter over the weekend that I cannot confirm suggest that after the planned number of 30 AS90 guns have been gifted to Ukraine the UK will be left with less than seventy from an originally built and supplied number of 179.
Once again, while the decision by the UK Government to bend over backwards in supplying what military equipment that it could to Ukraine is very commendable, there are now increasing doubts about levels of retained weapons capability for UK armed forces. To make matters worse, these were questions, particularly following the use of vast numbers of complex weapons in air strikes against Daesh terrorist network in Syria, that first came up in discussion late 2017 and I recall writing an opinion piece on this at that time.
Such expressions of concern in respect of doubts in regard of UK stockpiles of complex and other weapons have not yet been fully answered by the UK Government. While one may well understand the security implications surrounding talk of what the UK currently holds in supply and reserve means that it should not be a matter for open discussion one lives in hope that the Integrated Review reset review that is currently under way and due to report in March will have addressed the potentially large shortfall in UK held complex weapons and other weapons capability required and that drastic action to rebuild stocks will be given priority.
Talking of press speculation and whilst I will be at pains to stress that at the time of writing this morning what follows has not been confirmed by the Government, one notes that two Sunday tabloid newspapers published reports yesterday that the UK was also proposing to send four Boeing Apache AH64 Attack helicopters, these rather amusingly being reported as being the latest ‘E’ variant of which 50 remanufactured attack helicopters are due to be in service with the British Army by 2025.
The reality however is that even if there is any truth in the tabloid newspaper reports, any Apache helicopters sent to Ukraine would not be the latest ‘E’’ version but taken from the now elderly fleet of AH-64D’s and which I believe that 16 are now stored as not having been required for the extensive rebuild/remanufacturing process.
To make matters even worse I note that an online news site called ‘The Star’ goes one stage further this morning presenting a stupid notion that Apache helicopters are equipped with the same engine as a Rolls-Royce – by implication the sentence implies that of a Rolls-Royce motor car and which has no connection with the aerospace company, Rolls-Royce plc, but in any event the story is full of holes as the new engines fitted to the remanufactured UK fleet of 50 ApacheAH64E helicopters are the General Electric 701D’s.
While it is true that the Rolls-Royce RTM322 engine fitted back in the 1990’s to the now retiring fleet of British Army Boeing Apache AH64D helicopters had formally been a 50/50 joint venture between the French owned Safran subsidiary Turbomeca and Rolls-Royce Aerospace, the latter sold its 50% share of the RTM322 engine programme to the Safran subsidiary company as long as ten years ago in 2013!
Back to the Challenger MBT and some detail of what is still a very capable MBT.
Developed by Vickers Defence Systems, once Britain’s largest defence company, and directly from the Challenger 1 Main Battle Tank that with more than a few problems and yet an equal number of successes, served UK armed forces from 1983 until 2001, development of Challenger 2, also by Vickers from the late 1980’s and in what was originally a private venture I believe, sought to iron out many of the problems suffered by Challenger 1 and produce a UK built MBT capability that was better that the main US and German competitor tanks. To a large extent and despite considerable delay by the MOD agreeing final commissioning, Vickers achieved what it set out to do albeit that in the process it won few friends.
Just as Challenger 1 had been a development of the hugely successful Chieftain tank, so Challenger 2 would be a major development of Challenger 1 – one that would have much improved gun and weapon control systems and much else besides.
Excluding prototype and later bridge laying variants, the MOD ordered a total of 408 Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks between 1991 and 1994 although I believe that only 386 were delivered in MBT form, the remainder being engineering support tanks for bridge laying and other requirements based on the Challenger 2 underframe design and from a separate order Vickers received from the MOD in March 2001. It would be as late as 1998 before, following a raft of production and other problems, the first Challenger 2 MBT’s were actually commissioned into Army service.
Although I well recall Vickers then CEO, the late Sir David Plastow, frequently oozing with optimism in the main board room on the top floor of the company’s headquarters building in Millbank Tower at analyst meetings over the possible sale of246 Challenger 2 tanks to Greece, no order was ever forthcoming. Oman was the only successful export customer having ordered 18 Challenger 2 MBT’s plus four Challenger armoured repair vehicle variants in January 1993 and followed this up with an order for a further 20 in November 1997.
Not being one of my specialist areas within defence, I will not include details of Challenger 2 specifications here other than to say that these MBT’s were formidable improvement on Challenger 1 and which the Army were, following completion of Challenger 2 deliveries, quick to retire.
Increasingly now becoming obsolete particularly in regard of mission systems, the UK MOD is believed to have a retained fleet of 227 Challenger 2 MBT’s for combat purposes plus a further fleet, thought to number 22, of Challenger 2 training and engineering support vehicles.
In the Integrated Review process published in 2021 the Government announced that the Challenger 2 fleet was to be further reduced by 79 with the remaining 148 Challenger 2 MBT’s to be seriously upgraded by Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) to what is termed as the Challenger 3 MBT.
Challenger 3, when completed, will undoubtedly be a formidable fighting machine for the British Army and to that end Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) was. in May 2021, awarded an £800 million contract by the MOD to upgrade 148 Challenger 2 MBT’s to Challenger 3 standard with a proposed in-service date planned for 2027. As implied above, Challenger3 will subsequently provide formidable MBT defence capability for decades to come.
New equipment includes complete turret replacement with Rheinmetall’s 120 mm L55A1 smoothbore main armament, installation of a new protection package, a new mission system suite, commanders and gunner’s sight systems and a new advanced armour package designed to ensure survivability of the platform against modern and future peer threats. The new modular armour proposed for Challenger 3 and which will replace the existing Dorchester armour fitted in Challenger 2 has been developed through advances made in armour technology by the in-house Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) and the funded armour expertise held within the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
Although a number of other Challenger 2 MBT’s are thought to have been stored and used to provide spares, one assumes that the 12 tanks that are intended to be gifted to Ukraine will come from the 79 planned to be withdrawn rather than upgraded to Challenger 3 status. They will however almost certainly have gone through an intensive maintenance by DRS before being despatched.
In respect of practicality of operation, how many of those 79 Challenger 2 MBT’s are still serviceable remains an unknown quantity.
In an ordinary sense, supplying 12 fit for purpose Challenger 2 MBT’s to Ukraine should not be an issue but given that Challenger 2 MBT’s are not compatible with any other MBT in respect of weapons systems that are likely to be gifted to Ukraine by other allies, and that because of this there would be a need to supply ammunition as well as providing significant levels of training, spares and maintenance support, it is of course easy to term the UK Government intention as being merely a political gesture.
While I have no intention of criticising the UK Government move to gift a handful of Challenger 2 MBT’s to Ukraine, given the intense nature of illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I would question the value of sending just twelve MBT’s which require an intense level of training before they can or should be operated safely and that are by their nature hugely expensive to operate and, being on average over 25 years old, now considered obsolete in respect of availability of mission systems electronics.
CHW (London – 16th January 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785