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MOD Throws Leaking Straws to the Wind on Future of Main Battle Tanks! By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.









There can be very few unaware that within what they are calling an ‘Integrated Review of Defence, Security and Foreign Policy’ we are about to have another infernal and more than likely, damaging review in relation to most aspects of defence UK Defence.

Deep down we also know that while the outcome of the review is bound to contain good points that it will also be littered with many bad. We know too that SDSR 2015 was over ambitious and unaffordable and that SDSR 2010 was, as I termed it when last writing on the subject back in April 2019, a tragedy. To be fair, the 1997 Robertson Defence Review was, compared to those before and after, excellent. As to those that went before – I am all of a sudden reminded of the term ‘Rifkind’s Follies’!

From a few years ago now, I also recall someone who I will not name and whose experience, knowledge and judgement on matters military is beyond question, observed the following comments to me privately:

Conversation on defence capabilities is invariably focused on equipment and cost. I have not heard any recent public comment on recruiting and retention. The last I heard was that all three Services were under-manned and that would cause me significant worry for now and the future. The simple fact is that in scraping around for “efficiency” savings there is inevitable pressures on conditions of service that end up with further erosion of benefits. I have seen that time and time again which has gone hand in glove with a similar and steady erosion of the influence of the Chiefs of Staff both individually and as a Committee. The point needs to be made repeatedly that the best kit in the world has no value without adequate numbers of well trained and motivated personnel – and with the Chiefs rusticated to the countryside (a long standing ambition of the Civil Service) the few remaining military in Whitehall remain under the thumb of the Civil Service and their political masters. They are experts in talking up potential threats (without definition of a defence strategy) and in the implementation of measures in harmony with current political correctness. They are less expert, notwithstanding legitimate concern about vexatious claims against the military past and present, in protecting the equally legitimate interests of serving personnel as it affects their conditions of service and career prospects” 

Just a couple of days after the MOD called on Defence Opinion Leaders (that is a small group of us who attend regular briefs at the MOD) together with those with a vested interest and who may well be playing a direct role in our nations’ security and prosperity (Industry and Military) to enter submission in regard of the Integrated Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Review process. Lo and behold this morning we see observed in the Times under the title ‘Military chiefs look at mothballing Britain’s [Main Battle] tank fleet, under radical move to modernise the Army.

Clearly this was an ‘intended’ leak from the MOD to a chosen journalist (Lucy Fisher) in order for the MOD to test the waters of public or should I better say, political, press and media opinion. Well they did that alright, and I suspect they have now run back into Main Building for cover with tin hats on!

For what it’s worth, while I can envisage current numbers of ageing Challenger Main Battle Tanks being reduced, I cannot for one moment envisage that in my lifetime Britain will no longer have any Main Battle tanks – albeit that I also believe there will perhaps need to be a better understanding amongst our NATO allies that some of them are better placed in mainland Europe to lead in this important aspect of warfare.

That is not to suggest either that whatever the number envisaged to remain is, that there should be any change of plan in regard of the very much needed upgrade programme that MOD and industry have been working on for some time. Bottom line is my view then that MOD will have Challenger tanks driving on its lawns for quite a few more years yet!   

Another ‘leaked’ and all but denied suggestion, one that I myself have previously indicated as a strong possibility is that the Review could well confirm that two of the oldest Type 23 Frigates will be decommissioned well before their Type 26 successors enter the fleet. The Royal Navy has very big issues to resolve not least of which is staying within its budget allocation. Moves such as this and delays/cancellations to much needed new support ships are I am afraid a necessary part of bringing the RN’s costs into line with whatever the nation is planning it wants the Royal Navy to do in the future.     

Before moving on and this is perhaps not an observation that you would generally expect to hear me make, whatever the outcomes of the review process are I do hope that by now, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has a much better understanding of what the Royal Air Force actually does and the vital role that it plays than he did when he was appointed Chief of the General Staff in 2016 and two years later, Chief of the Defence Staff. Back in 2016 I for one found it quite amazing that General Sir Nick’s attitude to the Royal Air Force appeared to be on of constant griping and criticism and, as I noted at the time, I found that he had a rather unfortunate taste for trivia combined with very little understanding of the strategic importance of air power or indeed, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.

Over the past couple of months, the tone of speculation in regard of what might or might not happen in the Cummings led Integrated Review Process has notably increased. Some of the more stupid notions aired – usually in press articles written by long ago retired Army and Navy personnel – have once again had the gall to suggest that the Royal Air Force should no longer exist as a separate service and that it should be merged with the Royal Navy or Army. Words fail me and God help us is that was ever to see the light of day but, fear not, nothing along those lines is about to occur.

On that particular subject and, putting all other considerations aside, I recall a view put forward several years ago – one with which I completely share – that said “if reducing three air arms two will save money, would not more be saved by combining three air arms into one? – the RAF of course!

Once again it is the Times that was chosen to break the story that military chiefs have (supposedly) drawn up plans to mothball all of Britain’s remaining Challenger Main Battle tanks under so-called radical proposals to modernise the armed forces. Apparently, according to the newspaper, the government is examining the controversial idea due to the cost of upgrading Britain’s ageing fleet of 227 Challenger 2 tanks and also, the 388 Warrior armoured fighting vehicles that support them on the battlefield.

How ironic that the speculation being reported should come just four weeks after the Hungarian Army took delivery of the first four of an order for 44 new German made Leopard-2 tanks from Kraus-Maffei Wegmann. I will come back to Challenger 2 but before that allow me to deal with the comments made in relation to Warrior armoured personnel vehicles and which in my opinion, the British Army cannot do without.

Yes, there have been delays on Warrior upgrade but suffice to say that Lockheed Martin has met all of its contractual agreements so far. Final testing of the new turret has and continues to go very well but so far, apart from design and development machines, no formal order has yet been given.

Those who would always be so quick off the mark to blame industry should note that back in April 2019 the Ministry of Defence (MOD) admitted that there were “some initial challenges to overcome” with the Warrior armoured vehicle programme when it then revealed the upgrade is delayed and £227 million over budget. The Warrior upgrade programme which I wrote on separately earlier this year, was first announced in 2011. The basis of the upgrade, apart from fitting of new Ampthill, Bedfordshire turrets that will finally allow Warrior to fire on the move, is an extension of the vehicles’ service life by at least 15 years.

Right now I have no more idea than anyone else of what our military chiefs might eventually agree between themselves in regard of individual savings that can be made in order to fund the new generation of Cyber, AI, Space, Communications and other potential new defence and security related programmes that we already know that the MOD is determined to pursue. But while technology continues to determine that future wars will unlikely be the same as past wars that doesn’t mean that a small nation such as ours can suddenly walk away from its NATO land-based responsibilities in the belief that we will never again need tanks.

I recall the late Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor putting it best when he said “Air warfare cannot be separated into little packages; it knows no boundaries on land or sea other than those imposed by the radius of action of the aircraft. It is a unity and demands unity of command”.

Now, I may not write on ‘Main Battle Tanks’ that often but, having seemingly lived and breathed the original and very troublesome development of the Vickers Challenger 2 and being told by the CEO, the late Sir David Plastow, time and time again during the 1980’s that all was well, all that I can say is that this particularly unhappy period remains steeped on my mind. For the GKN built Warrior, the opposite is true!

All that said, just as I believe the review process should not make any radical changes to the Warrior upgrade programme – it must not only be retained, modernised and re-equipped with a new turret for front line service wherever and whenever that is and because Warrior is out there somewhere doing the job it was built for, so too can a similar case be made for Challenger 2 upgrade on which much design and development work has already been done.

Even if we decide at some future point to hand over some of the roles that we currently have major NATO responsibilities to countries that may be deemed to be better placed than ourselves to conduct future tank warfare and allowing us to concentrate on what we do best – air and maritime power in all its many forms – for the UK to scrap or mothball the remaining Challenger Main Battle tank fleet without considering the full implications that this could mean, appears very unlikely. I can have no idea what the ultimate number of retained Challenger 2’s should be but what I do know is that every one of them must be upgraded to the highest standard of safety and capability requirement. There can be no half way measures on this. 

Make no mistake, whether you like them or not or feel that they are an anachronism of hard power we no longer intend to play, main battle tanks do still have a use. To imagine the UK being without any tanks (I see no room in the review process to talk about replacing them with new) they can and often are used for other good purposes when deployed in none front line missions – examples here being in the Balkans and on other missions that UK armed forces were involved such as that with IFOR in the peace support role with Main Battle Tanks proving very capable of being deployed tactically as persuaders/deterrents in order to control and dominate key points of strategic importance. It worked then and despite all that one sees today suggesting that we will never fight in an old-style war again, all that I can say is that history and our adversaries may yet have other ideas.        

CHW (London – 25th August 2020   

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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