Military – Executive tussle in UK over sending Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine

The Chief of the General Staff of the United Kingdom has warned that the deployment of Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine will "temporarily weaken" Britain, according to media reports.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The Chief of the General Staff of the United Kingdom, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has issued a warning that the deployment of Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine will “temporarily weaken” Britain, according to media reports.

On January 14, it was reported that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, intended to send a tank regiment to Ukraine. Immediate preparations are being made to transfer four Challenger 2 tanks to Eastern Europe. After them, eight additional Tanks are scheduled to be shipped.

Sanders is quoted as saying in a statement obtained through a leak and reviewed by the source that the shipment of 14 British tanks to Kyiv would result in a gap in the British inventory and make it difficult for the British military to fulfil its NATO responsibilities. 

No replacements for the Challenger 2 tanks

The outlet also cited a video broadcast on the intranet of the British army in which Sanders allegedly alludes to the military’s dissatisfaction with the decision made by the office of the Prime Minister to provide heavy equipment to Ukraine while simultaneously reducing the number of tanks in the British armed forces. 

According to statistics made available to the British government, 386 of these tanks joined the country’s armed forces. As of September 2016, the British army still had 227 Challenger-2 tanks.

The allegations made by the chief of the general staff have prompted a review of the decision to reduce the number of tanks in the British Army,

Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed to the UK House of Commons on January 16 that the Ministry of Defence would be evaluating the number of Challenger 2 tanks scheduled to be upgraded to the Challenger 3 standard, with the potential aim of increasing the number of MBTs in the British Army.

In addition, Wallace stated that the United Kingdom’s Deep Fires programme would be completed this decade rather than in the 2030s as was initially anticipated. Subject to discussions, an interim artillery capability will also be delivered to strengthen the United Kingdom’s long-range firepower.

In 2020, it was learnt that the British army had postponed its choice on how to replace the Challenger 2 for several years, weighing upgrade and life extension plans from various defence suppliers, including BAE Systems and Rheinmetall.

The UK’s tank programme is already tiny compared to its peers, with only 220 vehicles and only half of those thought to be operational, so the financial and operational commitment is minimal, as per defence expert Nicholas Drummond quoted in Express. The UK already plans to reduce Challenger numbers from 227 to 148. Challengers are 25 years old, and the fleet has not been considerably modernised since it entered service. 

The Challenger 2 is a main combat tank built by Vickers Defence Systems as a replacement for the Challenger 1, which served as the main battle tank for the British army from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s.

If a replacement for Challenger 2 is ever required, there has also been talk of purchasing Leopard Tanks, a popular German export Tank series.

Fundamentally, this poses a threat to the domestic leadership and expertise of the British manufacturing industry. Without a deal to produce Leopards in the United Kingdom, vital heavy manufacturing capabilities will be lost forever.

UK’s Challenger 3 program

Current Challenger 2 armament consists of the L30 120mm rifled cannon, as opposed to the smoothbore of all other NATO nations, and is capable of firing armour-penetrating fin-stabilised discarding sabot, high-explosive squash head, and smoke rounds. Furthermore, the L30 can fire the depleted uranium projectile using a stick charge propellant. Additional armament includes a 7.62mm chain cannon alongside the L30 and a 7.62mm general-purpose machine gun installed on the turret’s top.

The Challenger 2 is outfitted with second-generation Chobham armour, a unique composite material originating in the United Kingdom, and is also equipped with reasonably sophisticated thermal imaging and battlefield management systems, which provide the operator with a high level of situational awareness.

The British Army is now in the process of modernising its Challenger 2 fleet. By 2027, 148 of these vehicles will have been upgraded to the Challenger 3 level. The Rheinmetall L55A1 smoothbore gun will take the place of the L30 gun once it has been put in the new turret. Additionally, an active protection system and improved crew vision systems will be installed. In May of 2021, an agreement for 800 million pound sterling was reached with the UK-German RBSL joint venture. 

What is the maximum number of Challenger 2 tanks that can be delivered to Ukraine?

As per defence expert Nicholas Drummond, the UK could send 79 tanks to Ukraine potentially. But since these tanks are very old, the UK should be able to provide just 10-20.


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