The British Army is slowly moving towards signing an upgrade contract for its fleet of Challenger 2 tanks – with German company Rheinmetall looking like the probable winner. This is a long overdue move, but also one that raises questions about the UK’s defense procurement policies.
When the Challenger 2 entered service in 1998, it was a world-class tank. It’s slower than the M1A2 Abrams – 37mph instead of 42mph – but it has excellent acceleration (which is the real lifesaver on the battlefield) and an advanced hydrogas suspension that gives a very smooth ride even on the roughest terrain. It also has extremely good protection. The Challenger 1 was protected by the same Chobham armor as the Abrams, but Challenger 2 has the even more advanced Dorchester armor. Everyone except the loader has effective night vision gear, gun stabilization is very good and, like most British armored vehicles since 1945, it’s fitted with a BV – the legendary Boiling Vessel, which runs off the tank’s electric system and keeps the crew supplied with hot meals and drinks.
On the other hand, there are a few downsides too. For reasons that seemed good at the time, it’s fitted with the rifled L30 120mm gun instead of the Rheinmetall L/44 used by the Abrams and Leopard 2. Mostly that’s because the UK wanted to keep using HESH rounds, which don’t perform well in smoothbore guns. Since the Soviets started fitting spall liners in the late 1960s, HESH hasn’t performed well against armor either, but it is excellent for quickly breaching walls. Fire a sabot or HEAT round at a wall and the result is a small, neat hole; lob a 120mm HESH and you get an instant mouse hole large enough for troops to fit through.
The trouble is that rifled guns are excellent for HESH, but not much good for anything else. The L30 is a very long gun – 55 calibers, compared to 44 for the Rheinmetall – but its anti-armor performance isn’t significantly better. That’s because sabot rounds need an energy-sapping mechanism to ensure that while the sabot spins as it passes up the rifling, the penetrator doesn’t. As for HEAT, the L30 can’t fire that at all.
Even maintaining ammunition stocks is a worry. Only the UK, Oman and India still use rifled 120mm guns, so shells can’t be bought from NATO allies – and a production line that’s only supplying the UK and Oman is incredibly expensive in per-shell costs. That’s why it’s shut down, and there are serious question marks over the MoD’s ability to get more ammo when current stocks run low.
Other systems in the tank are getting old, too. Radios have been upgraded with the new BOWMAN digital systems, but the fit isn’t ideal. Upgrades have been added incrementally and often in a hurry. Compare that to the Abrams, where the whole fleet regularly gets fed through highly organized upgrade programs where tanks are stripped down to bare hulls and totally rebuilt to the latest standard. Challenger 2 is long overdue for a similar program.
The real question is why the UK so often insists on ruling itself out of easy upgrade options. The L30 gun is one example, but the real stinker is the attack helicopter fleet. When the UK bought Apaches, the MoD insisted on creating a unique British version on basic airframes bought from Boeing. The resulting WAH-64 was superior to the AH-64D, which made everyone feel very warm and fuzzy. The trouble is it’s not as good as the AH-64E, and every AH-64D in the world has a proven upgrade path to the E standard. The WAH-64 doesn’t. Now the UK is looking at scrapping its whole fleet and buying AH-64Es instead. If we’d bought D models in the first place, we could now upgrade them cheaply instead of having to start again.
Rheinmetall have offered to do a total, ground-up rebuild of the Challenger 2 fleet; as well as updating all the 1990s systems, their preferred option is to ditch the L30 and fit the 55-caliber version of their own 120mm smoothbore. The extra four feet of barrel gives that gun a significant firepower advantage over most other NATO tanks, but more importantly it would put the Chally back on a sensible, NATO-standard upgrade path. If the USA or Germany developed a new advanced round, Britain could simply buy some instead of struggling to make an expensive, limited-production and probably less effective version that works in a rifled gun.
Another option would be to replace the current engine with the MTU EuroPack. There’s nothing much wrong with the 1,200bhp Perkins CV12, but the EuroPack is smaller, more fuel-efficient and cranks out an extra 300bhp. It also fits in the Challenger 2; we know that, because the Omani 2E model uses it. The 2E has longer range than the UK version, because the smaller engine leaves space for extra fuel tanks, and it’s as fast as an Abrams.
As far as suspension and armor go, the Challenger 2 is an excellent tank; there’s no reason to replace it if the gun issue and systems obsolescence can be sorted. The danger is that the MoD will be tempted, once again, to tinker with the plans just for the pleasure of being special. This would be stupid and expensive, as the WAH-64 mess clearly showed. We’re always short of money for defense; let’s try to spend what we do have like adults.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.