Technology

Challenger 3: Could Tank Upgrades Be Cancelled Like Warrior's?

Britain's main battle tank requires similar changes to the armoured vehicle programme recently put in reverse.

The British Army's battle tank is going under the knife, with 148 Challenger 2s set to be transformed to Challenger 3s by the end of the decade.

Both excitement and concern surround plans for a new turret in a fully-digitised vehicle, in the wake of long-awaited upgrades to the Warrior armoured vehicle being cancelled.

Warrior had been promised a new turret for a decade when plans to scrap the project were published in the Defence Command Paper this year.

Forces News asked Dr Jack Watling, Research Fellow for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), whether Challenger 3 could meet the same fate.

"The scope of the project is similar – so the upgrade to Challenger 3 is to build a new turret, with a new gun, and to integrate it into quite an old set of hulls," he said.

While fear the programme could "go along similar lines" to the Warrior is "understandable", Dr Watling suggested there were unique flaws to the hulls of the armoured vehicle, which is itself two decades older than the Challenger 2.

A stronger starting point with the Challenger 3 prototype gives defence cause for optimism, while speedbumps in the Challenger's life extension will be treated by the Army as "valuable" lessons learned due to the project's broader relevance to future vehicle design.

Watch: Why's the Army changed its mind on the Warrior?

Dr Watling said "ironing out the kinks" with the new tank will inform programmes surrounding the next generation of armoured fighting vehicles like the Warrior's replacement, the Boxer.

UK engineers have not developed a battle tank for years, and troubleshooting on the Challenger 3 will be deemed less of a burden than the woes of the Warrior, Dr Watling explained.

What might the problems be?

Fitting brand new, mass-manufactured components into older and worn hulls, is one hurdle.

The Warrior was manufactured when turrets were "serialised to the hull" and had to be fitted individually rather than being "dropped into each vehicle" – so the outlook for the modern Challenger 3 is brighter here.

Failure to export the tank to other countries could also see the unit cost tank rise and drive the budget up, the expert said.

Dr Watling described a "tall order" in convincing those outside of the UK and Oman to buy the tanks – Challenger 3 "unlikely to surpass the competition".

The lack of an autoloader in the upgraded platform means one crew member must still load the gun, leaving "fairly limited crew capacity to do some of the things the Army would like the crew to be doing" like controlling drones from inside.

High protection on board the Challenger 3 "risks it climbing towards 80 tonnes," said Dr Watling – adding that the competition is hitting upper limits of 50 tonnes.

Watch: Challenger 3 – Army getting Europe's 'most lethal tank' in £800m contract.

A newfound focus on a digital backbone for UK heavy armour is unlikely to delay manufacturing, but could hinder their use.

The architecture of the upgraded tank would allow the new systems to effectively 'plug in' when ready.

Although Dr Watling had concerns over the budget and timescale now the Challenger 3's surgery is under way, he believes the UK's "crippling deficiency in firepower" is a primary reason not to cancel the project.

"If Challenger 2 went to war today its rounds would not be knocking out its targets, and so it would likely be destroyed," he said.

Britain has "too few guns at almost every calibre" he continued, stating that Challenger 3 would be "one of the few things in the Army that could reliably kill things it comes up against... apart from higher-end, modernised main battle tanks".