As the nation that invented the world's first tank, brought it into battle in 1916 at the Somme, and then deployed it in spectacular fashion the following year at Cambrai, Britain can claim a special place in the history of armoured warfare.
Slower to industrialise, the USSR, meanwhile, expanded its war manufacturing exponentially during the Second World War, turned the tide at Stalingrad, and cranked out what many consider to be the war's best tank: the T-34.
Cheaply and efficiently made, with a brilliant design featuring sloped frontal armour, vast numbers of T-34s poured off production lines where they swamped German tanks on the battlefield. Thus, Russia, too, has a prominent place in the history of the tank.
- Tanks and infantry – the almost-forgotten war-winning combination
- The First Time Tanks Came Face-To-Face In Battle
- Russia vs Britain: How do their militaries stack up?
But how do British and Russian tanks compare today?
This is a difficult question to answer definitively, for reasons that will be outlined below, but what follows is an examination of Britain's Challenger 2 and what many think of as Russia's Main Battle Tank (MBT), the T-14 Armata. A comparison of the available information about both models of tank then follows.
The British Challenger 2
Throughout their history, the design of tanks has varied based on the balancing of, and trade-off between, their level of armoured protection, the power and size of their main guns, and their speed.
Therefore, there has generally been an inverse relationship between these different elements.
The better armed, and armoured, tanks became, the more their speed was reduced – at least, in principle. Better designs and technology have helped overcome this problem, although only to a certain extent.
The exact details of the armour on Britain's Challenger 2 are classified, but we can surmise from its high weight that it leans more towards protection than speed.
The Challenger is 62.5 tonnes without cargo or passengers, making it twice as heavy as the first tanks in the First World War, and a good 10 tonnes heavier than the T-14 Armata.
That armour can also be further bolstered with add-on armour modules. With this, and ammunition etcetera, this takes the full combat weight of the Challenger 2 up to 75 tonnes – equivalent to about 58 family cars.
The tank has a crew of four, which is traditionally what most tanks have had – a commander, driver, gunner and loader/operator.
In terms of its armaments, the Challenger 2 is unique in having the L30A1 120mm rifled gun as its principal weapon system.
As the MOD has pointed out, rifling of barrels, just like with small arms, spins rounds and increases their accuracy, thereby reducing collateral damage.
However, this is becoming less important in an age of guided weaponry and the Challenger 3, due to become operational in 2030, will have a smoothbore gun to go along with its digital turret.
This is a significant change because it will make UK tank guns and their ammunition more like those of their NATO allies, thereby increasing interoperability.
As well as its main weapon, the Challenger also has two secondary guns. One of these is co-axial, meaning it turns along with the turret and main gun and is a 7.62mm L94A1 EX-34 chain gun.
Chain guns are like machine-guns but they use an external power source to recycle the bolt of the gun and keep it firing, whereas other guns use the force from fired rounds to do this.
Not to be left short, the Challenger also has a regular General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG), a 7.62mm L37A2, on one of the hatches on the turret. This means it is not co-axial and can turn and fire independently of the turret, a feature also shared by the secondary gun on the T-14 Armata.
In terms of its dimensions, the Challenger is 12.5 metres in length when its gun is facing forward, and two-and-a-half metres in height, giving it a relatively low profile, an advantage in any tank because it helps to make it less of a target.
Finally, the Challenger has a top speed of 37 miles per hour when travelling on roads, and 25 cross country. Its internal fuel gives it a range of 340 miles when travelling on roads, and 160 miles when travelling cross country.
The Russian T-14 Armata
In a departure from the historical tradition of Russian tanks being pragmatically designed and easily mass-producible, the T-14 Armata is technologically ambitious and, theoretically at least, very impressive.
According to the official Russian government newspaper 'Rossiyskaya Gazeta', the Armata is fairly compact, coming in at 10.8 metres in length, 3.3 metres in height and weighing in at just 55 tonnes.
A significant part of its height is accounted for by the miniature turret for its secondary weapon that sits above the main turret. This weapon is the PKTM machine gun, a tank version of the PK general-purpose machine gun, which is a belt-fed 7.62mm weapon.
The extra height from this weapon's second turret will presumably give it a good field of fire, although one possible trade-off may be that it increases the tank's profile somewhat, making it easier to spot than it otherwise would have been.
This, however, may be worth it, since the gun looks to be very effective and the designers seem to have been trying to get the maximum use and benefit out of it.
According to the website for the Russian arms export and import agency Rosoboronexport, the weapon is highly versatile:
"The PKTM can fire cartridges with conventional, armour-piercing incendiary, tracer and enhanced penetration bullets. Ammunition is fed from a metal belt stowed in a cartridge box."
As for its main weapon, the T-14 has a 125mm gun in its unmanned turret, which is controlled electronically from a protected crew capsule in the middle of the tank.
The main gun is fed by an autoloader and, as well as traditional rounds, it can also fire the Sprinter Anti-Tank Guided Munition (ATGM), which is effectively a guided missile.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta indicates that the top speed of the tank is between 75 and 80 kilometres an hour, or 46.6 to 49.7 miles per hour, which must be an on-road figure. It is also meant to have an operational range of 500 kilometres, or 311 miles, which again must be for on-road driving.
This would seem to tilt the vehicle more towards the speed and away from the heavy armour end of the proverbial tank-design pendulum, but then the T-14 is also meant to have terrific armour as well.
How is this achieved? It would seem that, assuming the available information is correct (a big if), the answer is basically through shrewd use of technology.
As well as the protected shell in the interior of the tank for the three crew members – the commander, gunner and driver – the T-14 has sophisticated traditional armour.
A translation by the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office of a February 2015 Rossiyskaya Gazeta article by Sergey Ptichkin states that: "The forward (protected crew shell) has multilayered, combined armor protection which can withstand a direct hit of any type of rounds which exist today."
On top of this, additional protection comes in the form of an Afghanit Active Protection System (APS), which is designed to track incoming projectiles and use charges to detonate them before they smash into the tank's armour.
In all, then, the T-14 Armata looks to have it all: great protection, a main weapon that provides a huge punch, and a good top speed.
The trouble is the T-14 Armata is still just a main battle tank, rather than the main battle tank of the Russian army – a potential weapon of the near future.
While it is true that the tank was deployed briefly in Syria in 2015, this was presumably to give it a testing ground, since the T-14 has not been significantly deployed or assigned to units since.
As with any ambitious military project, the program may simply have run into developmental difficulties. However, no matter what the cause or causes of the delay, it is worth pointing out that as far as is known in mid-2022, it looks like there are not many fully functional T-14s even in existence.
The state-owned Russian news agency TASS reported in November of 2021 that the plan was for 20 to be assigned to Russian units by the end of the year, and as IISS reported in March 2022, the tank was still undergoing government testing. Russian ground forces have been using upgraded older models of tank in the interim.
Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that there probably are not more 20 operational T-14 Armatas in existence, and possibly even fewer than that, making the comparison with the British Army's more than 200 Challenger 2s still very theoretical.
The other obvious point to consider is the secretive and propagandistic nature of the Putin Regime, and the need to take any information about supposed military prowess with a very big grain of salt.
Whether or not the Armata will turn out to be as technically impressive as many hope, and fear, therefore, remains to be seen.
If it turns out the tank is as good as Russian official sources claim, it will no doubt spur on improvements in tank design across the NATO alliance.
Cover image: T-14 Armata tank from Russian MOD
120mm rifled gun (47 rounds)
125mm cannon (45 rounds)
7.62mm chain gun (co-axial);
7.62mm GPMG (on hatch)
7.62mm PKTM machine gun
Chobham / Dorchester Level 2 (secret), can be augmented with add-on modules
Multi-layered combined armour, and Afghanit Active Protection System (APS)
4 (commander, driver, loader/operator, gunner)
3 (commander, driver, gunner)
37 mph (on road)
46.6 – 49.7 mph (on road)
340 miles (on road)
311 miles (on road)