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Weapons and Kit

Challenger 2: Everything You Need To Know About Britain’s Tanks

APOSW-2019-002-RTR Castlemartin-076-BB

Nothing shakes the ground like a Challenger 2.

The hairs on the back of a bystander’s neck stand to attention when its driver puts his foot down and the explosive roar of its 26-litre diesel engine lets rip, driving the axels that move the tracks of the 65 tonnes of armour forward. Inside it, four highly trained crew members each with individual responsibilities that when put together – like a perfect orchestra – bring the weapon to its maximum, deadly effectiveness.

It does not happen by magic.

For a weapon such as the Challenger 2 to be brought to bear, everything from the initial drawings of its design to the corps-specific elite training of the soldiers fortunate enough to operate it must be precision perfect.

With talk of the Royal Armoured Corps' 227 Challenger 2 tanks being mothballed, BFBS explores what exactly makes up the UK’s armoured contingent of main battle tank and hears from experts as to whether discussions around the obsolete nature of this genre of warfare are fair.

This is all the gen on Britain’s tanks.

Challenger 2 crews training in BATUS. Credit: MOD

Challenger 2

The ‘Chally Two’ is the British Army’s main battle tank.

Although state of the art, the Challenger 2 has now completed 22 years’ service, if it were a soldier it would be dined out and due to start collecting its well-earned pension.

That said, thanks to a life extension programme Challenger 2 should remain in service until the mid-2030s. But discussions are afoot of perhaps bringing the century-long tradition of heavy armour and the British Army to an end.

The British designed and built weapon certainly packs a punch and the technology behind it is impressive, and did you know the British Army is not the only customer to the manufacturers of the Challenger 2, BAE Systems who were formally known as Vickers?

That’s right … Challenger 2 is also used by the Royal Army of Oman.

Omani troops on their Challenger 2 tanks CRED BFBS
The Royal Army of Oman are the only other military to use Challenger 2. Credit: BFBS

The tank was designed in the late Eighties and early Nineties to replace its predecessor, Challenger 1. Orders were placed by the Ministry of Defence in 1991 and 1994, for 127 and 259 units respectively with the last of those delivered in April 2002. Per unit, the Challenger 2 cost the taxpayer £4.2 million.

Has it been worth it?

Challenger 2 has seen active service in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq where it played a major role in British operations during both the war and subsequent occupation.

However, it could not be used in Operation Herrick, arguably the UK’s most significant conflict of the Challenger 2 era, due to it not being suitable for the Afghan terrain.

Challenger 2 tank on Exercise KHANJAR OMAN 19 270319 CREDIT BRITISH ARMY MOD
Challenger 2 played a significant role in operations in Iraq. Credit: MOD

Challenger Two Specifics

Let’s take a closer look at what is under the decks and in the turret of a Challenger 2 …

Weight                                62.5 tonnes (75.0 tonnes with up-armour and battle ready)

Length                                13.5 metres with gun forward

Crew                                    4 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Driver)

Engine                                V12 26.1 litre diesel engine

Fuel                                     1,592 litres

Range                                 340 miles (160 off road)

Max speed                        37 mph (with six forward gears and two reverse)

Armour                              Classified

Main Armament              120 mm rifled gun (carrying max 74 rounds)

Secondary Armament    Boeing 7.62 Chain gun and additional GPMG for Loader

Brews                                  One standard British Army issued boiling vessel (BV)

Challenger 2 has additional impressive features, some high tech and others, like its ability to create a smokescreen by injecting diesel into its exhausts, more mechanical. It has a full 360 degrees rotating turret (electrical, just in case you thought the gunner was sat in there frantically rotating it by hand – it’s not a Scimitar after all) which also has its own NBC protection system … so can boast the ability of withstanding a nuclear blast.

General Dynamics is behind the computer equipment that allows Challenger 2 to engage enemy targets swiftly, intelligently and precisely.

An element of this apparatus is the battlefield information system application, called PBISA – and as anybody who has ever been on a signals course will attest, PBISA is a complicated bit of kit but quite remarkable when operated properly, allowing the vehicle commander to have a live readout of the battlefield around him from inside the turret.

Of course, no commander can be without his brew ... and as is normal in British armoured fighting vehicles, within the turret is a standard issue 24 volt boiling vessel, or BV for short.

Challenger 2 at sunset
Defence chiefs are looking at plans to mothball the British Army MBT fleet. Credit: MOD

Additionally, there are built-in laser range finders with a range of up to 10 km and thermal observation and gunnery sight equipment which provides night vision. The Commander also has the use of a panoramic gyrostabilised sight – sounds complicated … it is.

In terms of its effectiveness as a weapon, Challenger 2’s 120 mm main armament can engage a target at over 3,000 metres. However, the same gun system while fitted to Challenger 1 during the Gulf War successfully destroyed an Iraqi tank at a range of 4 km. That’s impressive gunnery.

Fleet Reduction

In 2010, the British Army’s fleet of Challenger 2 was reduced by 40%, in part due to the on-going operations in Afghanistan, a theatre the MBT had no place. This left the Royal Armoured Corps with three Challenger 2 regiments, each with 56 vehicles. About 60 further Challenger 2s are kept for driver training and maintenance related matters (spare parts).  

Has The British Army Ever Lost A Challenger 2 In Action?

The short answer is yes, but the incident was due to friendly fire. The event occurred during the Iraq war on March 25, 2003.

While engaged in an operation on the outskirts of Basra, Corporal Stephen Allbutt and Trooper David Clarke of the Queen’s Royal Lancers were killed when their vehicle was engaged by another Challenger 2. A further two soldiers were injured in the incident.

Has The Era Of The Tank Passed?

According to several reports in the national press, Whitehall officials are giving serious consideration to placing the Challenger 2 fleet into some sort of storage and instead refocusing the gap left by heavy armour on the battlefield with something else. Perhaps that something else is cyber? Perhaps fast jets … but whatever that something else is, the idea has been met with stiff opposition.

In an interview with Forces News, Bovington Tank Museum’s David Willey expressed his views against the idea of mothballing Challenger 2. He said:

“If we want to remain in the game as it were, in other words if we want to have a credible defence … tanks are still part of that makeup that means you are a serious army.

“Even though they have been around for a hundred years, they have something about them. Not just their phycological impact but the fact they have got mobility, the fact that they have got fire power and the fact they have got protection. These are three things soldiers have wanted for thousands of years.”

Former Chief of General Staff, General Lord Dannatt, is opposed to the idea of mothballing Challenger 2.
Former Chief of General Staff, General Lord Dannatt, is opposed to the idea of mothballing Challenger 2.

Another opponent to the idea of bringing heavy armour to an end is General Lord Dannatt. Speaking to newspapers, the former Chief of General Staff said the idea was “very dangerous” in the face of increasing threats from Russia. In discussing the model of placing equipment like main battle tanks into a state of dormancy, he said:

“'The capability involves personnel, training and interaction with attack aviation, artillery, armoured infantry vehicles, air support. These all come together and require a lot of training and experience.”

While General Lord Dannatt cites Russian threats as a factor in the matter, he has good reason.

When compared to Britain’s count of 227 main battle tanks, Russia boasts almost 13,000. Even the US Military is outnumbered two to one in terms of heavy armour compared with Moscow.

Given this, perhaps the gap is too wide and military chiefs are right to explore different, more modern opportunities to get the upper hand on the figurative battlefield.

The row as to whether Challenger 2 has a place in the British Army of the future will go on.

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