Cream Paper 6

Thinking the unthinkable -

Is there need for a

Main Battle Tank in the British Army?



Despite seeing service in 1917, it was only during the Second World War that Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) realised their full potential, in which they were the queens of the battlefield. Since then they have been regarded as being one of the most, if not the most, important weapon on the battlefield.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Europe eliminates a major justification for the tank forces on the North German plain. "The days of a heavily armoured continentally based Division must surely be numbered," as one recently retired General put it. The Strategic Defence Review might suggest that all Challenger forces should be relocated to the UK. But what then?

There are two schools of thought about the future. The first school argues that MBTs are still important and that the United Kingdom should continue to purchase them, armour being of vital importance in high intensity conflict in taking and holding ground.

A second school argues that MBTs, despite being formidable fighting machines, have considerable disadvantages and that given the likely scenarios for future British military deployments, other weapons systems should replace them in the UK army's order of battle.

This paper seeks to explore some of the arguments for and against continuing with the existing policy.

What is a Main Battle Tank?

The term MBT generally refers to a heavily armoured tracked fighting vehicle armed with a powerful cannon whose principal function is to destroy its opposite numbers on a battlefield. They are usually heavy (60 tonnes not being uncommon) and their design generally entails a compromise between firepower, protection and mobility in accordance with the demands of the customer.

For example, the British Army bases its armoured doctrine on long-range engagements. Protection has been given a higher priority than either firepower or mobility in the user's requirement. As such British tanks accordingly are very heavily armoured and mount a high velocity 120-mm gun, but are relatively underpowered and have comparatively mediocre mobility. Other tanks of comparable weight fit a 1500 HP engine as against Challenger II's 1200 HP. As a weapon MBTs are still highly destructive in that they remain the most effective antitank weapon on the battlefield and can be rapid, with the British Challenger II tank possessing a road speed of 56 kilometres per hour.

(Alternative para:For example, in current British Army armoured doctrine, protection is given a higher priority than either firepower or mobility in the user's requirement. British tanks are therefore very heavily armoured and, though they mount a potent 120 mm, high velocity gun, they have comparatively mediocre mobility because of their underpowered 1200 hp engine; other tanks of comparable weight fit a 1500 hp engine. As a weapon system, MBTs are highly destructive, it being argued that they remained the most effective anti-tank weapon on the battlefield and their shock action deployment is often a battle-winning factor in high intensity conflict (HIC).)

However, MBTs do have disadvantages the most significant of which is cost (a modern MBT being anything between 2.5-3 million) and poor transportability, at the strategic and operational levels. This problem presents an obvious deployment dilemma which can be solved either by investing in sufficient transport resources, (air, shipping and rail) to ensure timely arrival or by stockpiling MBTs in an area which is in close proximity to the future battlefield. No aircraft in the RAF inventory or currently contemplated can carry a single Challenger II. Even large US aircraft such as the C-17 could only carry one Challenger. Stockpiling overseas is no longer a practical option and was only relevant in the context of West Germany during the Cold War.

The alternative is to transport the MBTs to the area where they are needed. Not only does this require a considerable financial outlay and specialized shipping but it is also very time consuming. For example during Operation Desert Shield, it took the United States Army a month and a half to deploy the 24 Mechanized Infantry Division's 1,574 armoured vehicles, 3,500 wheeled vehicles and 90 helicopters to Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, the Coalition was fortunate to have a seven month grace period before the 1991 Gulf War during which they could build up their land forces. The alternative of ships taken up from Trade is fraught - the number of UK flagged vessels has plummeted, availability of others to sail into danger zones is limited. As a recent Parliamentary answer stated, in general, British ships, particularly for certain categories such as dry cargo vessels, are fully committed to regular trading activities and are seldom offered for charter.

Another problem for the MBT on the modern battlefield is the growing number of enemies it is likely to confront. For example, attack helicopters equipped with anti tank guided missiles are a serious threat, while portable long range anti tank missiles, such as the Soviet Spigot, European Milan and US TOW, possess ranges of the order of 4 kilometres which can make the humble infantry a deadly enemy. During the 1982 Israeli/Syrian War in Lebanon, over 400 Soviet manufactured T-72s and T-64s were destroyed by the Israelis using a combination of aircraft, attack helicopters and ground-based TOW missiles. While the introduction of reactive armour appears to have given the MBT an element of protection against most anti tank missiles, it is difficult to believe this is anything but a breathing space for armour until the next round of improvements in anti tank weapons appear.

To defeat MBTs, attack helicopters can only carry chemical energy (CE) anti-armour munitions. The next generation defence against such munitions is likely to be based more on Defensive Aids Suite (DAS) than on armour protection. Early forms of DAS are therefore likely to feature as mid-life improvements to Challenger 2. DAS could deploy electronics disruption or on board munitions against incoming CE missiles. Armour piercing shells from other tanks rely on their kinetic energy (KE) for their kill potential and defence against these munitions cannot be based on DAS. Defence must therefore continue to rely on armour until stealth becomes a major design feature. Clearly a combination of DAS and stealth on ground vehicles will render the attack helicopter less potent.

One further consideration is the small number of MBTs that the United Kingdom could deploy in a regional conflict such as the Middle East, (one of seven mission types set out in the revised Defence Planning Framework published in February). By the turn of the century it is estimated that the British Army will have much less than 500 Challenger II MBTs. This number and this model are likely to remain in service until around 2025. With most Middle East armies deploying in excess of 2,000 MBTs, any unilateral British MBT deployment in the region during the next 30 years could soon see the British Army being hopelessly outnumbered by a hostile regional army. Effectiveness, quality, training, readiness and logistics would probably not compensate for the numerical imbalance, so high losses might be expected. Thus any British Army deployment in the Middle East could only be as part of a coalition effort with her allies. Under such circumstances interoperability with the MBTs of allies would have been attractive. However, tank interoperability, while attractive, remains illusive - not even commonality of main armament ammunition has been achieved.


Changing priorities in defence planning

Within the new British Defence Doctrine (JWP 0-01, Jan 97), by virtue of their more likely occurrence and shorter warning time, Operations other than War (OOTW) now attract a higher priority than short warning High Intensity Conflict (HIC). That is not to say that HIC has gone away. On the contrary, HIC remains a strong possibility though no longer in a short warning, General War, context. It is General War that has now lost its immediacy, together with the attendant need for a high-readiness, HIC, response but the possibility of HIC Regional War remains and preparedness for that eventuality must remain strong, though clearly against a longer warning period.

In the less stable, less predictable, post-Cold War era, the UK's vulnerability to a wide range of threats is no less substantial than it was when the Warsaw Pact was in existence, albeit that the types of threat are different and constantly changing. The UK's force structure, though significantly smaller than when it faced the Warsaw Pact is, nevertheless, broadly the same in organisation and equipment.

Doctrine has been modernised to reflect an increased priority on high readiness and rapid reaction but the current aim of UK Security Policy is " maintain the freedom and territorial integrity of the Nation and its Dependent Territories and the freedom to pursue legitimate interests at home and abroad within a peaceful and stable world." (JWP 0-01, Ch5).

Because this security policy is inseparable from wider foreign and economic policy, it is fundamental that the UK continues to play a leading role in world affairs. It follows that to do this her influence must be seen and felt across a wide range of issues where the strict observance of international law has to be upheld. Deployment, to meet a broad spectrum of intimidation to that rule of law must, therefore be swift, secure, sufficient and sustainable. Failure in any one of these areas will serve to undermine both national and international confidence in the UK's ability to assume the responsibilities of its declared intention to uphold international law and so, over time, will threaten the UK's leading role in world affairs.

This is as important to the present administration as it was to the last, and UK's foreign policy will continue to be dominated by a wish to retain a permanent seat at the Security Council table, while the outcome of the Government's strategic defence review could well have a fundamental impact on the future roles of our forces. If the 'seat' is to dominate its thinking, an HIC capability will remain a necessary and fundamental consequence.

Against that background, there is a widely held view within the MOD and the user community, both now and for the foreseeable future, that preparing for the worst case will continue to be the guiding principle in re-equipping our forces while the threat of HIC, either direct, or indirect through the escalation of a lower order of conflict, remains. There would appear to be no argument, therefore, for radically re-arranging the current equipment programme, in the near to medium term, in order to place OOTW as the highest priority for equipment procurement.

However, a balance has to be struck which avoids over-investment in satisfying the important HIC requirements at the expense of the more urgent OOTW requirements. This need for balance, particularly in the context of no increase in the available procurement funds, strongly suggests that measures should be examined which will provide the widest possible utility and flexibility for all equipment and so minimise the 'special for role' procurement typified by the demands of HIC. This in turn implies that the requirement for future equipment which has solely an HIC capability should be questioned and genuine attempts made to satisfy the requirement in a more flexible manner.


The scenarios in which the United Kingdom may employ her armed forces

The functions that the British Army could be required to perform into the next century include:

Unilateral commitments besides defence of the realm could be to support a dependent territory under threat.

Multilateral commitments: NATO is presently being reconfigured to conform to the new doctrine for the deployment of combined joint task forces (CJTF) including Article 5 commitments and out-of-area operations.

Simultaneous contingencies may include:

Disaster relief for nuclear accidents e.g. Former Soviet Union.

Partners for Peace (PfP) operations e.g. Transcaucasus

OSCE Missions e.g. Armenia, Azerbaijan or Albania

Humanitarian Assistance e.g. Sub Saharan Africa

Non combatant evacuation e.g. Algeria, Liberia, Zaire etc.

The value of MBTs in the scenarios outlined

It is a reasonably safe assumption that the United Kingdom will have to call upon the services of her defence forces at some point in the future in the 21st century. But how useful will MBTs be in any future operations? It is seriously difficult to imagine a scenario in the immediate future which will involve the British armed forces being employed in the defence of the British Mainland against a foreign invader.

The United Kingdom does, however, maintain dependent territories throughout the world, especially in the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, and some of these dependencies are coveted by other countries (for example the Falkland Islands). With the exception of the British Antarctic Territory and the naval base at Gibraltar, all are small islands where the potential for armoured warfare is limited. At the same time the prospect of the United Kingdom being involved in military operations which would require MBTs in defence of a NATO ally must be considered remote. For much of the Cold War, the raison d'etre for the United Kingdom's armoured regiments was to stop a Soviet armoured thrust across central Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conditions that the Russian Army are currently facing, the prospects of such a scenario happening are unlikely.

The two current flank NATO powers, currently Turkey and Norway, have little need for MBT assistance. Turkey has sufficient MBTs herself to deal with any possible threat from either the Middle East or from her immediate neighbours while the geography of Norway is likely to preclude the employment of MBTs. (See however TS 5 - Wars Downstream)

Another area which could well see the United Kingdom committing its armed forces would be in an area not covered by the NATO alliance, but which was still considered important by the British government, for example in the Far East under the terms of the Five Powers Defence Agreement, or in the Middle East in a repetition of Operation Granby. Furthermore, the British Army could well find itself being employed in support of a humanitarian operation, most likely as a member of a NATO-led CJTF, albeit under United Nations auspices, such as the British contribution to the NATO-led IFOR/SFOR peace-keeping operation in Bosnia. In these circumstances, the British Army may well decide that it could use the services of a Challenger MBT.

While the Challenger was employed successfully in these two operations, care should be taken in using them as a justification for the future procurement of MBTs. In Bosnia MBTs were not used during the initial UNPROFOR operation which instead relied heavily on light armoured vehicles such as the Scimitar light tank. It was only when UNPROFOR was replaced by the more demanding IFOR operation that MBTs were sent to Bosnia. Similarly any UN humanitarian operation in the Third World, such as Africa, would see the British Army employing the logistically less demanding light armoured vehicles at the expense of MBTs.

In situations like Bosnia other NATO powers, such as Germany, might more easily deploy their heavy armour. But would they? And how does this square with a seat on the Security Council with its implications of being a leader rather than a follower?

Attack helicopters

With the United Kingdom recognizing its global commitments and the need for British forces to be deployed to regional flash points with minimal delay (but not a rapidly deployed HIC capability), the British armed forces are upgrading their power projection capabilities by acquiring 25 Hercules C-130J transports and the assault carrier HMS Ocean, together with the replacements for Fearless and Intrepid.

The attack helicopter has significant advantages over the MBT in rapid deployments. While an Apache won't fit into a C-130, it has a respectable range in "ferrying" mode if friendly staging posts can be secured. There is a great increase in mobility combined with a multi-role firepower capability. Supporters of the MBT will respond by emphasising the greater logistical cost attached to helicopters and their vulnerability to attack from air and ground defences. While such objections are valid, they should not be overemphasised. An army based on MBTs is itself highly vulnerable to air attack, especially when it has little or no air defence. During operation Desert Storm the Iraqi Army lost 41% of its MBT strength, 34% of its armoured personnel carriers and 45% of its artillery due to attacks by Coalition aircraft including attack helicopters before the ground war had even begun.

Thus an MBT strong army needs as comprehensive air protection as a helicopter strong army will need. Such figures also demonstrate the effectiveness of aircraft and the devastating nature that they can have on a battlefield from units that are deployed to the region much earlier than those dependent on heavy armour. There are some doubts about tactical utility in difficult terrain and weather-induced limitations. Given the well-armoured Apache and its protected 2 man crew is vulnerable to heavy ground fire and ATGW could be defeated by future Defensive Aids Suites.

At the same time, whilst the high logistical effort is comparable to ground mechanised forces, it is offset by a substantial increase in combat effectiveness. In short the flexibility, mobility and firepower of the attack helicopter provides frontline troops with a useful substitute for MBTs as anti-tank capability. This is especially true as attack helicopters, unlike MBTs, will not be delayed by interdiction, refugees, chemical contamination and scatterable mines. Offensively of course they cannot take and hold ground.


In the longer term an MBT, as we currently know it, will almost certainly be replaced. While the helicopter potentially offers more advantages on the 21st century battlefield than any other platform, particularly in giving commanders the ability to overcome the inertia of the ground environment by enhancing firepower, mobility and surprise, its inherent weaknesses and vulnerability continue to limit its overall utility. Ultimately, in any military conflict, ground has to be occupied and defended in order to guarantee its ownership and this is not achievable with an aerial vehicle, even in favourable air-superiority and weather conditions. The need for some means of firepower, protection and mobility on the ground is therefore likely to remain and so perhaps another "Queen of the Battlefield" will emerge. While this will still be a land vehicle, the trend in tank technology will lead to a smaller, lighter (and hence more mobile), stealthier, platform employing perhaps hypervelocity missiles and/or EM technology as the main armament.

Such vehicles will be forced to derive their survivability more from passive measures and 'smart' defensive aids suites than from the physical protection of armour, so the days of the 60+ ton leviathan are numbered, certainly in the long term. Challenger II may well be the last of its kind in UK service, the lumbering tank being an inappropriate platform for future forms of war fighting which are likely to be manoeuvrist and conducted at high tempo using firepower, surprise and simultaneity. Technological progress in tank design will enable the better prosecution of four of the fundamental principles of war: Security, Surprise, Offensive Action and Concentration of Force.

The Soviet threat which for decades justified the need for the United Kingdom to deploy large conventional forces led by MBTs has now gone. But Challenger II is coming into service now and will have a "shelf life" of 25 years plus. What of it? The British Army is streamlining itself and placing greater emphasis on its ability to project power rapidly over considerable distances. It is extremely time consuming to deploy MBTs to a regional crisis from a UK base. Indeed, current doctrine effectively precludes this.

But is this a cause or effect? If we had a substantive deployment capability would we plan to use it? The Gulf War suggests that where there is a major threat we would want heavy armour. What are the implications of having the weapon but being unable to use it in a hurry? Is investment in heavy lift the answer? Alternatively should the UK cut back the numbers of Challenger IIs to be procured yet further? Would a larger fleet of attack helicopters be a more practical instrument of foreign policy?

For the future, global reach and flexibility must surely be essential qualities of the UK's armed forces if we wish to make a worthwhile contribution in support of our foreign policy objectives to coalition forces engaged in conflict across the threat spectrum. In the case of armour, we could retain a highly significant capability in the shape of lighter, air-transportable armoured fighting vehicles equipped with high technology weapons systems, capable of operating in tandem with attack helicopters and rapidly deployable light infantry.