People have been predicting the demise of the tank since the first ones crashed through the barbed wire in the Battle of Somme in 1916. Since then they have shown remarkable resilience with the last major tank battle that involved UK forces less than a decade ago in 2003, other conflicts elsewhere has shown the continued utility of the main battle tank and their supporting arms.
The simple fact is that mounted close combat and the use of armour has utility in all spectrums of conflict, we might argue whether they should or should not be in Afghanistan and for a number of reasons the UK has declined to deploy Challenger 2 but other nations have achieved a measure of success with theirs.
General Brimms (GOC 1(UK) Armoured Division), credited Challenger and Warrior, as being the top 2 war winning assets in the initial stages of the Iraq war, operation TELIC. On the drive to Bagdad the after action report from the US 3rd Infantry Division clearly stated;
No other ground combat system currently in our arsenal could have delivered similar mission success without accepting enormous casualties, particularly in urban terrain
Their M1 tanks were used to break in to defended locations, provide security cordons, carry out patrols and secure supply routes. In the latter stages of Operation Telic, Challengers were often used to carry out strike missions, provide visible deterrence, compound wall breaching, route security and convoy protection.
A good quote from Director Royal Armoured Corps, Brigadier Simon Levy;
Tanks are agile and well protected, have a first class direct fire precision strike capability (minimising collateral damage), can be utilised as a surveillance asset (in overwatch and route protection for clearance and logistic patrols), have permanence and, once deployed, are cheaper and quicker into action than both aviation and air. They also serve as a deterrent; highly effective in both the prevention of engagements as well as demonstrating a proven ability to bring about the early cessation of hostilities. Critically, and fundamental to effective deployment, our tanks must continue to be maintained and our crews properly trained if they are to be used in the future.
It is estimated that there are in excess of 60,000 tanks worldwide and the brisk market in after market upgrades is fuelling this continued proliferation. These upgrades add considerably to older tanks lethality, incorporating the latest optics, sensors, and ammunition and fire control systems.
In the previous post on structures I suggested that armoured warfare or mounted close combat capability is something that should be retained, although at a slightly lower scale than at present. In a common theme to the ‘Future of’ series the thought process is to scale back on certain capabilities which frees up the funds to do 3 basic things; provide funds for capability plus, provide funds for forward presence and finally, to provide funds to harden what is left, the core.
The proposal was for 2 armoured brigades but instead of the existing triangular formation a square formation with 2 armoured regiments and 2 armoured infantry battalions. There is an alternative, instead of 2 square brigades you could make a greater number of triangular brigades and whilst this would make it easier to deploy and sustain I have been seduced by the ‘hitting power’ and resilience of going square!
Before you push on, have a read of this, it’s not a US, German, British or Russian example of the utility of tanks but instructive nevertheless.
Cost; The most significant issue is that of cost, although the capital costs have been absorbed some time ago the maintenance and training overheads are high.
Synthetic training is moving at a very fast pace and investing in networked artificial training environments may be wise, reducing training costs, equipment wear and maintenance. The new Terrier armoured engineering vehicle benefits from a very advanced synthetic training system from BAe and other training projects managed by the Joint & Battlefield Trainers, Simulations & Synthetic Environments Project Team will realise the same set of advantages.
Whole fleet management has been proven to be very cost effective for some time now and whilst the downsides are recognised, the cost reduction advantages are considered worth it.
The Big Gun; We are also faced with a number of obsolescence and homogeneous issues, with the Op Telic modifications (extra armour, remote weapon mounts, ECM etc) only applied to a small number of vehicles. The main obsolescence issue the Challenger 2 faces is that of ammunition. With the newer tank designs and cost effective upgrades the lethality of the existing stock of APFSDS ammunition is falling behind the state of the art. For a number of historic reasons (including wishing to retain HESH) the UK retained the use of rifling in its main tank gun, the RO L30, whilst the rest of the world and its armaments investors went smoothbore.
The latest depleted uranium round, the CHARM 3 has unfortunate political and environmental side effects and the separate propellant charges expire around 2015.
Despite the multi billion pound Munitions Acquisition – the Supply Solution (MASS) contract with BAe the UK no longer has the ability to manufacture propellants or machine depleted uranium blanks and this, coupled with the expiry and associate environmental issues means an alternative is needed.
It is here that we face a dilemma, the latest smoothbore APFDS tungsten rounds are superior to CHARM3 yet they need a smoothbore barrel.
We have 2 choices, withdraw CHARM3 and develop a new non depleted uranium round or take advantage of the military off the shelf smoothbore rounds. The problem with this last option is of course that it would need a new main gun for Challenger.
As long ago as 2006 Challenger was tested with the Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore main gun.
Following a competition, the then RO Defence was awarded a £3.5 million contract from the Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) for the 120 mm Smoothbore Option Technical Demonstrator Programme (SO TDP).
The programme demonstrated that the L/55 could be fitted into the Challenger turret and trials indicated that the Rheinmetall DM53 round had better performance than CHARM 3.
The DM63 is said to offer even greater performance. With a 120mm smoothbore main weapon the UK could tap into the global supply chain, manufacturers such as Rheinmetall, General Dynamics, ATK and IMI for developments such as combustible cases, tungsten penetrators and anti personnel natures. It would even open the opportunity to deploy the IMI/GD LAHAT guided missile with a range of 8,000m and the ability to be fired from a concealed position.
If only it were that simple.
Another feature of the existing L30 is that it uses 2 part ammunition, the projectile and propellant charge are stowed separately. There are a number of advantages to this model because it means empty cases do not need to be stored and the explosive propellant can be stored beneath the turret ring. One piece ammunition also allows the penetrator rod to telescope into the propellant case so its length to diameter ratio, and hence performance, is better than the 2 piece design, swings and roundabouts.
If the Challenger were to be upgraded to the L/44 or L/55 smoothbore it would need significant redesign to accommodate single piece ammunition (at least to carry a reasonable number of rounds)
The CHARM 3 development costs were in excess of £161million.
One of the advantages of a rifled barrel is its ability to fire High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) ammunition which has proven effective against a range of targets but sometimes the benefits of HESH are over stated. There now exists a range of smoothbore ammunitions from different manufacturers, benefiting from decades of development work that can outperform HESH.
We are therefore faced with 2 options; the first is to initiate a bespoke rifled ammunition development to obtain a small quantity of rifled natures. The second option is to go for the new barrel/turret combination that unlocks a wide variety of commercially available ammunition and delivers logistic commonality with all NATO tank operators. I suspect it will be cheaper to go for a bespoke development and therefore this will be the preferred option but is not the best option.
If we decide to upgrade the turret it might be worth comparing the cost of this with the cost of buying new Leopards for example.
Interestingly, the Jordanian King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau has created an upgrade programme for their Challenger I MBT’s, assisted again by Claverham, that uses the 50 calibre RUAG CTG120 low recoil smoothbore cannon (same as the CV90-120) and the Falcon turret offers an interesting alternative. Developed with the assistance of a number of companies including Claverham Ltd and BAe, the Falcon turret uses a compact unmanned turret housing the same RUAG gun.
The latest development is the Falcon III which stores a greater number of ready to use rounds.
Another consideration is the FRES direct fire variant which would likely utilise an off the shelf low recoil 120mm main gun; the RUAG CTG-120, Rheinmetall LLR-47; Nexter LRF L/52, Oto-Melara LRF-120 or IMI RG-120. Combined with active protection systems and utilising new development in armour this combination may indeed deliver on the promise of similar lethality and survivability to a main battle tank.
Any investment in Challenger upgrades might therefore be wasted, accelerating the introduction of an actively protected direct fire variant of FRES is worthy of consideration. Because active protection systems do not offer any practical protection against high energy kinetic rounds from other tanks I think this is a risky proposition, as attractive as it might be from a standardisation perspective.
Bit sporty round ere; an issue facing tanks in the near and medium term is the proliferation of cheap and sophisticated anti tank weapons such as rockets and guided missiles. The performance of these are now beginning to challenge even the heaviest and sophisticated Chobham generation 2 armour of Challenger, although advances in armour will also likely keep pace.
Active protection systems are maturing and now seen as viable technology, ready for deployment. Armour technology continues to evolve, especially in advanced bainite type steels, plastic composites, perforated armour, stone sponge panels, fabrics, non explosive reactive armour, so called ‘electric armour’ and even the application of nano technology all combining to improve protection for the same or less weight.
As the world increasingly urbanises the likelihood of operating in urban or mixed urban terrain increases. The urban environment can be extremely dangerous and varied, in some respects the main gun armament, especially the longer 55 calibre barrels, is not always the best, especially if operating in support of infantry. Ranges can still be long or they can be point blank and the danger from above is another complication on the 3 dimensional urban battlespace.
Creativity is needed for this environment but many of the challenges have been addressed by others, fighting in built up areas is after all, nothing new.
Regimental Nonsense; make no mistake, the infighting between cavalry and armoured regiments about amalgamations, identities, what coloured trousers to wear in the mess and glorious history will be a serious impediment to meaningful change. It is the role of politicians to sweep these issues aside and tell them to get on with it. Personally I would scrap the lot and revert to simple numbered regiments but I doubt I would avoid being burned at the stake for suggesting such a thing.
The Royal Armoured Corps has shown considerable flexibility in recent operations, simultaneously manning Challengers, Bulldogs and Mastiffs in different theatres. It is this flexibility an inherent skill in operating complex vehicles in complex situations that should be strengthened.
We also have to recognise that armoured and combined arms warfare is changing every bit as much as it is staying the same!
The return from Germany will also pose significant problems for armoured units, the training spaces will be badly missed although there is no reason why we could not continue to utilise them in some manner. We might also take advantage of our defence cooperation treaty with France and utilise some of their spaces.
The current ‘lighter’ armoured regiments have a mix of Challenger and CVR(T), the CVR(T) being a substitute for FRES.
In the previous post on structures I suggested that the UK should retain 2 armoured brigades instead of distributing them across the multi role brigades but they would still retain the ability to detach individual armoured regiments or squadrons to support other forces on demand.
The thought process behind retaining armour as a discrete package is that armoured manoeuvre combat is a perishable skill and if we are to keep it, we should do it properly, even if at a modest scale. It is of such complexity that transferring them to the TA is not really practicable, even if the formation were split. There are capabilities that I think can be split in this manner but armoured warfare is not one of them.
This might be seen as anachronistic, a throwback to old fashioned ideas, in some respects it is but with the proliferation of tank upgrades and the move of Western forces to ‘go lighter’ enemies will seek to exploit these, it is not inconceivable that at some point in the near future we might face an enemy armed with comparable or near comparable equipment capabilities in a complex urban environment, the dividing line between winning and losing might therefore be training. We can only achieve and maintain this capability superiority through a combination of relentless synthetic and live training.
This approach also chimes with the harder core and shorter term approach to operations in the previous posts. Despite this, there is nothing to stop the 2 armoured brigades detaching individual sub units for other operations.
An alternative perspective sees the likely reduction of enemy tanks down to almost zero by air power before ground operations even begin and when they do, anything that moves will be destroyed by a combination of Hellfire and Brimstone but in complex terrain, obscured by smoke or obscurants, with enemy armour mixed in with civilians, the use of air power may be constrained.
The 2 armoured brigades would be structured on a square or 2+2 basis, 2 armoured regiments and 2 armoured infantry battalions but the two armoured regiments would not be equal in configuration.
Accepting Whole Fleet Management the nominal establishment would be;
Armoured Regiment 1; 4 sabre squadrons each with 4 troops of Challenger 2, each troop has 3 tanks. HQ troop also has a pair of CR2 for a total of 14 CR2 per squadron, RHQ has also has a pair of CR2 for a total of 58. A number of support vehicles also provide medical, protected mobility and command facilities. The armoured regiment would also have a FRES equipped reconnaissance squadron and other support vehicles.
Armoured Regiment 2; 4 sabre squadrons but instead of having 3 troops of CR2 each squadron would be equipped with a single CR2 troop and 3 troops of the Challenger Support Variant (to be detailed later) with the normal compliment of HQ functions. Same number of support vehicles, reconnaissance and RHQ vehicles
Between the 2 regiments, approximately 120 CR2 and variants or 260 odd across the 2 brigades and training/development functions, out of a total of just under 350 existing now.
More than the planned 40% SDSR reduction depending on how you slice the numbers, remembering that numbers can only ever be approximate
Armoured Infantry Battalion 1 and 2; same configuration, 4 full strength infantry companies plus associated HQ and support functions, broadly configured as today (ish)
For armoured operations in close terrain there can never be enough infantry and artillery, we should recognise that in some situations the infantry component should be reinforced.
Combat Support and Combat Service Support; including artillery and armoured engineers, again, broadly as configured today
This configuration is pretty safe and conventional but there is nothing to stop innovation in structures still being worked on in the longer term.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the rapid advances in communication, augmented reality, and an all round familiarity with information sharing might allow sub units to grow for the same overhead in command structures.
Radical solutions like eliminating the distinction between armoured, recce and infantry personnel are also worth serious consideration, forming them into single identities to avoid the barriers to reform. For example, Challenger is owned by D(RAC) whilst Warrior is owned by D(INF) and whilst this might not necessarily be a bad thing it does reinforce a distinction.
Another interesting solution would be to make brigades slightly smaller than currently, perhaps a reinforced combined arms battlegroup with extra engineering and other support functions.
Smaller units tend to be more agile and easier to command but the overall HQ overhead would be greater.
The key message to take out this section is that formation structures aren’t right or wrong and whilst I tend towards the larger, more robust and powerful structure a smaller, more agile construct might be more appropriate.
Who knows, the MRB might actually be the best option!
Equipment – Challenger 3
To say that Challenger is tough is a rather substantial understatement and I am sure we have all read tales of one taking multiple RPG and Milan hits in Iraq or the longest ever recorded tank kill at 5,100m, this quote from another site.
There seems to be some confusion about what happened and what shot etc. the range was just over 5100m. We had finished moving forward and had gone firm. i was scanning the horizon when picked up what i thought to be T62′s across the valley. We had been shooting at whatever targets presented. I lased the target and was surprised by the range that came back, we started talking about having a go at the target amongst ourselves and The Colonel ok’ed the shot. it was a normal fin round, and after lasing again i fine laid the ellipse onto the target and fired. It was central hit just below the turret, as to whether the target was manned, i don’t know however the shot I was really proud of is mentioned by Mad Pierre by mistake, which was a T62 mover reversing up and out of a hull down position at about 1500m, and was hit with a HESH first round through the top of the turret, again fine laid without autolay, never did like it much. Hope this helps. I was always a lucky gunner.
Challenger is also very reliable and has excellent cross country mobility.
In the short term there is not a pressing need to do anything, we have enough Challenger 2 at the latest theatre entry specification but in the medium term there is a need for a coherent plan that tackles obsolescence issues. It is not surprising that these plans exist but have struggled for funding, currently languishing in the early concept stage.
BAe proposed the Challenger 2E for export but it is no longer offered, this model incorporated a raft of improvements including;
- A more powerful engine, the widely used MTU 883, coupled with a Renk 295TM automatic transmission. The compact and more powerful 883 reduced engine volume, freeing up space for fuel and extending range.
- The Sagem (now Safran) MVS580 IRIS day/night sight
- A range of other enhancements such as an improved track tensioner, double pin tracks and improved suspension
Oman ordered 38 Challenger 2E (Export) that are now in service.
Newer versions of these combined with the latest TES fit might be included in the Challenger 3 upgrade programme (have decided to call it Challenger 3)
The real sticking point is of course the main gun, because this involves the greatest work.
There needs to be a decision on this, the Rheinmetall L55 would seem to be the obvious choice and this allows us to tap into a wide range of ammunition natures, provides commonality with pretty much everyone else and delivers lower long term costs. This would also be a good opportunity to divest ourselves of the chain gun and use a pair of remote weapon stations instead.
An active protection system should also be fitted as standard.
In line with my thoughts on quantities this would mean less than 100
This would no doubt be a costly upgrade but quantities would be limited and allow the Challenger to stay in service for several decades.
Equipment – Challenger 3 Support Variant
This is a bit of a departure from the conventional so bear with me.
As I mentioned above, the world is becoming increasingly urbanised and by a simple matter of statistics it is likely that conflicts will take place in this challenging environment where engagement ranges can still be significant but can also be extremely short with threats from all around and from tall buildings. In this environment, the 55 calibre barrels and high velocity 120mm ammunition can be overkill against targets other than main battle tanks, fortifications, buildings, troops in the open etc. Although manufacturers have responded to this variation with a number of different ammunitions natures there are still challenges.
MBT guns do not have a large elevation range, their muzzle blast can be dangerous to accompanying infantry, slewing speeds and barrel length make responding to targets of opportunity/fleeting threats difficult and traditionally, armour is concentrated to the frontal arc.
A nation that has experienced high intensity armoured warfare in urban areas is Russia in Chechnya and whilst the conduct of their operations against Grozny might be questioned and certainly not the conduct that would be acceptable to the UK, there are some interesting equipment lessons to draw. Israel also has a great deal of experience of fighting in complex and confusing urban terrains and again, many lessons can be drawn. The US Stryker operations in Iraq and USMC in Fallujah also have interesting parallels with the kind of demanding environment might be increasingly encountered in the future.
The second armoured regiment in each brigade would therefore be equipped differently to be able to operate in this environment either protecting main battle tanks (in conjunction with infantry) or acting in direct support of infantry where threats are predominantly not enemy tanks.
This would take the base Challenger 3 as described above but without the new turret and 120mm main gun, the inspiration for this is the Russian BMP-T.
The crew would sit within a hull down armoured capsule and a super fast slewing remote weapon turret fitted. Additional rear and top armour would provide greater all round protection and the turret would be fitted with an elevating mast on which would sit an electro optical sensor, laser rangefinder/designator, acoustic gunshot detector and optical scope detector.
The main weapon fitted would be a single CTA40mm cannon in a very high elevation mount, at least 80 degrees and should also be high enough to depress to a negative angle. Because in an urban environment a target might be beneath the horizontal, a bridge or by pass for example, this negative angle depression is essential. By using a small/medium calibre main weapon there exists the possibility of carrying a high volume of ammunition of multiple natures, important when you might be using the weapon to destroy cover for example.
In addition to the 40mm cannon it would also be fitted with a number of guided weapons. Choices abound here; Javelin for commonality with accompanying infantry, Hellfire for commonality with Apache and extra punch or even the new Lightweight Modular Missile
Although offering no commonality benefits the LMM might provide the best fit, lightweight, modest explosive effects and very low flight time, all useful characteristics.
By keeping the weapons turret relatively lightweight it allows slewing and elevation/depression speeds to be very high, this, combined with a ‘hunter killer’ sighting system is the key to its offensive capabilities.
Additional smoke generation, active protection systems, all round cameras, a remote weapon station with a GPMG and an obstacle clearance blade should also be fitted, the latter is an option on Challenger 2 and I think a few were deployed in the early Telic operations..
The weight saved by dispensing with the heavy turret does a few things.
First it improves mobility and secondly, if one is prepared to sacrifice some of that extra mobility, the vehicle can be even better protected, especially the top and rear aspect.
This vehicle might seem a rather strange hybrid, a main battle tank equipped with a medium calibre automatic cannon but the protection afforded by the basic design means it can go in harms way with a weapons package that is much more suited to the urban environment.
An even whackier alternative is to dispense with the 40mm cannon and LMM combination and revert to old fashioned high explosives. Instead of the high velocity limited elevation 120mm MBT cannon a low velocity 90mm or 105mm auto loading weapon might be useful. There are many off the shelf 90mm and 105mm weapons available with a very wide range of ammunition natures. It would still retain some capability against armoured vehicles but the ability to deliver a large high explosive or fragmentation round at high elevation or low depression would be unique. The Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS) has proven extremely effective in the urban environment but its poor mobility over broken ground and limited protection tend to mark it down.
With the ability to deliver both high angle plunging and direct fire the Patria Nemo 120mm auto loading mortar might be an even more versatile combination.
The basic proposal is to make the Challenger more useful in a complex urban environment by taking advantage of its protection, presence, mobility and endurance but combining those with a more useful weapon system.
Equipment – Warrior
Warrior is another reliable, tough and highly mobile armoured vehicle that seems like the poor relation now FRES is on the horizon.
From the MoD’s Medium Armoured Tracks Team (MATT) IPT
The WCSP will update the current Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle to meet the current and future requirements of the British Army. WCSP has four main sections; WFLIP (Warrior Fightability Lethality Improvement Programme), WMPS (Warrior Modular Protection System), WEEA (Warrior Enhanced Electronic Architecture) and ABSV (Armoured Battlefield Support Vehicle). Capability upgrades will include a new turret housing and main cannon, enhanced electronic architecture, situational awareness, crew operating conditions and modular vehicle protection.
The programme hasn’t yet progressed to main gate and is looking increasingly vulnerable to budget cuts despite recent progress. It has been reported that of the 789 vehicles delivered, 643 vehicles were to be included in the programme with only 449 vehicles getting the full package, including a new turret.
A wide range of improvements have been recently introduced as Urgent Operational Requirements and these would be absorbed into the coherent programme.
One of the significant cost aspects of the sustainment programme is the turret and new cannon.
The first thing to consider; has the debate between the turretless armoured personnel carrier and the turreted infantry combat vehicle gone full circle. It is interesting to look at the Israeli army which has steadfastly refused to follow the MICV trend and instead concentrated on providing highly survivable infantry carriers, the Namer being the latest example of this approach. Support fires are provided by others. A turreted weapon is designed to suppress ATGW teams for example and provide fire support to the dismounted infantry.
A reduction in armour, higher profile, much higher cost and reduced carrying capacity all result from having an auto cannon turret and if we go back to basics, assuming that the vehicle is to get the infantry section as close to their objective as possible, the relevance of a turret can be called into question.
Removing the turret from existing Warriors but implementing the rest of the sustainment programme improvements would dramatically lower cost. Coupled with the fire support provided by the Challenger Support Variant the need for a turreted cannon becomes reduced and a pair of remote weapon stations, one with GPMG/HMG and the other with a 40mm GMG would still deliver suppressing fire, smoke and HE beyond 1500m.
The elimination of turret weight allows a few trade-offs to be made, simply reduce the weight for obvious benefits or trade that weight for extra protection. It also provides more space for the infantry section and their equipment, given the increase in size and weight of carried equipment since Warrior was introduced this is an important consideration.
BAe have proposed a similar concept with their CV90 Armadillo
This would of course require a doctrinal change in the way armoured infantry is deployed.
Stripping a Warrior of its turret does not a Namer make it and the solution is not perfect but it makes the best of what we have.
The reduction in overall quantity of armoured infantry battalions, down from 8 to 4, also frees up many Warrior chassis for conversion to secondary roles. This will allow the elimination of the FV430 series from armoured infantry combat support and combat service support functions with the attendant reduction in logistics overheads. It will also enable the elimination of CVR(T) variants within the armoured and armoured infantry units.
Actually, this might not be completely possible depending on final quantities available but the principle of moving towards common platforms is obviously sensible.
All vehicles would be crewed by specialist Royal Armoured Corps drivers and gunners, consistent with the suggested practice in the previous post to free up trained infantry personnel for infantry tasks. This frees up infantry personnel to bulk up the fourth company in the structure.
I will cover artillery (including organic indirect fires) and ISTAR/FRES/Formation Reconnaissance in another post.
The Future of the British Army Series…