Do we need the 60 tonne MBT

Challenger tank from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards drives through the town of Basra

A guest post from Jed

I want to make this another short article that asks some questions in order to peruse the conversations started in the comment threads of various other posts; hence the contentious title to grab your attention!

Let me be clear, I am not singing the “MBT is dead” refrain, far from it in fact, I think the heavy weight behemoth is still a necessary part of a nations armoury. However, I would like to examine our ‘need’ for the Challenger II as our MBT platform in the context of operational requirements, reform or regoranisation of the army towards a a Future Force 2020 and of course, in the context of budget.

The Main Battle Tank

The title gives it away eh ? The MBT is an evolution of a vehicle which started of as very much an “infantry support” vehicle. I am not going to do a history of the tank section – you can all go hit Wikipedia, or watch episodes of Greatest Tank Battles on YouTube, with the glorious interwebs we have no excuse for coming to the debate from a position of ignorance any more !

However let us just very brief revise the iron triangle – mobility, protection and fire power.

1. Mobility – well with modern engines, running gear and drive train’s the 60 tonne plus behemoth can have considerable tactical mobility, and also don’t forget the ability to “wade through fire” is in fact a tight linkage between mobility and protection.

2. Protection – largely what drives up the weight to where we are now, and where we might be in the near future

3. Firepower – also drives up the weight to some extent, you need a reasonably beefy vehicle to take the stress of firing a modern high pressure / high velocity 120mm tank gun.

As I said I would like to build on the conversations we have had recently on various threads, so time for a few links:

TD’s marvellous series on mobility: https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/02/vehicle-mobility-considerations/

TD’s recent piece on protection:  https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/02/vehicle-protection/

TD on multi-role brigades: https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/01/multi-role-brigades/

Jed on MRB’s and wheels: https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/02/a-balanced-force-with-a-balanced-budget/

Jed on “Medium Armour” : https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2011/06/medium-armour-%E2%80%93-what-is-it-and-what-does-it-mean-for-the-post-2020-force-structure/

What is it for ?

Remember I am a champion in many respects of the MBT, so please try to see through my bias when I play devils advocate ! A quick visit to the Challenger 2 page on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_2#Operational_usage) will show us ample evidence of the utility of a big, heavy, well protected armoured vehicle to soak up fire directed at it by infantry type forces – the Chally hit by a Milan and 14 RPG’s that only lost it’s optics (well “only” is relative here, but we can come back to that), another one which was apparently hit by as many as 70 RPG’s !  Of course we have the driver who lost his toes to a more modern RPG29 and the other one who lost his leg to a big IED – but as we all know, no weapon system is completely invulnerable to all others.

Then of course we have the only Chally completed destroyed in action – hit by another Chally  in a “blue on blue” fratricide. The U.S. M1A1 had a pretty good record in the urban scenarios encountered after the invasion of Iraq, and we could talk all day about the to-and-fro of advantage between well armed Hizbollah irregulars and the IDF’s Merkeva.

BUT , let’s get to the crux of the matter – what do we want our MBT to do ? What is it for ? What can it do for us ?

1. Manoeuvre warfare – the armoured queen of the manoeuvre battlefield, able to destroy enemy MBT and lessor vehicles, to take on sangars and strongpoints, wade through fire and cope with varying terrain and obstacles – nothing controversial here, except perhaps the evolution of the MBT as the main weapon system to combating the enemies MBT.

2. Urban warfare – the U.S. experience in Iraq showed that the Russian experience in Chechnya was as much to do with doctrine, tactics, training and procedures as it was to do with the concept of a heavy MBT being squeezed into city streets.

3. COIN – just because we have not deployed, the Canadian, Danish, German and now USMC use of Leopard II and M1 as “120mm snipers”  has shown that even in some counter insurgency scenarios the MBT is worth it’s weight in – well, worth it’s weight in something (depleted Uranium ?)

That said, let us now put this in the context of the British Army. We have run down tank numbers, with the majority in storage (?). We made the mistake of binning 120mm rifled ammo production, and have run into form and fit issues with upgrading to the NATO standard smoothbore weapon (even if we could afford it).  So the same questions in our specific context:

1. What do we want the MBT to do for us ? Is it a niche we can deploy to provide heavy back up in urban combat scenarios

2. What CAN it do for us ? Well it is a very versatile platform, but penny packets of anything have to have their utility / validity questioned

3. What is if for really ? Killing other MBT’s,  infantry support, shock and awe assault weapon ? Where does it sit in our future doctrine ?

In the recent MRB discussion threads, many have picked up on the lack of strategic mobility and the need to deploy heavy armour by sea, rail, low mobility low loader etc as an issue for an army that according to SDSR political requirements is to be structured and postured for expeditionary warfare, of either a short duration or a of a more enduring nature. Many have also suggested that I was off my rocker by suggesting a reserve function could manage heavy armour.

Suggestions from others have ranged from 8 x 8 wheeled AIFV’s with big guns, to “medium” tanks built on FRES etc. So while we acknowledge that a FRES SV based ‘medium tank’ is no match for a Chally 2 / Leopard II / M1A1 – the question remains, what would we want to use it for, and would it be GOOD ENOUGH ?

Tank Destroyer versus Infantry Support Tank

Much of the discussion in the comment threads has been on how we could use a less well armoured, but more mobile (well strategically mobile at least) medium tracked or 8 x 8 wheeled AFV with a 120mm smoothbore as a ‘tank destroyer’. I get the concept just fine, 120mm smooth bore APFSDS being cheaper than ATGM for “plinking” the bad guys armour. Add this to allied air superiority, Tornado or Typhoon delivered Brimstone, Apache delivered Hellfire etc plus infantry or MICV / AIFV delivered ATGM and the actual “anti-tank” role of the MBT is one that can probably be most easily done by other platforms.

With modern active protection systems does the medium weight platform stand up to the multiple RPG battering that close support of friendly infantry against enemy infantry might entail ? Again, maybe not as well as a 60 tonne plus behemoth, but maybe just good enough ?

My main issue with dropping down into the medium weight category is actually also the main issue with a heavy MBT when used in an infantry support role – the main armament is not a good choice for this role.  The blast wave and over pressure produced by firing a modern high pressure / high velocity 120mm tank gun can actually be fatal to friendly infantry who are in the wrong place at the wrong time !

I will take this further by saying those who suggest a FRES SV medium tank using the Belgian 105mm gun with it’s Falarick ATGM are progressing the same approach, a high velocity gun, with a long barrel which can present it’s own issues in urban environments, in other words a weapon which is first and foremost designed for taking out enemy armour – not strong points, sangars, houses and factories etc.

So do we go back in time and split the MBT into tank destroyers and infantry support tanks ? Do we need a modern Sherman, with a smaller number of Sherman FireFly equivalents ? You know where I am going to go ref main armament of an infantry support tank – yes the 120mm smooth bore breach loading mortar – for I am nothing if not predictable…….

So I would suggest that all commentators open their response by answering these questions (if we had the money):

1. If keeping MBT capability and given the well advertised problem with “re-gunning” the Chally 2 would you retire it and buy surplus Leopard II – yes/no

2. If no to #1 above, would you consider fitting the Jordanian designed Falcon turret to the Chally 2 in order to get a smoothbore gun capable of handling NATO standard Ammo ? – yes / no

3. Would you like to see gun armed medium weight tank destroyers as part of the MRB ? (e.g. 105mm armed FRES SV or wheeled vehicle like Centauro) – yes / no

4. If we had above tank destroyers, or all 40mm CTA armed FRES carrying a pair of Javelin on the side of the turret (e.g. ample anti-tank provisions) would you consider turning the Challenger II into a specialist heavy infantry support tank with either a 40mm CTA or 120mm smooth bore mortar ? (could we even fit both ?) – yes / no

5. Do you think we should conceptually move back to less of multi-purpose heavyweight MBT to more specialist variants ? – Yes / no

There you go, 5 questions to frame your thoughts; as we say in the fencing salon, lets have at it ………

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