The Tank is Dead, Long Live the Tank – Part 3 (Looking into the crystal ball)

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

This is a multi-part look at the role of armour in recent conflicts, their relevance in the future and a look at current programmes;

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Selected examples of recent use

Part 3 – Looking into the crystal ball

Part 4 – SDSR, Army 2020 and the Challenger LEP

Part 5 – Future Protected Vehicle

Part 6 – A Few Ideas on the Future

To start with, a quote from Director Royal Armoured Corps;

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.

Some might say, well he would say that wouldn’t he.

But this is a good description that covers a broad span of operations, it is not just about how intimidating they are in a COIN setting or how they can be a destroyer of enemy morale in an open tank on tank engagement, it is about both.

And therein lies the continuing usefulness of the main battle tank, it utility in a broad span of conflicts.

But to say the world is not going to change in the couple of decades is clearly nonsense, of course the basic principles of warfare will remain but the context in which war is waged will change. The tank has continually evolved, changed and adapted to the prevailing conditions around it so there is no reason to expect that it will not need to in the future.

There are many factors that will influence tank design, their employment, purchase and maintenance of the capability.

Yet again we have to look into the crystal ball and rely on the work of the Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre(DCDC) with their guiding document, the Future Character of Conflict.

I do like this document, it’s fascinating and in the introduction section is a quote from Professor Sir Michael Howard that recognises the limits of looking into the future;

No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict.  The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed

So this is about making educated guesses and having enough wriggle room to ensure that should the less likely manifest itself, your broad predictions are not too far off.

In addition to looking into the future context in which ‘war is waged’ there are also technology factors to consider and of course, the likely budget and defence planning assumptions that colour so much of our thinking.

The Future Character of Conflict

Perhaps it is worth recapping on the brad conclusions of this work and especially the six assumptions on which it is based


The UK has significant global interests and will therefore wish to remain a leading actor on the international stage as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), a nuclear power, a key member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU) and other international institutions, irrespective of the potential for its power base to decline.


Defence will be the Nation’s ultimate insurance policy.  We cannot rule out the re-emergence of a major state-led threat, but in the foreseeable future, there is no state with the intent and capability to threaten the UK mainland; threats are more likely to be manifested in less traditional, non-military domains.  However, the sovereignty of some of our Overseas Territories will still be subject to territorial claims by other states, which will seek to exert pressure on them through some or all of diplomatic, economic or military means.


Future planning will be conducted against a background of finite financial resources while the military purchasing power of potential competitors is increasing and their pace of adaptation is outstripping ours


Our adversaries are unlikely to engage us on our terms and will not fight solely against our conventional strengths.  They will seek an asymmetric advantage and some will employ a wide range of warfighting techniques, sometimes simultaneously in time, space and domain.  Their logic will not necessarily be our logic and thus our ability to understand adversaries – and our ability to make them understand our intent – will be challenging


Since final resolution of conflict will involve people and where they live, strategic success will often, but not exclusively, be achieved through the results of actions on the ground. These actions are unlikely to be purely military although it will be vital for the UK to achieve military effect both on the land and in the global commons


The UK will act with others where shared interests and values coincide.  We will routinely operate with allies and partners, in particular as a supporting partner in a US-led coalition.  It is extremely unlikely that the UK will conduct warfighting without US leadership, but in other operations the UK may be called upon to lead a non-US coalition

Although the document is a few years old these assumptions are still valid and in many regards were repeated in the SDSR and related publications.

My only reservation is the use of the term warfighting, come on!

The document then goes on the describe the ‘2014 Battlespace’

Congested; In the future, we will be unable to avoid being drawn into operations in the urban and littoral regions where the majority of the World’s population live and where political and economic activity is concentrated.

Cluttered; Clutter (which leads to an inability to distinguish individuals, items or events), particularly in congested environments, will provide the opportunity for concealment and will confound most Western sensors

Contested; Adversaries will contest all environments where they seek to deny our freedom of manoeuvre

Connected; Activity, including our own and that of the enemy, will continue to gravitate towards the inter-connected nodes

Constrained; In the complex battlespace of the future, Western legal and societal norms will place continued constraints on the conduct of operations

The five C’s neatly describe the likely operating environments that should inform any discussion on the tank. So whilst the likelihood of traditional conflict with peer enemies would seem unlikely, it still remains a possibility and therefore, not to be ignored.

These conditions were reproduced in Southern Iraq

To demonstrate the difficulty of operating in this kind of environment an example from Basrah is almost perfect; a Challenger 2 from C Squadron Royal Scots Dragoon Guards came under intense fire which disabled their sights, backing up it went into a ditch and came to rest at an angle that exposed the under belly armour. Blind and immobile it was a sitting duck until a recovery was executed but they could not have used their main gun because it was a cluttered and constrained environment.

Despite improvements on operations a decade or so earlier, the Iraqi forces in Basrah failed to capitalise on their advantages, instead choosing to engage at distances that made them relatively easy to defeat. Had they made better use of fixed defences in the denser areas around the Old City, dense streets and canals, things might have been very different.

Would a piece of equipment other than a Challenger 2 have fared better?

Should it have been there in the first place?

This kind of difficult environment is likely to be encountered again, regardless of whether we have main battle tanks or not.

The question therefore, is this;

In this kind of difficult environment does the main battle tank have a role?

If it does not then we can drastically reduce their numbers and hold what is left in reserve, ready for the less likely Gulf War open tank battles?

Defence Planning Assumptions

Defence planning assumptions and the reality of a relatively small Army 2020 also have to be considered.

The image below shows the SDSR 2010 Defence Planning Assumptions


It is important to understand these because they set the tone for discussions on scale.

At full stretch and with ‘sufficient warning’, the UK will be scaled for 3 Brigades, or roughly a division.

In Iraq in 2003 the Army deployed 130 Challenger 2’s

The current plan is for 227 Challenger 2’s to remain in the fleet, is this number reflected in the defence planning assumption?

Technology Trends

The amount of precision weaponry available to Western forces is staggering and in comparison with only a decade ago, even more so.

It is easy to be seduced by the allure of modern systems but their impact cannot be ignored; Brimstone, Paveway IV, Javelin, Hellfire and even GMLRS are extremely effective against armoured vehicles. If one is to assume that modern tanks are primarily used to counter other modern tanks then it could be argued that in an age of precision everything, they have slipped down the league table in terms of significance.

Control of the air allows Apaches, RPAS and current and future aircraft to unleash unrivalled destructive effects. Driving T72’s around the desert without control of the air is an extremely hazardous occupation and likely to be repeated only by the lunatic fringe.

But don’t forget, control of the air is not always a given and taking it for granted is likely to end in tears. Portable anti-aircraft systems are proliferating and even old fashioned massed automatic gunfire has proven devastatingly effective, especially against low flying and slow aircraft like helicopters.

An occasional TD author, Monty, posted this as part of a comment on a similar post some time ago

Moreover, we’re also now seeing the proliferation of third and fourth generation hand-held surface-to-air missiles that are lighter and more deadly than their predecessors. Weapons such as the Russian SA-18, French Mistral and US Stinger Block 2 are frighteningly effective, while China and Iran have developed their own versions of such weapons. Whatever the source, hand-held SAMs are the new weapon of choice for terrorists. Strategic analysts predict that shoulder-fired SAMs are likely to have the same equalising effect on expensive combat aircraft as shoulder fired anti-tank missiles such as Javelin, or even the humble RPG7, on battle tanks

Active protection systems look likely to negate some of the hard advantages of light weight precision anti-armour missiles

It is a theme I have often covered but one threat that I think we consistently underestimate is the proliferation of micro unmanned systems in the ultra-low altitude zone.

One can go online today and buy a sophisticated quadcopter UAV for less than $10k.

Apart from the obvious threat of not being able to hide anywhere it does not take an enormous leap of the imagination to envisage an enemy fielding a couple of hundred of these, each one equipped with an explosively formed penetrator warhead and accurate radar distance sensor. They could be programmed to recognise armoured vehicles shape or EM signature, fly right over them and at the correct distance, detonate their warheads.

EFP’s are very effective and they would be directed at the traditionally thinner top armour.

We are ill equipped to counter this threat and flying at an altitude of 50 feet, twenty of them, launched from the back of a civilian truck or out of a flat window is a problem any number of F35’s or Typhoons are not going to help one bit with.

This threat does not exist today, no one has mounted an EFP on a quadcopter and equipped it with a recognition capability, but does anyone think it is far off?

If the risk of this threat is realised, how can we defend against it?

I was a little unfair on the Tyhoon and F35 because they provide the capability of interdicting the launchers and provide a link in the ISTAR chain but in a cluttered and congested urban environment with its many urban canyons they might not be enough and the ground forces will have to face that threat alone.

We might ensure ground forces operate inside a powerful ECM bubble or we might even equip tank commanders with a modern version of this;

However we counter the threat of ultra low level suicidal UAV’s EFP carriers it is just one of the future threats to armoured vehicles.

The traditional effect and counter effect continues, armour and anti-armour solutions will continue to evolve with one or the other having temporary supremacy over the other.

Threats should always be considered in any discussion but should they be the overriding consideration?

So, there are a wide range of factors to be taken into consideration when discussing the future of the tank and although we can make reasonable predictions about the future there is always an element of uncertainty that must not be ignored. We may well think that the future is going to be more like Basrah or Lebanon than the open desert and we would probably be right but as the quote from Professor Howard quite correctly states, the future is an uncertain place.

The next post in this series will look at what path the UK armed forces are treading in respect of the heavy metal


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