Defence Spending and Capabilities

The birth of the Cyber Tank

Contributor: Steve has been a tank commander of both Challenger 2 and CVR(T) with 5 years experience

‘Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’ – Steve Jobs

Ever since the Mark 1 rolled across the trenches of Flers-Courcelette in 1916, the tank has dominated the battlefield and captured imagination.  Today is no different.  The Challenger 2 (CR2) Main Battle Tank’s (MBT) primary purpose is the destruction of the enemy through offensive action, with significant emphasis placed on its battle-winning ability to destroy an adversary’s tanks.

However, to maintain this dominance over the last century, the tank has had to continually adapt, both as a platform and in the way it is employed.  The CR2 Life Extension Programme (LEP) is the next stage of this development.  Specifically, it is an initiative to ensure that the MBT can continue to meet the demands of current and future conflicts up to the year 2035 and perhaps beyond.  It is expected to cost approximately £700 million, or £6.25 million per MBT.[1]  Army 2020 structure changes enable the £700 million to be split between two Main Battle Tank Regiments; the Royal Tank Regiment and the Queen’s Royal Hussars.

“If we lose our high-end, war fighting capability, we will lose credibility with our allies” – General Lorrimer

The problem ahead

Is £700 million enough?  Should we be looking towards 2035 instead of 2020?  The aim of this article is to examine three options for the LEP and to present the viewpoint that the current recommendations are not innovative enough to succeed.  Further thought to the development of the MBT’s software is essential if it is to play a role in future conflicts within a multi domain battlespace.

Option one: replace the CR2 with another tank

The first option for the LEP is to replace the CR2 with another platform, namely the Leopard 2 or M1A2 Abrams.  This idea is in favour with many ‘Tankies’ although it is not as simple as it first seems.  Firstly, the initial capital expenditure will require a significant proportion of the budget.  On top of this, several additional areas will require significant investment such as training, doctrine, infrastructure, recovery vehicles and stores to keep the fleet sustained.  The result is that this option does not appear viable due to cost.

Option two: update hardware: add smooth bore gun and DAS

The second option is centred on hardware and involves replacing the 120mm rifled barrel to the NATO 120mm standard smooth bore gun and adding a Defence Aid Suite (DAS).  The smooth bore gun will reduce the cost of ammunition and ensure that resupply within a NATO coalition will be achievable by all members that have a MBT.  This enhances the prospect of deploying and adds sufficient global reach due to resupply being easily established and sustained through any deployment.  The DAS, although not specifically outlined, will most likely enable the defeat of long range anti-tank missiles.

Hardware vs software

These initiatives are centred on making improvements to the tank’s hardware.  They would undoubtedly bridge a current capability deficiency to peer opponents in the short term, allowing the CR2 to adjust to the current threats on the modern battlefield.  However, both options would not grant an ability to adapt to future conflicts in the way that a software upgrade would be able to.

Maj Gen Perkins (US Army) has described how future conflicts are likely to take place on a multi-domain battlespace (Land, Sea, Air, Space and Cyber).  Option two would only allow the CR2 to compete within the singular land domain.  Software improvements would enable the CR2 to develop as threats emerge.  Adding adaptable sensors, patch upgrades and adapting code adds potential that a simple hardware conversion cannot.  The current recommendations only sustain the Tank for the present land battlespace; they are in no way innovative.

To innovate, the LEP should be software orientated and should include open software architecture.  This would allow future upgrades from different companies creating a longer life span.  This would enable the CR2 to adapt to future conflicts through recoding or through patch upgrades.  The CR2 will most likely feature within future conflict and should have technology that will enable this.  Lessons should be extracted from existing modernisation programmes, such as the adaptation of the Cobra Helicopter.  The Cobra helicopter was first brought in to service by the American Army in 1965 for the Vietnam War and has been adapted and improved over the years to the point that it remains in service and is a preferred aviation platform for the American Marines.

So, what should we do?

CR2 needs to evolve to operate within the multi domain battle space and have the capability to meet the demands placed on the platform and the crew.  We should consider the following upgrades:

  • Wifi enabled software that can hotspot from local wifi. (Cyber threat)
  • Air to surface missile detection and disruption capability. (Air and Space threats)
  • A directed energy capability to defeat/destroy enemy platforms. (Land and Air threats)

There are several initial upgrades that would need to take place to enable any of these.

CR2 requires improvements to the existing electronics within the platform.  They function properly but are bulky and outdated.  Improvements to the electronics would increase CR2’s capability and allow additional space and for improvements to the onboard computer.  It would enable GPS functionality, although given the proliferation of GPS denial technologies, the quantum compass could be an option.  An improvement to the electronics would also add data bandwidth to allow future software updates.  Adding a Bluetooth capability to the electronics would significantly reduce the amount of cabling.   A quick solution could be the BGTI (BattleGroup Thermal Imaging) system currently integrated within the CVR(T) platform, which is due to be discontinued from service in 2021.

In conclusion

The tank is arguably the most significant contribution to the land battle in history.  The capability should be retained, enhanced and considered for all future battles.  To do so, the LEP needs to be revised to consider software upgrades and the rapid evolution of modern technology.  FOE 35 considers the requirement to develop a cyber real estate (accessing local wifi networks and improving data flow and the ability to connect to multiple UAS at once) as key to achieving situational awareness.  Google talk about innovation in terms of as 10X.  1X is matching the current peer opponents.  2X is making an improvement.  10X is to understand through innovation the problem we face and how to defeat any competition.  The British Army, given limited resources, should focus on innovative 10X solutions, rather than trying to match up against its current peer opponents.

[1] £700 million divided by 112 Tanks

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Image courtesy of MOD/Crown Copyright

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6 Comments on "The birth of the Cyber Tank"

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Really interesting article. I’m interested as to how all this might be incorporated into the Challenger, given the significant weight and space budget this kind of hardware requires (as seen with AJAX). MBT mass has grown to a point that can’t be exceeded if it is to remain strategically deployable, and space is at a premium within Challenger. Where do you see the space and weight savings coming from? Can it work with the Challenger, or do we need an entirely new platform?


I’m still none the wiser as to what a cyber tank is.

Ok, it will be able to connect to wifi, but aren’t WiFi hotspots more associated with urban environments than traditional tank country, is a tank the right vehicle? More importantly what will the tank deliver once it is connected to the wifi that can’t be done remotely?

Maybe it’s ok not to know just yet because any specific ideas will be out of date before LEP gets in to service. We just need to ensure that it has all the interfaces and power for future expansion.

James P

Thinking 10X about tanks is not…a slightly better tank. The next true innovation might be one that renders tanks irrelevant. Let’s hope we think of it before our adversaries do


Not sure I understand the WiFi bit, but I could imagine: giving the tank the capability to downlink information from other systems (connect to a drone? a satellite? an intelligence database?), uplink sensor information to other systems, act as a communications node to friendly forces nearby. If we get an autoloader, maybe the fourth crew member should take on the task?


Having WiFi and Bluetooth technology could be great in a tank, if you can dominate the EM Battlespace. However, looking at peer and near-peer adversaries that might not be the case. Also there could be issues of fratricide from our own equipment (ECM) other BT and WiFi technologies in the same area etc.

Agreed that having software you can update, re-program to suit the mission could be a good solution that would allow for tanks to operate independent of each other or together and have different but supporting roles.

I’m not a tank expert but I think much of what you are suggesting is already on the drawing board. Every platform as a sensor was part on NEC 10 years ago. The programme to replace Bowman and future “ECM” will ideally be one system based on a Software Defined Radio (SDR). In the man pack role this is quite challenging but given the (comparatively) large space and power availability on a tank should be achievable today. Multiple antennas (as required) are then used for communication, ECM, EW, SIGINT, cyber inject etc. GPS resilience solutions and broadband satcom (including on… Read more »