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On 25th August 2020, The Times published a story claiming that the forthcoming Integrated Defence and Security Review may see the British Army losing its Challenger 2 tanks in favour of other capabilities. A cynic might observe that stories like this are a routine part of the inter-service politics that marks every defence review. Other familiar targets include the Red Arrows, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, and the Royal Marines. The Times article summed up the commonly used arguments against heavy armour. This line of thought has gained some support at the highest reaches of Defence, with the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, writing “for too long we have had a sentimental attachment to a static, armoured centric force structure anchored in Europe”.
Common to other arguments, Wallace’s basis for this is that “our competition has spread out across the globe. If we are to truly play our role as “Global Britain,” we must be more capable in new domains, enabling us to be active in more theatres”. While there is undoubted merit in seeking to expand the scope of the Army to serve the needs of #GlobalBritain, and moving away from ‘an armour centric force structure’ may well be a good idea, this does not mean that the Army should rid itself of Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). Despite the claims of the defence commentariat, the British Army still requires tanks if it is to be a force capable of fighting the majority of modern adversaries.
What are the arguments against tanks?
There are a number of common arguments for removing tanks that have and they can be roughly categorised as follows:
- Britain will never fight a peer-enemy again.
- Armoured warfare is a thing of the past; the character of conflict has changed.
- Firepower can be delivered from the air so there’s no need for heavy armour.
- Britain’s allies still have armour; we should provide other capabilities.
- Britain needs to spend the money on Cyber and Space capabilities instead.
Some of these arguments are superficially plausible but none of them withstand close scrutiny. This article briefly explains the role of heavy armour on the modern battlefield before rebutting each of the above arguments in turn. It will conclude by suggesting how the Army could structure its heavy armoured formations to maintain their utility in the future.
What are tanks for?
The core purpose of the tank is simple, and has remained essentially unchanged since they first “operat[ed]…in the van of the battle” one hundred years ago. Tanks combine firepower, mobility, and survivability to dominate the close land battle.
It is true that tanks are part of a combined-arms battle and can be vulnerable or ineffective unless used alongside infantry, artillery, and air support (as Armenia and Azerbaijan are demonstrating). And there are certainly times where lighter and more mobile forces will do better than armoured formations because of their ability to cover ground at higher speed.
However, if an army wants to destroy an enemy on an objective, or prevent them from taking ground, the tank remains the most potent means of achieving that. Unlike other forces, tanks can do it 24/7, in all weathers, and on almost all terrain. This has been true from the Second World War to the Second Gulf War; as will be shown below tanks continue to have utility even in the most recent conflicts.
The arguments against tanks don’t survive contact. Here’s why:
1. Britain will never fight a peer enemy again.
On the surface, this argument is entirely plausible. The UK may never meet a peer enemy in the field en masse and it hasn’t really done so since Korea, some 70 years ago. However, the idea that this means Britain should ditch its tanks contains sizeable flaws:
Tanks aren’t just for peer-warfare. They are also essential when fighting sub-peer adversaries that have their own armour. As evidence of this, we should remember that it was only 17 years ago that Western armies engaged in pitched tank battles against sub-peer armoured formations in Iraq.
While it is plausible that Britain will never again seek to fight another opponent that has their own armour, this is a significant gamble with national security. A non-exhaustive list of countries with a meaningful tank capability includes: Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Angola, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia. And that’s before we consider the proliferation of tanks to non state groups.
It may seem like a fight against any of these countries is currently unforeseeable. But strategy makers should recall that this was also the prevailing view in the 1980s, most of the 1990s, and the early 2000s. There’s no good reason that the current version of ‘we’ll never have another armoured fight’ is any more true than it has been previously.
If you get rid of armour on the grounds that you’ll never use it to fight a peer enemy, then you ironically make peer warfare more likely. The current state of deterrence in Eastern Europe is based on Russian calculations that they will face serious costs were they to breach the sovereign territory of a NATO nation. If the UK and other western nations begin to ditch their armour because the current political situation makes it unlikely to be used, parts of Eastern Europe become softer and more tempting targets for Russia. NATO is extremely unlikely to launch a nuclear response to a small seizure of, say, Latvian territory which means that the only factors deterring possible Russian aggression are conventional forces and the political ramifications of an invasion. Weakening those conventional forces lessens their deterrent effect, thus making a peer-conflict more likely.
2. Armoured warfare is a thing of the past; the character of conflict has changed.
This is the most egregious of the arguments against tanks as it manages to be wrong in three separate ways: the British Army used tanks relatively recently; the character of war hasn’t necessarily changed that much; and, even if it has, there are numerous recent examples of tanks being used in the ‘new’ character of conflict.
As stated above, the British Army last used tanks in battle only 17 years ago. While that may seem like a relatively long period compared to the average military career, it is substantially smaller than the gap between the Korean War and Gulf War 1. In this time the British Army changed MBT twice. Chieftain, in service from 1967 to the late 1980s, saw almost zero operational service in British hands. Had the Options for Change defence review in 1990 followed the argument that no recent use means tanks are never to be used in future, Britain would have found itself woefully ill equipped for the subsequent use of heavy armour on Operations GRANBY, GRAPPLE and TELIC.
It is true that some modern conflicts differ from those in the past, there is no evidence that the character of war has fundamentally changed to the point where armoured warfare is certain never to return.
There is certainly a rise in hybrid war/liminal war/constant competition (insert faddish term of your choice) this type of engagement doesn’t preclude armoured warfare at scale, either between ‘constant competitors’ or other actors. Western attention may be focussed on engagements in Eastern Europe, but Britain should be cautious not to assume that this is the sole future character of conflict. There is nothing in the current NATO-Russian tensions that would preclude the outbreak of a separate war somewhere in Africa or the Middle East at some point in the future.
There are numerous examples of armour being used in even the most ‘modern’ and ‘hybrid’ conflicts, demonstrating the enduring relevance of tanks. Syria has seen the extensive use of armour by government and rebel forces alike, while both Russian and Ukrainian tanks have been involved in heavy fighting in the Donbas. There are still c.100,000 main battle tanks on the planet. It is dangerous to assume that tanks have had their day and that they are a ‘sunset’ capability.
3. Firepower can be delivered from the air so there’s no need for heavy armour.
This argument can be dismissed easily and quickly using empirical evidence. The allies enjoyed air supremacy in both Gulf Wars, with hundreds of ground-attack aircraft and attack helicopters at their disposal. Yet in both cases there were large engagements between Iraqi and coalition armoured forces. In 2004, when US forces needed to secure the city of Fallujah, even though the insurgents had no armour, the US Army still deployed large numbers of tanks to maximise their firepower in the congested areas of the city. So did the Israeli Defence Force when they fought the lightly-equipped but well-prepared Hezbollah in 2006. These forces all found a need for well-protected and manoeuvrable heavy direct-fire on the ground despite the overwhelming availability of air support.
This situation hasn’t changed since 2003 and defence planners should be wary of those who argue that modern airpower is somehow different. The second battle of El Alamein was fought under an RAF-provided air supremacy umbrella and yet tanks were still vital to Montgomery’s success. If the 60 years of development between El Alamein and Gulf War 2, which saw the RAF move from Kittyhawks to Tornados, isn’t enough for airpower to make tanks redundant then there’s no good reason to think that the last 15 years have finished the job. Especially in an era when British and allied aircraft numbers are shrinking by the year.
4. Britain’s allies still have armour; we should provide other capabilities.
This argument is perhaps the most plausible reason to abandon tanks. One of the implications of this argument is that Britain is unlikely to ever fight except in coalition, and therefore we should allow others to provide the armour while the British armed forces focus on different areas. A subset of this involves the idea that Britain should focus on its Corps headquarters, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), providing the corps-level HQ and enablers such as long-range fires, intelligence and surveillance, and engineering.
The argument that Britain will never need (or want) to deploy land forces alone is a significant strategic gamble based on scant evidence. That Britain will never want to fight a war except when others do is a faith statement.
While a unilateral deployment looks unlikely at time of writing, British doctrine consistently makes the point that we don’t know the threats we will face over the coming years. The two nations on which Britain would be most reliant for the provision of armour, the US and France, weren’t tripping over themselves to assist Britain with land forces during the Falklands War. As there is at least some indication of both a cooling relationship between the US and Europe, and rising intra-European tensions, Britain should note this lesson from 1982.
The assumption that Britain should rely on allies during a ‘war of choice’ should be questioned. We should be cautious about removing key sovereign capabilities in the hope that someone else will lend us theirs.
The sub-argument about providing corps troops is worth addressing on its own. At its centre lies the assumption that Britain’s allies will willingly give up their forces for the UK to command if Britain isn’t prepared to put meaningful ‘skin in the game’. If Britain does not deploy credible land forces, no other country will cede command of their soldiers while they take all the casualties. The US or French would want their own deployable corps HQs (and they both have them) to take command, and rightly so. If Britain denudes its land forces significantly, then it may as well get rid of the ARRC and forget Corps level warfighting. We should plan to assume a subordinate role.
5. Britain needs to spend on Cyber and Space capabilities instead.
There is certainly an argument to be made for increasing defence spending on emergent technologies to give Britain a competitive edge over adversaries. The more advanced the technological edge, the more Britain can maximise effects on the enemy while minimising casualties.Sadly, this process doesn’t continue to the point where we can achieve the needed effects with zero fighting. Eventually, you have to put troops into the fight and at this point advanced technologies become enablers rather than battle-winners in their own right. No satellite or line of code will ever take and hold ground; only land forces can do that. While there may be merit in re-apportioning the defence budget to invest more heavily in areas such as cyber, eliminating key land capabilities entirely to buy more supporting technology would be akin to someone selling the engine from their car so they can afford better tyres.
What should we do?
While the arguments for getting rid of Challenger 2 are weak, that doesn’t mean the British Army should exit the Integrated Review looking exactly as it did when it went in. Britain’s armoured capability could be better structured and equipped to achieve greater effect without large increases in cost.
It is vital that any tanks the British Army does choose to keep are upgraded to ensure they remain competitive against likely threats over the coming decades. While a combined arms battle isn’t a simple game of top-trumps, Britain should be concerned that a number of African and Middle-Eastern countries are able to deploy tanks that out-match Challenger 2. The Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme has this well in hand, and the continued funding of this programme is vital to keep British armour relevant in future conflict.
The British Army should look to reorganise its armoured capability from two armoured infantry brigades into a single credible armoured brigade. For the rest of the world, an armoured brigade has at least two tank regiments and enough armoured infantry to back it up. The British Army is already on track to have only two Challenger 2 regiments left by 2023, so these should be put together to form the spearhead of an armoured brigade that contains enough heavy-metal to be a genuine force on the battlefield.
The move to a single armoured brigade would mean a reduction in the number of other capabilities needed to maintain two brigades (including fires, engineering and logistics), allowing savings to be made.
While holding only a single armoured brigade would pose challenges for training and readiness, these issues are not insurmountable. Other countries manage to keep readiness with only a single brigade or armoured regiment and there’s no reason Britain couldn’t do the same. With only two armoured regiments in the brigade and a sizeable stock of mothballed Challenger 2, Britain could store fleets of vehicles overseas in, for example, Canada, Germany, and Oman. This would allow frequent training rotations in different conditions to keep crews and units trained. If the armoured brigade were well funded, with enough ammunition and track miles to allow frequent training, then it should be simple to maintain readiness at a sufficient level for the brigade to be sent into combat with only a minimal pre-deployment work up.
A detailed discussion about the design of the rest of the Army is far beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that this armoured brigade could be extremely potent if complemented by one or two Strike brigades of more mobile medium-armoured vehicles. A medium-weight brigade would mitigate the major flaws of a heavy armoured formation (ie. strategic and operational level mobility) and give the UK a range of forces to deploy if the situation doesn’t demand heavy firepower. Even so, Strike isn’t usable in all circumstances meaning an armoured brigade remains critical.
Whatever the outcome of the Integrated Review, if the British Army wants to be able to fight a range of adversaries on the modern battlefield then it needs to resist those who claim that the tank has had its day.