The protection provided by the Chobham and Dorchester armour will enable the vehicles to survive direct hits from Russian T-72 tanks
By Dominic Nicholls, ASSOCIATE EDITOR 10 January 2023 •
Britain’s Challenger II will be the most capable armoured vehicle gifted to Ukraine, if Rishi Sunak’s government decides to increase military support for Kyiv.
The protection provided by the Chobham and Dorchester armour – the exact composition of which is graded secret – will enable the vehicles to survive direct hits from Russian T-72 tanks.
There will be some in Whitehall’s security establishment fearful such advanced military secrets will fall into Russian hands.
However, it seems as if Kyiv’s dogged resistance and the ability of Ukrainian forces to go on the offensive has convinced external supporters of the need to provide more advanced combat power; to shift from ensuring Ukraine doesn’t lose, to ensuring the country is victorious.
In 1994, I was an excitable young cavalry officer trying to get to grips with the three tanks that the Queen had just issued me.
I was guided in this task by my ever-patient and all-knowing Troop Sergeant, “Prof” Henderson – so named because he had an A level.
One day, the Commanding Officer demanded from us young bucks an essay about our chosen military careers in armoured warfare. We were asked to explore the possible future utility of the tank, given the numerous and innovative ways they could be rendered redundant on the modern battlefield.
I argued that if tanks – still the most efficient way of maximising the holy trinity of armoured warfare: firepower, protection and mobility – could be removed from the battlefield visually, thermally, electronically and tactically, there was a future for Churchill’s “landships”.
Fast forward a few years, and a leap or two in technology, and the debate is still raging over whether these lumbering beasts have any place on the front lines of a modern war.
Surely, the critics say, drones are the new airborne snipers, ready to kill any tank nudging its barrel out of a hide.
Furthermore, even if the wind is too strong for a drone, modern dual-warhead anti-tank missiles or mines will stop them in their tracks.
However, it speaks volumes that tanks are right at the top of the Ukrainian wishlist when discussing military aid for their efforts to eject Russians camped out in their country.
For each of a tank’s undeniable vulnerabilities, there is a countermeasure. Usually, this involves working with other parts of the military: one’s own drone operators or anti-air defenders, for example.
Beyond this, the ability to employ accurate, deadly firepower in direct contact with Russian forces is still an extremely sought-after capability.
There is an old military maxim: “Tanks are like dinner jackets; you don’t need them very often. But when you do, nothing else will do.”
The world saw this last summer east of Kharkiv, when Ukraine smashed through a thinly guarded line of Russian troops and rushed east, gobbling up ground as Moscow’s retreat turned into a rout.
There is every chance that could happen again, if heavy tanks such as Challenger II and perhaps German-built Leopard II gifted by Poland and Finland could be combined with the armoured infantry fighting vehicles recently promised by the US, France and Germany.
As long as Ukraine is able to adopt “combined arms” warfare, with tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower all working together, it could leave Vladimir Putin’s forces unable to stop another Ukrainian advance.
Vehicles such as Challenger II and Leopard II were designed specifically to fight against the exact same kit Ukraine faces today.
That kit – in particular the T-72 tank, albeit in service with the Iraqi army – was decimated by the US Bradley infantry vehicle at Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Washington is sending 50 Bradleys to Ukraine.
The Western vehicles have been upgraded many times over since then, with better optics, protection and weapons. The same cannot be said for the Russian kit.
The contest so expected throughout the long years of the Cold War – where the Western and Russian military industrial complexes would have used armoured vehicles to slug it out on the battlefield – could be about to take place.
There is little this current Russian army has displayed since Feb 24 last year to suggest it will be capable of withstanding an assault by Western armour and Ukrainian spirit.