How Britain’s Challenger II tanks could alter the battlefield in Ukraine

The protection provided by the Chobham and Dorchester armour will enable the vehicles to survive direct hits from Russian T-72 tanks

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 USFrance 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.

11 comments

  1. It’s time the West stopped “considering” these weapons, and actually started delivering them. Wtf are they waiting for?

    • I believe that they are waiting for Germany.
      The unfortunate fact is that Challengers are not available in large number and use specific ammunition. The Abrams has classified equipment,so much so that we do not export them even to our closest allies not to mention that they are a maintenance nightmare and use horrendous amounts of fuel. Therefore leopards are the only realistic option.

      • The M1 Abrams export variant which has been sold to Poland is much weaker than the M1 Abrams used by the US Army.
        The US Army gives the tank without DU layers placed in the armor, without the M829 series, without the propper optics, and without the fully-capable engine.

      • I keep hearing about the fuel consumption issue for the Abrams. True, it’s a gas hog. But, the fact that its engine devours multiple types of fuels gives it a certain edge over other tanks.

        • There are many other factors which make the leapard a much better option, most of which I have listed, export version has no depleted uranium armor, no tungsten rod sabot rounds, no advanced optics etc.

          • The high-end knickknacks aren’t that important. I’m sure that the Ukrainians would be very elated to get the M-1, nevertheless. They would do wonders with it, as they’ve been doing with everything else they’ve received. Besides that, after the negative issues with the PH 2000, the G-36, and the Puma, I don’t trust the Leopard’s purported greatness anymore.

  2. Rishi Sunak’s government has not yet made a final decision on the transfer of tanks to Ukraine,Great Britain may use the next meeting of the contact group in Ramstein, which is scheduled to take place on January 20, to officially announce the transfer of tanks.the number of tanks that Great Britain plans to transfer is quite symbolic – 10 units, enough to equip a tank company. But such a decision may convince Germany to break it’s “taboo “of supplying leoprads which are available in much larger numbers use more readily available ammunition.

  3. Comment from PI Reeves: “Can we please stop procrastinating and promising and get this equipment to Ukraine now.
    People are dying today and every day.
    Rout the invaders now, before their talked about ‘new Spring offensive’.

    Susie Johnson : “Britain must give maximum possible support to Ukraine which is also supporting NATO and democracy. In addition, we are demonstrating by continuing independent support that we are miles ahead of EU thought and action and lucky to be no longer a member. I was a remainer but now thankful that we lost the referendum.”

    Michael Joseph Wimbs: “Reading up the “professional” conversations on Challenger 2, Leopard, 2, Le Clerc , Abrams et al, it becomes rather obvious that they need to be directed as one complementary Force, since their strengths and weaknesses against the Aramata Series of Russian tanks including the T-90 are complementary.
    Not easy to see how the Ukrainians will be quickly able to tactically and strategically coordinate the command of such a force, particularly when up against blitzkriegs of massed T-90s.
    The absence of close air support, and vulnerability to Russia’s overwhelming advantage in heavy artillery and Ship-borne Cruise Missiles must also be concerning?”

    Scott Driver : “I have news for this author and UK leadership…we’re already back into a Cold War with Russia right now in Ukraine…so its time to stop “saving” kit with the Ukrainians demonstrated will to win.
    The Bradley’s decimated Russian T72 tanks in Iraq, and the 50 or so Biden sending will do the same again. The UKs Challenger would do the same. The Orcs are also scared about the French fighting vehicle that does 50 mph and can easily help Ukrainians outflank the Russians again as they already did in the Kharkiv Oblast rout.”

    Guiscardus Fox: “As we are a signatory to the Ukrainian gaurentee under the Budapest Treaty, we are honour bound along with the US to ensure we give and provide as much material support Ukraine needs to eject the Russians.
    If we don’t, our words mean nothing.”

    Anthony Chambers : “The stuff we are about to throw away is stronger than the best gear Russia has. We might as well use it in Ukraine rather than pay for people to dismantle it. There are 30 tranche 1 Eurofighters and 100 Challenger II due to go to the scrap heap. The Ukrainians can make very good use of them.”*

    David Cameron: “A dozen is plenty to start with. Crews need training. Tho I suspect that started months ago. Plus the challenger doesn’t use nato rounds.. the tanks will need supplies, spares , maintenance etc. it’s not just a matter of sending 100. These will be the challengers soon to be scrapped in the next upgrade to the tank. So will be useful to get some European conditions actual combat intel. Also with challenger three using the nato smoothbore rounds what better why to dispose of the old rifled rounds than firing them at Russians.”

    *I think Mr Chambers is referring to Challenger 1. We could maybe send 100 of them.

  4. Tanks still are an important component in modern warfare. Things will be different when such weapons as Javelins and NLAWS were much more widely available on the battlefield. Then, being a tank crew member would be a very scary thing. But, we’re not there yet.

What is your opinion?