Ukraine is lucky to have Britain’s Challenger 2 tanks

21 January 2023

Isee you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. So wrote William Shakespeare in Henry V. He could well have been writing about the British Army’s main battle tank, the mighty 62-tonne behemoth that is Challenger 2, which is now being sent to Ukraine. 

The Challenger 2 is a weighty sort of greyhound. But ‘Chally’, as it was affectionately known by those of us crewing it, could really move. It had close to that ideal balance all tank designers are aiming for, providing protection, manoeuvrability and firepower (each of which deteriorates when you improve one of the others). 

Soon after I finished my tank commander’s course, fighting pixilated Russian tanks and infantry-carrying vehicles in the gunnery simulator, the Chally was sent to Iraq. It got a chance at the beginning in 2003 to show what it could do during the first days of the invasion. But by the time I first went to Iraq in 2004, a Chally tended to be plopped in front of the camp gate if there was intelligence of a potential vehicle-borne suicide bomber. Or it would accompany convoys and oversee arrest operations by infantry. It got older. Military equipment ages like dog years, certainly in the eyes of defence contractors. Chally is 25 years old now. All the while there was much talk of the tank’s day being over on the modern battlefield. The British Army shrank its numbers massively.

Now, though, Ukraine is after tanks. When it has broken through the Russian lines, it has not been able to exploit the breakthrough and push further. This is something that tanks are perfect at, as they are able to move at speed while engaging multiple enemy targets on the move. Which is why Zelensky is looking for M1 Abrams from the US, Leopard 2s from Germany, and so far has been given 14 Challys by the UK.  

With these tanks – and potentially US Bradley armoured personnel carriers – Ukraine would be able to rapidly advance, take and hold ground, and then push on again. This would allow Ukraine to keep the Russian forces on the hop, eventually wearing them down.  

Any of the western tanks on offer will serve Ukraine’s purposes. They were all designed with an eye on the Cold War and dealing with the Russians. But there is something special about the Chally. As one of my more literary fellow troop leaders put it, there was a magic carpet sensation to its hydro-gas suspension working at speed across cross-country, the stabilised gun uncannily steady before it blasted away, returning to a position of effortless poise as the turret moved to find the next target. Watch a video of Chally in action. It’s just gorgeous.  

Tank nerds of course will endlessly disagree about which is the best tank. But there is one area in which Challenger 2 wins hands down, as my fellow troop leader also noted. Chally looks far better than any of the rest (it helps a tank crew to be proud of their machine). Compared with the forward-squatting M1 Abrams, or the Teutonic slabbyness of the Leopard tank, Chally is much more pleasing aesthetically with its clean lines and rakish angles, set off nicely by the cyclops gallium lens of the thermal imager just above the barrel.  

And despite the complexity of its gunnery and thermal imaging night-vision systems, it is relatively easy to operate. Ukrainian tank crews are getting a six-week course before getting their Challys. To date, not a single Challenger 2 has been destroyed by an enemy. All of the above is testament to the prowess of British tank engineering—after all, we did invent the first one, Little Willie. 

With Chally suddenly back in the spotlight, it’s all starting to come back now. The frenzy of activity by the operator on the other side of the turret loading the round and bag charge. The massive breech block recoiling in a blur into the turret after the thunderous explosion of the tank shell firing. The fumes of cordite from the coaxially mounted machine gun swirling in the turret. 

Though in case any Guardianista peaceniks are worried about the apparent tank lust on display, let me add that we should be very careful what we do with our tanks – and who we give (and sell) them to. 

And I get no thrill from the idea that young Russian soldiers will be dying particularly unpleasant deaths when they are dispensed by the ferocious tank. This is especially the case if the Challys use armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot rounds, which puncture armour at such speed that the change in air pressure alone is enough to kill. 

Also, no tank is invincible. In 2003, the turret was blown off one of the Challys from my regiment, the Queen’s Royal Lancers, killing two, after another Challenger 2 accidentally fired on it. No matter how great a system or machine, things can go horribly wrong through human error. And Chally has only faced an Iraqi army that was falling apart, and then the old-fashioned RPGs in the insurgency that followed. In 2007, an IED in Iraq breeched a Chally hull for the first time, seriously injuring the driver.  

Following Iraq, and then Afghanistan, it’s a struggle to have much faith in the strategic nous of our leaders. But, so far at least, the British establishment’s support for Ukraine appears to have been the right call and to have paid dividends. And if Chally can help enable Ukraine’s military to break through Russian lines more effectively to bring the conflict to an earlier end, it’s hard to fault the logic of the tank being sent there.  

After experiencing the thrill of Chally, it’s hard not to miss it. The Ukrainian tank crews are clearly entering a dangerous situation, even with my old friend looking after them. Still, I can’t help thinking: lucky buggers.  

5 comments

  1. Yes, Ukraine is lucky to get any Western MBT. It’s a deplorable situation that shouldn’t be.

    “…the British establishment’s support for Ukraine appears to have been the right call and to have paid dividends. And if Chally can help enable Ukraine’s military to break through Russian lines more effectively to bring the conflict to an earlier end, it’s hard to fault the logic of the tank being sent there.”

    Another dividend is in the cards if the above scenario should come to pass; increased international orders for the Challenger. Certainly, this would be a very good thing for the UK. Not to mention the rise in prestige. On the other hand, the Leopard and Germany are already suffering negative consequences for the chicken-spined Scholz not sending tanks to Ukraine, I’m sure.

    • No luck about it, God Almighty blessed Ukraine through the U.K.
      Glory be to God, and may He continue to look upon Ukraine with favor fighting for her and being her fortress and deliverer.
      Proverbs 3:5-6
      5. Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding;
      6. in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

  2. After that glowing tribute, I’m sold.
    Let’s send all 300. We’ve got new ones coming through (maybe Chally 3?) and we can always ask our friends the Ukrainians to send us a few back if we need them.
    But right now, Ukraine needs lots of heavy metal. Like fucking yesterday.

What is your opinion?