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Patrick Benham-Crosswell: If we give up on tanks, we give up on defence of the Realm


The Times has reported that the British Army is to reduce the number of Challenger 2 tanks that it has by one third, reducing them to just two regiments of 56 tanks each, plus some in reserve and for training. It proposes to replace the tanks with its newest armoured vehicle, Ajax. If this is true it is a clear demonstration that the MoD is now utterly incapable of defending the Realm and that our armed forces are moving from paper tiger to Potemkin village.

What’s the problem? Simple, not everything with tracks and a turret is a tank, in the same way that not everything with wheels and a windscreen is a car. Using your Ford Focus as a replacement for the double decker school bus is going to be as successful as using a reconnaissance vehicle (like Ajax) to replace a Challenger 2.

A tank combines firepower, protection and mobility. The firepower is a gun capable of firing a solid shot with enough energy to penetrate the armour of an enemy tank. Like most tanks, the Challenger 2 has a 120 mm calibre main gun capable of firing an approximately 10 kg round at a muzzle velocity of over 1,500 m/s, with a kinetic energy of some 11.3 MJ. The Ajax has a 40 mm cannon capable of firing an equivalent round of about 1 kg at 1,600m/s, an energy of around 1.2 MJ, a whole order of magnitude less than the tank round. While the details of the ability to penetrate are both complex and classified, it should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that there is no way that the Ajax poses anything like the threat to a tank target that a Challenger 2 does.

Challenger 2 weighs around 75 tonnes combat weight, its Dorchester armour capable of withstanding hits from most weapons. Ajax weighs just 40 tonnes, the difference being due to lower levels of protection. (This low protection is understandable; Ajax was designed as a reconnaissance vehicles and such vehicles should not get into firefights.)

Swapping from Challenger to Ajax is not like for like. Of course, there are other ways of killing tanks. Most obviously anti-tank missiles, artillery and from aircraft (specifically the Brimstone missile). However, there are problems there too.

In Ukraine, the Russian T-90s are equipped with an anti-missile system which shoots missiles out of the sky. Moreover, their latest armours protect against the latest anti-tank missile warheads. The utility of anti-tank missiles (including British ones) is questionable.

In the Ukraine, Russian artillery is devastating armour, just as ours did when in the first Gulf War. It manages this by firing a projectile full of sub-munitions. The projectile opens over the target area and the sub-munitions rain down. There are so many that multiple hits are likely, destroying everything. Unfortunately, Princess Diana’s campaign against landmines led to the Ottawa Treaties, which banned this class of weapon. It has now been deleted from British weaponry. The Russians did not sign the Treaty; nor did China, Korea, Iran, India and others.

That leaves air launched weapons, such as the British Brimstone. Although it is a potent weapon the warhead technology is not new, and can be defeated. Worse, it needs an aircraft to launch it and aircraft are neither cheap nor invulnerable. Moreover, if our aircraft are busy trying to kill tanks, what is shooting down the enemy’s aircraft?

Why worry about killing tanks? Because in the absence of effective counter-weapons (which is another tank) they dominate the battlefield by slaughtering and out-manoeuvring infantry. And almost all countries have them, and in significant numbers. There are around 100,000 tanks in the world at the moment and few of them belong to our allies.

The bottom line is that this change of vehicle substantially reduces the British ability to fight any armoured enemy, quite possibly to the point of failure. If it proceeds, the Army will comprise:

  • Two armoured infantry brigades, which are light on tanks.
  • One wheeled infantry brigade, with no tanks (and therefore vulnerable to a tank-equipped enemy).
  • One reconnaissance brigade, with little combat power.
  • Some top notch special forces, but their role is not on the battlefield.
  • A score of foot borne infantry battalions (some of which can jump out of aeroplanes) all of which move at walking pace and are hugely vulnerable to every weapon.
  • A very weak logistic tail.

Frankly, this would struggle to achieve anything against any halfway capable opposition; it is an organisation that makes no sense and delivers little combat power. Either we want to have an ability to wage war on land, in which case we will have to spend more, or we do not, in which case we should disband the Army.

It is time that we had a sensible national debate on whether we want to defend the Realm or not.

(Image: Defence Images)

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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