THE summer is known as the ‘silly season’ in the media because, historically, senior politicians, mandarins and editors were all holidaying on the grouse moors, leaving nothing to write about and no one to judge it. While holiday fashions may have changed over the years, 2020 has seen some of the greatest stupidity ever. The latest manifestation is a rerun of the ‘traditional tanks are obsolete’ fallacy, reported in the Telegraph, with an ill-argued diatribe in the Times by Max Hastings (who really should know better).
Behind the drivel there is a huge battle developing in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office about the current integrated foreign policy, defence and security review. This is likely to demonstrate that there are many naked emperors and Potemkin villages defending British interests. As ever, the threat of cuts pits the RAF against the Royal Navy, and both of them against the Army – which then turns on itself and revisits the tank.
Space precludes a full explanation of why tanks are important (plug: I wrote a book that explains land warfare and you can procure a copy here). However, they are highly mobile and have been used in pretty much every war since they were invented (including Afghanistan – although not by the British, despite at least some commanders requesting them). Most credible armies have them, and all those that anticipate some possibility of war (USA, China, Russia, Israel, Turkey) have them as the fundamental segment of their land warfare capability.
Yes, there are weapons that can knock out tanks – that’s the nature of war. They are often very expensive – a $35million Apache attack helicopter costs over five times as much as a Challenger tank. The latest anti-tank missiles come in at £100,000 a shot and are by no means certain to achieve a kill. But an infantryman is far, far more vulnerable – as has been demonstrated from the Somme to Afghanistan.
For reasons best known to itself the Army has embraced cyber warfare, is fantasising about drone swarms (fondly imagining them to be invincible) and glossing over the unfortunate fact that it has very little to stop any aggressor from parking its tanks on a friendly lawn. It’s also fond of robots/remote controlled weapons. But they are not widely available. Nor are they cheap. Nor are they able to do peace support.
Yes, Challenger 2 is obsolescent, mainly because it needs a new gun. As tanks are designed round their gun, that is not cheap. This has been the case for almost 20 years, and the lacklustre leadership of the Army has done nothing about it. (No surprise there: the Boxer wheeled infantry combat vehicle procurement has taken over 30 years, as did the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle.)
Since the end of the Cold War our defence policy has drifted along, aimlessly responding to ill-considered wars while maintaining as much of an illusion of capability as resources permitted. The government should be applauded for finally integrating a defence review with security and foreign policy. If such a review were honest, given Brexit, an aggressively expansive China, the threats of Vlad and the instability of the Sahel (all of which currently have British military commitments) it may conclude that the Armed Forces lack capability, numbers and indeed much in the way of a coherent policy or inspiring leadership. If the Chancellor can find £100billion for HS2 – surely not critical to the integrity of the UK – he should be able to find the funds to defend the realm (the oft quoted ‘first duty of government’). That will include tanks.