Saturday, April 13, 2024
HomeCulture WarUkraine’s challenge – how to work a British tank

Ukraine’s challenge – how to work a British tank


IT SEEMS that Rishi Sunak is copying Boris Johnson’s posturing and courting popularity in Ukraine. It is reported that he has no problem with sending President Zelensky Challenger tanks. Zelensky’s army must be pleased – they’ve been asking for tanks for almost a year.
The combat-proven Challenger 2 is a very powerful tank. That should please the Ukrainians too. It’s exceptionally well protected courtesy of its Chobham/Dorchester armour and its gun is capable of destroying anything the Russians have.

However armoured warfare is not a game of ‘Top Trumps’ – it’s not just about what you’ve got, it’s also about how you use it. Challenger 2, like all Western tanks, has a crew of four and is designed to fight for protracted periods. It’s a very different operating model to that of the smaller Russian-designed T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90. It lacks the long-range anti-tank missiles that those tanks can fire, although it is more accurate firing on the move. So not only will Ukrainian crewmen have to be trained to operate Challenger (not a huge task, say one month each for driver, loader and gunner), the commanders are going to have to learn to look at ground (the basis of all soldiering) in a different way, as well of course as learning to operate the Challenger’s systems.

The larger problem is numbers or lack of them – Mr Sunak isn’t proposing to send very many, perhaps a squadron of 12. That is just one manoeuvre unit. While it would pack a formidable punch and dominate a (moving) area of perhaps 3 to 4 km square (up to two and a half miles square), there is an awful lot of Ukraine. There are also a lot of Russian tanks deployed in Ukraine. Armoured warfare is very violent, so numbers do matter.

Nor should we overlook logistics. Other than machine gun ammunition there is nothing in the Challenger that is the same as any other tank. The Challengers will have to be closely followed by trucks of ammunition and spare parts, as there won’t be any for over a thousand miles in any direction. It can be done but it gets complicated, quickly. It’s also one of those areas that organisational experience really helps in – and the Ukrainians have precisely zero with Challenger. Of course, this is an increasingly familiar problem for them and to be fair they’re learning quickly. Whether they can create a sufficiently effective new armoured force with German Marders, American Bradleys, French AMX-10RCs and now British Challengers, and get it working with artillery, air defence and logistics, is an open question. Even if the Russians are far from a top-notch army there are lots of them and warfare exposes failure brutally. Realistically the new Ukrainian armoured force might be ready for the late spring, when the ground will have hardened. We’ll find out then.

The British Army’s current plan is to upgrade around 150 of the Army’s 220 Challenger 2 tanks to Challenger 3 by 2030 so in theory some can be spared for Ukraine while the Army gets on with its latest reorganisation. Unfortunately that reorganisation assumed that the future did not include much need for heavy armour. What evidence was drawn on in support of that decision remains elusive (at best). The future Army comprises five light role brigades (including an air mobile one, a Ranger one and a Security Force assistance one), a reconnaissance/deep strike brigade and (nominally) two armoured brigades.
The light bit of that cannot survive on a modern battlefield. The reconnaissance strike brigade currently lacks a reconnaissance vehicle (the troubled Ajax) or deep (over 30 miles) strike capability. The armoured brigades have few tanks and no infantry fighting vehicles (Warrior is being taken out of service). I’m not sure what war the Army is preparing for, but it sure as hell isn’t the one happening in Ukraine.

Before Mr Sunak sets out to win his Brownie points overseas he should have first turned his attention to the Army and extracted from them a coherent vision of how it proposes to protect the UK’s interests.

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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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