The introduction into British army service of the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank (MBT) was originally intended to take a mere eighteen months from design to production, but in the event, it took something closer to ten years.
Why this was so is an important part of the Challenger 2 story, and although on the face of it this might seem to be a clear failure, it actually produced the most thoroughly tested and reliable tank ever to enter service with the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC). The tank has now been in service for twenty years and can be expected to form part of the British army's inventory – albeit in low numbers – until around 2035, which would make it the longest-serving frontline battle tank ever used by the UK.
In late 1966 the first half dozen of a new MBT, the Chieftain, had finally entered service. This was an evolutionary design, but in effect it attempted to put the armour protection and firepower of the heavy Conqueror tank onto the mobility of the existing MBT, the Centurion. Although it was exceptionally well protected through the use of rolled homogenous armour and its 120mm gun was without doubt the best tank gun of its day, the Chieftain was plagued by indifferent mobility and in particular by problems with its engine and gearbox; fixing these took decades and it was not until around twenty years after in entered service that the reliability was anywhere near that originally envisaged. By this stage, in the late 1970s, it was clear that Chieftain was falling behind when compared to the latest generation of Soviet MBTs, and that a new MBT was urgently required; Chieftain had received various upgrades to its fire control system, including the introduction of a laser rangefinder followed by the Improved Fire Control System (IFCS), as well as ammunition and armour protection improvements, but in essence was still using a gun system designed in the 1950s and was less than impressive at engaging moving targets or shooting on the move. Although not a fair comparison of a tank's full range of capabilities, the NATO annual Canadian Armour Trophy gunnery competition was all-but impossible to win in Chieftain, and totally impossible once M1 and Leopard 2 entered service.
In mid-1980 the British government announced that it was going to order 243 Challenger MBT1, to replace part of its ageing Chieftain fleet. This came about solely because the new Iranian revolutionary regime had cancelled an order for British-designed and built Shir 2 tanks, on which the Challenger was based. At the same time development on a new British tank, MBT 80 was halted and the only option left to the MOD was to base a new tank on the Iranian tank, which was in many ways advanced, particularly in mobility and armour protection. But this left the RAC in the unenviable position of running a mixed fleet of MBT. True, the new tank was a great improvement over its predecessor in terms of armour (using the new Chobham system), mobility and to some extent reliability, but it was not what the senior officers wanted, as the gun and fire control was to all intents and purposes the same as that on later marks of Chieftain, with the same limitations. The new tank entered service in March 1983, and eventually, more and more Chieftains were replaced by Challengers; by 1990 a total of 426 Challengers were in service, the majority in seven Challenger regiments (all in Germany) compared to six regiments of Chieftain. However, Chieftain, with nearly 650 tanks still in service, remained the primary tank in terms of quantity.
Whilst this was going on assessments were constantly being made of the rapidly increasing Soviet armour threat. The old stories of the USSR relying on masses of poor quality tanks were no longer true, and increasingly the Russians were fielding much improved tanks, with impressive 125 mm main guns, better mobility, and still in large quantities. The nightmare case of NATO having to face quantity and quality was being realised. Britain needed a new tank, and not just more Challengers.
In late 1986, the senior army officer responsible for equipment procurement, the Master General of the Ordnance, asked the sole British tank design and production company Vickers PLC, to suggest their options for a new MBT. This was done in spring of the following year, Vickers basing their proposal on an updated version of the Challenger hull, coupled to a new turret and gun, based upon their private venture Vickers Mk 7/2 design. Not all elements of the Vickers proposal found favour, and a period of negotiation followed in which the design was developed into an acceptable form. Although around 800 were originally called for, the so-called "peace dividend" following the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a much smaller requirement, and eventually a total of 386 Challenger 2, as the new tank was called, were built. The sheer – and ever increasing – cost of the new tank frightened the Treasury, who tried their best to reduce the numbers down, and which led them to getting involved in the other possibilities of fielding a Chieftain/Challenger replacement, which involved everything from a modified Chieftain, through to various combinations of Challenger 1 modifications, to the possibility of buying a foreign tank off the shelf. (At one point in the programme the estimated cost of the new tank rose from £1.2Bn to £1.7Bn in just over a year!)
This latter proposal found a great deal of support from many senior RAC officers who had been angered by the decades of problems caused by Chieftain and Challenger, and who were not well-disposed towards anything that came from the Vickers team. They were fully aware of the two main competitors, the extremely mobile and reliable German Leopard 2, and the more heavily armoured but still impressive US M1A", both of which used a 120mm smoothbore gun. Although a series of competitive and comparative trials were conducted (and which included the French Leclerc which, whilst innovative, found few supports in Britain), at the end of the day the decision was as much political as military and the Prime Minister was only interested in the "Buy British" option.
Nine Prototypes were built to develop the tank, and were extensively tested from 1990 on. These tanks bore the British vehicle registrations of 06SP87 to 06SP95; for simplicity they were generally referred to as tanks V1 to V9 respectively. They were used for an extensive range of trials, both to improve the design and to increase the reliability. Early versions of the prototype hulls were very similar to the CR1 from which they were derived, although a number of external changes made them noticeably different as the design was fine-tuned.
Delays to the development of the new tank came from a variety of sources, the first of which was the Gulf War on 1991 in which all of Vickers efforts were refocussed on supporting the CR1 tanks deployed to Saudi Arabia. The biggest delay however came about when the first production tanks delivered in 1994 were found to have a huge list of faults, a few were major and the majority were minor… but cumulatively the overall result was a tank which failed to meet the requirement – and poor reliability and availability were not acceptable to a generation of Generals brought up on Chieftain. Therefore the entry into service of the tank, originally thought to be possible in the early 1990s, was delayed until the production tanks were made reliable before they were placed into the hands of the crews. Well over 100 tanks had already been delivered and therefore the problem involved sorting out these tanks as well as changing production standards and procedures for those yet to be built. Thus the official date of entry into service only took place on 30th June 1998 when the first regiment to receive them, Scots DG, received the last of their 38 tanks. At the time of writing the army is maintaining only three armoured regiments: the Queens Royal Hussars, the Kings Royal Hussars, and the Royal Tank Regiment. In the near future this may reduce again to only two.
In total the army bought 386 service tanks, in addition to the nine prototypes. These were in the army Vehicle Registration Mark or VRM system as follows: 61KK68 to 62KK99 (132 tanks), and DP70AA to DT23AA (254).2 One tank has been lost on operations, in an unfortunate operational accident – the infamous Blue on Blue – in Iraq in 2003, but many other tanks deemed to be surplus have been destroyed by stripping and then melting down. Twenty two Driver Training Tanks or DTT were also procured. These have special observation cabins fitted to allow the most efficient driving instruction, and are only used by the training organisation, and not in the operational regiments; they are unarmoured. Two main variants of the CR2 have also been developed for use by armoured engineers, the Titan bridgelayer and the Trojan engineer tank, more of which later.
Both the government and Vickers were extremely keen to sell the tank overseas; enormous sums had gone into its development and it would be advantageous if at least some come be recouped with export sales.
CR2E – the E standing for export – was developed using Prototype V1 to make the tank more attractive to potential export markets; only one was built. The turret electronics architecture was revised, with a new fire control and battlefield management system installed, as well as new sights, most importantly the French-made SAGEM 580 gyro-stabilised day/night sight for the commander, giving the tank a genuine 24 hour hunter-killer capability. The gunner's sight was also made by the same company. The CV12 powerpack was replaced with a more powerful and compact 1500 bhp diesel unit made by the German MTU company, coupled to a Renk automatic transmission. The smaller pack allowed the spaced freed up to be used for the installation of other systems, including more ammunition stowage or fuel.
The CR2E was vigorously promoted to a number of nations until 2005, when it was decided to halt the project; the attempts to sell CR2E to Greece were tainted by accusations of double-dealing, rigged trials by competitors and outright bribery, but the Leopard 2 was selected instead. It is probably fair comment to say that this failure put off a number of other nations who watched the contest with interest. Oman is the only country other than Britain to purchase Challenger 2, despite vigorous sales and marketing attempts to many states, including Greece, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Qatar. A total of 38 have been purchased, along with two DTT, and which can be expected to remain in service for many years, supported by British officers and SNCOs who provide invaluable expertise – and in the process learn much about operating tanks in desert conditions.
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