Challenger 3 Square

Challenger 3: A review of the British Army’s ‘new’ tank

THE UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has made a bit of a fanfare over Britain’s new main battle tank (MBT), the Challenger 3, and its first public appearance in prototype form.

Britain’s current MBT, the Challenger 2, is getting a bit long in the tooth and is basically obsolescent. First introduced into British army service in 1998, some 447 were built, including 38 for export to Oman.

I have always said that one indication of a weapons system’s usefulness is its sales performance to other states; those sent to Oman are Challenger 2’s only exports, which compared to similar statistics for the tank’s main competitors within NATO, the German Leopard 2 and the American M1 Abrams, is paltry. More recently, fourteen Challenger 2s from UK stocks were donated to Ukraine.

The tank’s performance in UK service has been acceptable. It has been employed in British armoured deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere. Only two have been lost to hostile action, one to “friendly fire” (there is no such thing!) in Iraq in 2003 and another more recently in Ukraine succumbing to mine and/or drone damage.

Britain, however, made relatively few improvements or upgrades to its tanks over the past twenty years, in contrast to the Americans and Germans who have made major improvements iteratively. Consequently Challenger 2 is now comprehensively outclassed by the MBTs of friendly nations.

In light of this, plus the perceived revival of the threat of conventional armoured warfare in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the decision was taken to upgrade Britain’s ageing tank fleet with the aforementioned Challenger 3, prototypes of which have been on trials in Germany.

The “new” tank will be a major improvement on its predecessor, no doubt about it, although it utilises the redundant Challenger 2 hulls as the basic building block for the new vehicle. That said, the hulls will be stripped down to the basics, refurbished, and improved in some ways. So “nearly-new” is probably a fair description.

The major change is above the waist with a completely new turret. This will boast many new systems including improved sights and optics and  better armour protection, but the most obvious improvement is the adoption of the German 120 mm smoothbore cannon as replacement for the British 120 mm rifled gun of the Challenger 2.

Not only is the German gun superior in performance to its predecessor but it also uses ammunition compatible with the MBTs of other NATO nations, most notably the American M1 Abrams and the German Leopard 2. Many of us had been banging on (no pun intended) about adopting the German cannon for 40 years, so better late than never I suppose.

Accordingly it looks as if it’ll be a decent vehicle with initial deployment or “initial operating capability” planned for 2027 and a full in-service date of 2030, although previous history suggests that both dates should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Overall, that’s good news; an almost brand new and modern tank for the British army is on its way. Now for the not-so-good news.

First and foremost of that is we’re currently planning to procure only 148 of them, which is embarrassingly few when you remember that at the height of the Cold War, not that long ago, the British Army’s Royal Armoured Corps could hope to field around 900 MBTs. No wonder some US senior officers have said Britain is no longer a Tier 1 military power.

One hundred and forty eight is about sufficient to equip two armoured regiments plus reserve and training vehicles.

It’s laughably small.

In Ukraine the Russians have lost roughly 3,000 tanks in just over two years, and in 1944 the British and Canadian armies lost approximately the same number in about three months during the battle for Normandy.

So 148 MBTs might last about a fortnight in intensive combat if we’re lucky, and after that there will be no replacements. If there’s one lesson to come out of the current conflict in Ukraine it’s that you need lots of stuff, to use the correct technical term, and clearly 148 tanks ain’t going to cut it.

Next is that, despite reported upgraded armour, Challenger 3 seems to have precious little to counter the drone threat despite what we have witnessed in Ukraine and elsewhere.

As standard, the new tank is fitted for, but not with, active protective systems (APS) which could shoot down incoming threats. Only 60 sets of APS are part of the Challenger 3 order, which makes you wonder what might happen to the remaining 88 unprotected MBTs?

And finally, for this article at least, is the fact that there is no replacement powerpack planned.

Challenger 3 will weigh in around 70 tonnes and will still have a 1200 bhp engine as does Challenger 2. Reports from Ukraine suggest the Ukrainians regard the latter to be ‘underpowered’, and both M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 have 1500 bhp powerpacks.  It would seem that Challenger 3 may be as underpowered as its predecessor.

All of the above is subject to the caveat that the UK does not think it will be embarking on conventional armoured warfare in the future solo; it will be alongside NATO allies and so will be fielding its meagre tank fleet together with the much larger fleets of others.

I havenever said Challenger 2 was or is a bad tank, just that it was the wrong tank for the British Army for reasons I have explained many times before until I’m blue in the face. I fear the same will be said of Challenger 3; produced in small numbers, no export potential, doomed for extinction.

We were presented with the broad autobahn to the future offered by joining the Leopard 2 club, and instead in its wisdom the MoD has chosen the cul-de-sac that is Challenger 3. Very British, choosing the winding country lane that leads to a dead end.


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 Photo by Ministry of Defence –, OGL v1.0,


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