The British army has delayed the decision over how to replace the Challenger 2 for a number of years, considering upgrades and life extension programs from a number of defense manufacturers including Bae and Rheinmetall .
It appears that instead of a full replacement or an upgrade program the government now wishes to drop its tank program altogether. This would be a significant strategic mistake and represents little more than a cost cutting exercise.
The UK’s tank program is already very small compared to its peers, with only 220 vehicles and half of those rumored to be operational, the commitment in financial and operation terms is relatively low.
This reflects the changing nature of warfare and how traditional heavy weapons have been sidelined to some degree due to the nature of recent conflicts. But with every other major country continuing to maintain and upgrade their main battle tank defenses, the UK is being extremely naïve if it thinks the threat from mechanized ground divisions is over.
Furthermore, this decision appears to have been made with no thought as to an overall defense policy for the UK. If the UK has no tanks, what does that mean for its commitments in Eastern Europe with NATO ?
If the UK government thinks cyberwarfare is now more important than heavy equipment, then there needs to be significant investment in it.
Challenger 2 question a blow UK manufacturing
With the recent leaks there has also been discussion of purchasing foreign machinery in future if a replacement for Challenger 2 is ever needed, in the form of the popular export German built Leopard vehicle series.
The fundamental problem with this is that it risks losing domestic control and skills in the UK’s manufacturing industry. Unless some deal can be brokered to build Leopards in the UK, crucial heavy manufacturing capabilities will be lost forever.
This plan would also do damage to UK based defense firms, that are already under increased pressure from cuts and job losses due to lost government contracts and the inevitable impact of the incoming global recession.
A number of European countries including France and Germany have been drawing up plans to use defense investment to boost employment in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the UK should be doing the same.