The British Army’s tank numbers appear to have dwindled further from the theoretical 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks (MBTs) listed in its inventory, with the confirmation that 213 vehicles remain in service as of the end of Q1 2024.

The information was provided by UK Defence Procurement Minister James Cartlidge on 2 May, with the figure representing a more than 6% drop in Challenger 2 MBT numbers from the listed 227 vehicle fleet.

Earlier in 2023 it was reported by Army Technology that the British Army has just 157 Challenger 2 MBTs either ready or available to undertake operations within a 30-day work-up period. In the 2 May comment by Cartlidge, it was not disclosed how many of the 213 Challenger 2s currently in service were available for operations immediately or after a short work-up period.

British Army Challenger 2 MBTs fire during a Field Army course at the Combined Arms Manoeuvre School in 2024. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

In 2023 the UK provided a squadron of Challenger 2 MBTs to Ukraine to aid the country in its ongoing war against Russia, with a single vehicle later confirmed as having sustained a mobility kill in combat.

In the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper, it was revealed that 148 of the country’s Challenger 2 MBTs would be upgraded to a Challenger 3 variant, featuring active protection systems, improved sensors and optics, as well as a new turret and the Rheinmetall L55A1 120mm smoothbore gun.

Although previous Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace had stated that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) would keep the upgrade from Challenger 2 to Challenger 3 numbers under review, little has been heard recently as to whether more than 148 would be upgraded.

Only the Sultanate of Oman became as export customer for the Challenger 2, concluding delivery of 38 MBTs in 2001.

Potential options for the remaining ~65 Challenger 2 MBTs that will not currently be upgraded include disposal, a granting in kind in part or whole to Ukraine, or sale to Oman. Alternatively, the fleet could be kept in storage and used for parts for the British Army’s new Challenger 3 fleet, which will retain a degree of commonality in the hull.

Challenger 3: the replacement to the Challenger 2

In May 2021, Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL), was awarded an £800m ($995.9m) contract by the UK MoD to upgrade 148 Challenger 2 MBTs to the Challenger 3 variant for the British Army.

In terms of capabilities the upgrades to the Challenger 2, introducing a new turret, sensor suite, passive and active armour, and power pack, represent the most significant tank modernisation programme undertaken by the UK MoD for decades.

The UK is upgrading 148 of its Challenger 2 tanks to the Challenger 3 standard. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

The latest development, announced on 18 April by the UK MoD, saw the latest of eight prototypes roll off the RBSL factory production line in Telford. With the first prototype already undergoing trials, the UK MoD stated that all will be tested under operational conditions to “validate their performance and make refinements”, before another 140 are built and delivered to the British Army.

Army Technology approached the UK MoD in mid-April for an update to the Challenger 3 programme but did not receive an official response.