Key point: The British military doesn't have the tank transports it needs if it wants to get to a crisis-spot quickly.
Britain is planning to slash its tank fleet. Under budget pressure, the British are planning to upgrade only 148 of the current 227 Challenger 2 tanks. The modernized vehicles will remain operational out to 2035, with the remainder cannibalized for spare parts.
This sent British tabloids shrieking that just 148 tanks would plunge Britain to fifty-sixth place in the world in tank numbers, behind Argentina and Uganda.
But there is another problem besides numbers. Be it a hundred tanks or a thousand, what good are they if they can’t get to the battlefield? Britain lacks the capacity to transport tanks to potential flashpoints such as Eastern Europe, according to a British defense analyst.
“It is difficult to see how the CR2s [Challenger 2s] would make it to the fight,” writes Jack Watling, a land warfare expert for the Royal United Service Institute. “During the Cold War, when British armor was based in Germany, the prospective front line was comparatively close to the barracks, with all necessary combat service support on hand to get the tanks into combat. Today, an escalation on NATO’s eastern border would take place 2,000 kilometers [1,243 miles] away.”
One problem is lack of tank transporters, those tractor-trailers that keep armored vehicles from wearing out if they have to move to the battlefield under their own power. In 2001, the British Army contracted with Fasttrax—a subsidiary of American construction giant KBR—to supply ninety-two Heavy Equipment Transporters.
Since 2015, the British Army has endeavored to maintain a single rapidly deployable division that includes two tank regiments with 112 Challenger 2s. But even that number would overtax available tank transporter capacity. “Three of these HETS are recovery variants, and a further 18 are supporting the U.S. Army in Europe,” Watling writes. “It is therefore difficult to see how 112 tanks can move 2,000 kilometers on the remaining 71 HETs, especially since these same transporters would be needed to move the army’s AS-90 self-propelled artillery, as well as bridging and recovery assets.”
One solution would be to buy more HETS. Instead, the British Army wants Modified Light Equipment Transporters to move its Ajax light armored reconnaissance vehicles, which doesn’t solve the heavy armor problem.
That leaves several unpleasant alternatives. Develop a new generation of lighter main battle tanks, as the U.S. Army is doing, except that the American military has a lot more cash to burn. Britain could also preposition heavy armor in places such as Poland, close to potential battlefields in the Baltic States. But that ties down heavy equipment in locations from where it would be hard to redeploy them.
“Fully upgrading Britain’s heavy forces – and forward-basing them – would also fix the British Army to a rigid deterrence posture with limited resources to address other contingencies,” Watling concludes. “For, while a high-intensity conflict in Europe is the most dangerous threat, it is far from the most likely. There is also a severe risk that if the army fully upgrades its existing heavy armor at the expense of modernization it would begin to fall behind emerging critical capabilities, from autonomous systems to long-range precision fires.”
To be fair, Watling does point out that even if Cambodia has more tanks than Britain, you can’t compare an old Soviet T-55 to a Challenger 2, which is one of the world’s most capable tanks. “There is a lot more to tanks than counting chassis, and the headline figures do little to elucidate a wider debate that needs to be had over the future of UK heavy armor.”