The government is reportedly toying with the idea of mothballing the British Army's Challenger 2 main battle tanks to dedicate precious defence funds towards cyber, space, and other emerging military technologies.
The British Army's Challenger 2 main battle tanks, which first joined the armoured divisions in 1994 and 227 of which are still in service, could soon be retired in order to spare precious MoD funds that could be dedicated towards the development of cutting-edge cyber, space, and other emerging military technologies such as unmanned and autonomous vehicles.
The urgent need to spare additional funds for cutting-edge military technologies, including advanced cyber capabilities, may also force the government to force-retire the British Army's fleet of 388 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles that have been in service with the army since 1987 and saw action during the Gulf War and in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
According to the UK Defence Journal, the government is expected to make an announcement in early 2021 regarding how many Challenger 2 MBTs will be upgraded to modern standards in order to extend the tank's life until 2035. This may follow the completion of a major defence review by the government which is expected to be completed by November this year.
In 2016, the Ministry of Defence had awarded new contracts to BAE Systems and Rheinmetall Land Systeme GmbH worth £23 million each as part of a competitive Assessment Phase to keep the Challenger 2 tanks in service with the British Army until 2035. The contracts allowed the two firms to undertake technical studies, produce detailed digital models and consider how upgrades will be integrated onto the current platform.
“Modernising the British Army’s Main Battle Tank under the Challenger 2 Life Extension Project involves partnerships across Defence exploring innovative solutions. Backed by a rising Defence budget and a £178 billion equipment plan, these tanks, just like the brand new Ajax armoured vehicle, are crucial to the British Army,” said the then Minister for Defence Procurement Harriett Baldwin said.
However, deep defence cuts in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic could force the government to retire the main battle tanks in favour of emerging technologies. The ‘Black Night’ upgrade programme will involve the installation of new and expensive equipment such as an active protection system, regenerative braking, thermal imagers, laser warning systems, a new smoothbore gun, and upgrades to make equipment controlling faster and more accurate. This could make the upgrade programme prohibitively costly.
"We know that a number of bold decisions need to be taken in order to properly protect British security and rebalance defence interests to meet the new threats we face," a government source told the Times. The paper reported that the Ministry of Defence is in favour of dedicating more investments in "cyber capabilities, space and other cutting-edge technologies" due to the changing character of warfare demands.
As per reports, top generals of the British Army are also in favour of mothballing Challenger 2 tanks in favour of more disruptive capabilities, preferring to keep some of the tanks ready for emergency situations.
“The main threat is less missiles and tanks. It’s the weaponisation of those elements of globalisation that hitherto have made us prosperous and secure, such as mobility of goods, people, data and ideas. Living on an island gives no guarantees against the corrosive and intrusive effects of disinformation, subversion and cyber,” said General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Chief of the General Staff.
This isn't the first time that the government has taken steps towards strengthening the British Army's capabilities in cyber space. In June, the Ministry of Defence announced the raising of 13th Signal Regiment as part of the 1st (UK) Signal Brigade under the command of 6th (UK) Division. The division, the first dedicated Cyber Regiment in the armed forces, is tasked with conducting information manoeuvre and unconventional warfare in support of the armed forces.
13th Signal Regiment will not only secure digital communications equipment and channels used by the armed forces, but will also work with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to provide secure networks for all military communications and will provide the basis of the new Army Cyber Information Security Operations Centre.
The primary objective of the new cyber regiment is not only to secure existing digital communication lines, but to provide specialist technical support for a hub to test and implement next generation information capabilities as well. This will ensure that the Armed Forces will enjoy an edge in future cyber operations against enemy states.
"Our adversaries and hostile actors are operating in cyberspace right now, creating a new cyber frontline – alongside the traditional domains of Land, Sea and Air – without physical borders but also needing to be defended.
"Secure communications are the foundation for any successful operation and 13th Signal Regiment will provide ‘digital armour’ around personnel operating overseas, giving commanders and their soldiers the ability to operate with confidence in their communications systems, often while working in challenging conditions," Ministry of Defence said in a press release.