In his phone call to Zelenskyy, PM Sunak said that he hoped the tanks would help “push Russian troops back,” but as the first fully Western tanks head for Ukraine, Zelenskyy has to be hoping for more. Mostly, he has to be hoping that this first stream of tanks will turn into a flood. It will certainly add to the pressure in Germany and the U.S. to dispatch their armor.
It may not be the perfect start to getting Ukraine what it needs. But it’s a good one.
“The challenger is going to see the enemy first,
shoot the enemy first, and kill him.”
Main Battle Tanks (MBT) are at a somewhat awkward moment. There are new tanks on the way, like Germany’s Panther KF51 or the U.S. AbramsX which promise better instruments, better guns, more speed, tougher armor, improved sneakiness, and “smart” everything, but in terms of entering service, these tanks are still years, if not decades, away. Britain’s Challenger 3 is likely to be the first of the new generation that gets handed over to an actual grunt, and that’s because it’s more of an elaborate upgrade than a clean sheet design.
That’s where most of the world is right now, on some iteration of a tank that’s been around for far longer than their operators have been alive. The first Abrams entered service in 1980. The first Leopard 2 in 1979. The Challenger 2 may be a quarter century old, but that makes it the baby among these tanks. (Note: in terms of really nice, new tanks that someone might send to Ukraine, it wouldn’t hurt to ask South Korea for a few K2 Black Panthers, which entered service in 2016, and might actually be better than anything in Europe).
On paper, the only nation in this fight with a genuinely new tank is Russia. The first copy of the T-14 Armata rolled off the lines in 2015 … and promptly became stuck on a Moscow street during a parade, reportedly when the tank’s new controls confused the driver.
However, the difference between on paper and on the ground is huge. For one thing, all those “old” Western tanks aren’t so old at all. All of them have been given upgrades, large and small, almost from the moment they rolled out. The difference between the first Abrams to go through testing and the latest M1A2 SEPv3 or SEPv4 is like comparing … something old with something not at all old. Similar upgrades, though arguably not as extensive, have happened with both the Challenger 2 and the Leopard 2.
And when it comes to T-14 Armatas, the best answer is: there are none. Or next to none. It may be a “super tank” in the Russia media and in YouTube videos touting it as the destroyer of everything else that takes the field, but other than a handful of prototypes on parade day, and some very cautious examples of a T-14 getting dirty, Russia’s ability to actually manufacture and deploy the tank seems to be negligible. As the kill numbers at Oryx confirm, the vast majority of Russian tanks in Ukraine are some form of T-72 (first rolled out in 1973), T-80 (1978), and only a very small number of T-90 variants (1992).
When it comes to the best tank to send to Ukraine, I’ve expressed my opinion multiple times that the Leopard 2 enjoys both solid performance and the benefit of wide use across NATO, including in Poland, meaning that experienced crews for training and maintenance—as well as in place logistics streams and repair parts—are available right across the border from Ukraine. Poland, which is starting to receive new M1A2s from the U.S., is more than willing to hand over the keys on some of its Leopard 2s, as soon as Germany stops getting in the way.
For now, back to the tank we already know is arriving in Ukraine — the Challenger 2. If you looked at the video at the top of the page (and you should), you’ve already gotten a sense of how potent the British tank can be. Here’s another video, with plenty of Challenger 2 footage, contrasting the tank with the Russian T-90M.
“The only rifled gun fitted to a NATO tank.”
A couple of cautions on that second video. For one, comments about the fire control system and battlefield management system of the T-90 are essentially repetitions of Russia’s aspirations for the tank and how it will fit into the “Armata” system. (The Armata body, engine, and electronics are supposed to become the new standard on a whole host of Russian military vehicles, including infantry fighting vehicles, mobile guns, you name it—which makes Russia’s failure to get T-14 production off the ground an even bigger deal). As the video was made over a year ago, it predates the destruction of 25+ T-90 tanks, including the latest T-90M variant, on the battlefields of Ukraine. (Another 16 T-90 tanks have been captured by Ukraine.)
Despite the Challenger 2’s main gun getting a mark down for range in that last video that same gun actually set a record for the longest kill by any tank, with an original Challenger taking out an Iraqi T-72 at a range of 4,700 meters (2.9 mi) during the Gulf War. Thirty years and a lot of tank actions since then, the record still holds.
However, military vehicle experts do have their concerns about the British entry into tank wars. First, there’s the engine. The Perkins V12 1200 bhp diesel has long had a reputation as “the worst engine on the battlefield.” A lot of that reputation seems to have been generated by early Challengers, and statistics from Challengers in actual combat seem comparable to other tanks, but concerns about it’s reliability linger. Those concerns are only magnified when dropping the tank into an environment where supply chains are nonexistent and repair knowledge is nil.
The main gun on the Challenger 2 is the rifled 120mm L30A1. If you’re thinking that having a rifled barrel makes the flight of projectiles from the L30A1 more stable … stop thinking that. At the size and muzzle velocity of tank shells, rotation by rifling actually makes things worse, including introducing a tendency to make shells tumble. Can it fire the NATO standard rounds designed for smoothbore guns? Maybe. Theoretically. Poorly. What works best for the Challenger’s gun are a series of UK-designed shells in which a sabot counters the spin of a internal slug with pop-up fins. If that sounds like the Brits made the already hard problem of tank ballistics several steps more difficult, most weapons experts agree.
The U.K. made this strange gun selection because it was wedded to a type of shell that is even more unique than the gun: High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) rounds. These shells use a plastic explosive and are designed to flatten the metal at the front (the “squash head”) against the target before the high explosive kicks in, the idea being to transfer maximum energy to the enemy—somewhat as hollow-point ammunition works in a hunting rifle. I do not know why the use of HESH requires a rifled gun … but I’m betting someone in the comments will.
Here. Let’s have one more celebration video to power us through looking at some of the issues around bringing in the Challenger 2. This one goes straight to the tank’s reputation for being capable of absorbing a blow like no other tank on the field.
“Not once has it been destroyed at the hands of an enemy.”
Any Western tank entering Ukraine was going to need a different supply of ammo from that used in the T-64, T-72, and T-80 tanks Ukraine is deploying now. It’s just that the Challenger 2 is unlikely to share ammo with any other Western tank that joins the fray.
Another concern about the Challenger 2 is one it largely shares with the M1A2 Abrams: Weight. Both tanks are hefty boys, starting out in the mid-60 tonne range. Fully outfitted with armor and kit, a Challenger 2 is likely to be between 70 and 75 tonnes. That’s not just torture on every road it drives along, but a real test to bridges and overpasses. Destroying bridges has been a big factor for both sides in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and both sides have thrown up replacement bridges. How many of these will bear the Challenger 2’s weight?
Finally, even if the word “immediately” was part of the conversation between Zelenskyy and Sunak, what does that really mean? A Challenger 2 can go better than 300 miles down the road, so they might just arrive at Lviv tomorrow and start driving toward Bakhmut, but any reasonable approach has to include at least a modicum of training and the establishment of a logistical chain. The last thing that needs to happen is seeing a Challenger stuck along the roadway somewhere in eastern Donetsk, helpless because it needs a part, or someone with the knowledge about where to stick that part.
Moving any Western tank into the Ukrainian military is likely to mean channelling them all to a single unit, one where the training and logistics can be optimized to support that tank, rather than adding them piecemeal into units that are also supporting Soviet-era tanks. That unit is likely to be formed well off the front lines, and to involve crews that have been out of Ukraine for training on operation and maintenance.
So in this case, “immediately” is unlikely to mean “now arriving at Soledar” and where the tanks are eventually sent will probably be an expression of where Ukraine wants to move forward, not hold ground.
In any case, let’s hope that the U.K. decision does really open the floodgate, possibly triggering the flight of a few Abrams and definitely setting free those Leopards. There were reports on Friday that the whole of the German government is currently on shaky ground, as the Greens are threatening to leave the coalition unless Germany stops blocking Ukraine from getting what it needs. Shake them, Greens, shake them.
And hopefully, the Challenger 2 will roll into Ukraine while keeping its record for never suffering a loss.
As promised, I’m pulling this one out again. Because, as the Brits would say, it’s brilliant.
Western countries are so worried about sending tanks to Ukraine, they’re arguing about what is and isn’t a “tank.” We offer our humble suggestion. pic.twitter.com/MNU50lw4O1
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) January 12, 2023
Russia launched a large number of ballistic missiles into Ukraine on Saturday, with some coming from airspace of Belarus. All of them appear to have been directed at civilian targets. One of these strikes in Dnipro was particularly hideous.
I’m warning you right now, this video from the scene is the worst thing that I’ve ever posted. Worse than any image from the battlefield. This is the sound of people trapped under the rubble in Dnipro. Do not play it unless you want to hear it in your head for a long time. Those bastards. Send Ukraine the tanks. Send them everything.
The morning report from Kyiv insists that portions of Soledar are still in Ukrainian hands. Videos seem to agree.