Photo: AP
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The United Kingdom is cutting its tank force for the second time in just 10 years. The British Army, bowing to costs, can only afford to upgrade a third of its current tank fleet. The result will leave the UK with less than 150 tanks, a far cry from the Royal Armored Corps that patrolled the Rhine River during the Cold War. But it may not be the huge blow to British pride that you think it is.

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The news, first reported by the The Times of London earlier this week, is grim, if you’re the sort who likes big British militaries, because of “empire” or whatever. Citing costs, the Royal Armoured Corps will only upgrade 148 of 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

The United Kingdom’s tank fleet will slip to 56th place on the global tank leaderboard, itself a grim specter of humanity’s lack of just-all-get-along-ness, behind Cambodia’s 150-tank force. (Cambodian Army fanboys shouldn’t get too smug: the Challenger II is orders of magnitude more powerful than the Cambodian Army’s 1960s-era T-55 medium tanks and could easily knock them out at two miles’ distance.)

The British Army’s tank forces are the oldest in the world. It dates back to 1916, when the name “tanks” was taken from the cover story of water tanks that hid development of a new kind of heavily armed, heavily armored vehicle. The Royal Armoured Corps fought in World War II, the Korean War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. During the Cold War, London stationed 14 armored regiments, —what the U.S. Army calls battalions—in Germany to deter a Soviet attack.

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Today, the Royal Armoured Corps can deploy just three armored regiments: the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, King’s Royal Hussars, and Queen’s Royal Hussars, each fielding 56 tanks each.

About 20 tanks are permanently based in Alberta, Canada for field training (and/or defense against Edmonton), and the rest are spares.

Unlike the M256 gun on the M1 Abrams tank, the Challenger II’s barrel is rifled for accuracy.
Image: Cristof Stache (AP)

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The RAC’s main steed is the Challenger 2 tank. The Challenger 2, built by Vickers Defence Systems, was built between 1998 and 2002 to replace the older Challenger 1. The Challenger 2 is powered by a 12-cylinder Perkins Caterpillar CV12 turbocharged diesel engine producing 1,200 horsepower. The tank weighs 62.5 tons fully loaded, for a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 19.2 horsepower per ton. The Challenger 2 has state of the art armor, a 120-millimeter rifled main gun, and two machine guns.

(The UK originally bought 386 Challenger 2 tanks, so yes, there were previous cuts. In 2010 the Royal Armoured Corps was cut 40 percent, landing at today’s total of 227 tanks.)

Challenger 2 is a good tank and the British want to keep it in service for another 20 years, meaning each tank will serve about 40 years. To get through the next two decades the British Army wants to upgrade the Challenger 2 with a new turret, main gun, engine, a next-generation night vision system, new communications gear, and an active protection system to shoot down incoming rockets and missiles. The entire project is known as the Challenger 2 Life Extension Project, and the upgraded tank will be known as the Challenger 2 Mark 2.

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The upgrade package is still being finalized, but the British Army apparently thinks it will be expensive enough that it will be forced to mothball 79 tanks, using them for spare parts to keep the rest of the tanks going. This will also likely mean the loss of yet another armored regiment.

Challenger 2 alongside the British Army’s mechanized infantry combat vehicle, the Warrior.
Image: Jeff Overs (Getty)

The big question is whether or not the UK can still field a credible army with just 148 tanks. As a maritime power, the United Kingdom has always placed a priority on naval forces over land forces.

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Furthermore, armed forces worldwide are gradually shifting to an emphasis on air and naval power. Another island nation and maritime power, Japan, is slashing its tanks by half to bolster its fighter fleets, build more warships, and convert existing destroyers into aircraft carriers.

The UK is in a similar position. London is pursuing the development of a new stealth fighter, the Tempest, and is busy buying enough F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for its two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Another major drain on the UK defense budget is the construction of four new Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines meant to deter adversaries from launching nuclear attacks.

So maybe those are more important. But armor is still relevant on the field of battle. While tanks might be overkill against enemies like the Taliban in guerrilla warfare and so-called “low intensity conflict”, there are plenty of potential foes, such as Russia, Iran, China, and other countries, that still maintain large tank arsenals and could use them in a “high intensity conflict”—think World War II or the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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Not only does a major power need tanks, it needs enough tanks to deter—and if deterrence fails, defeat—a major adversary. Russia alone has 2,700 frontline tanks. Thanks to NATO, UK forces wouldn’t fight alone against Russia, but having just 148 tanks also means it can’t fight alone. Tank losses in wartime can be horrendous: in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli tank losses amounted to roughly 250 tanks a week.

If the UK started a similar war on Sunday, it would be out of tanks by Wednesday. Even Japan, a country which by its own American-supervised constitution cannot have an official military but only a “defense force,” will still have 300 tanks after reductions in its armored force.

The loss of 79 main battle tanks isn’t a serious blow to UK power. The serious blow was when the UK reduced its tanks from a useful 386 to 227. A further cut of the Royal Armoured Corps to just 148 tanks cements the demise of British land power and means that in future tank battles, allies—such as the U.S. military—will have to bring more of their own tanks to the fight.