Obsolescent and outgunned: the British Army’s armoured vehicle capability Contents

1Context of the inquiry


1.The British Armed Forces have a long history of operating armoured vehicles, beginning with the use of armoured cars at the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent development and first operational use of the tank in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Armoured vehicles were subsequently employed in a range of conflicts and theatres, including the Second World War, Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the 1991 Gulf War. The British Army most recently employed Challenger 2 tanks in anger in 2003, during the Second Gulf War These vehicles, alongside other heavily armoured and tracked vehicles, are currently deployed in Estonia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission, with the purpose of deterring Russian aggression.

2.Since the end of the Cold War, the continued relevance of the tank has been the subject of considerable debate.1 The demise of the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellite regimes were felt to have lifted the forty-year threat posed by the massive armoured and mechanised forces that had been held in readiness east of the Iron Curtain. With the lifting of this threat, Western military thinkers moved from the requirement to maintain large, static and very expensive heavy armoured forces to light and medium weight forces which could be deployed at relatively short notice to potential conflict zones, and were more affordable in the new era of leaner military budgets. This change of direction has met with mixed results; for example, the US Army developed and fielded its Stryker brigades in Iraq but found them not fully up to the task of protecting its troops from an evolving threat from insurgent Improvised Explosive Devices. The UK has fared even less well, stopping and starting a series of programmes aimed to deliver the medium-weight vision.

3.The British Army has struggled to define its role in the post-Cold War World, consumed for a decade fighting intractable and unpopular counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, its armoured vehicle capability has reached a point of batch obsolescence, having fallen behind that of our allies and potential adversaries. Programmes to introduce new vehicles or upgrade existing ones have encountered serious difficulties, resulting in delays, increased costs and cancellations. Partly as a consequence of the failure of these programmes, the Army now finds itself in a vulnerable position.

4.The government’s Integrated Review of security, defence and foreign policy promises a radical rethink of the UK’s defence posture and therefore capabilities. The Chief of the Defence Staff has spoken of the need to move away (gradually) from industrial age to information age capabilities.2 Media coverage has speculated that the Army’s heavy armour programmes may be reduced to the point where they lack sufficient numbers to be credible or indeed retired altogether, in favour of lighter more deployable platforms that will be delivered through the development of yet to be realised technologies.3

Our Inquiry

5.Predecessor Committees have addressed the issue of armoured vehicle capability on a number of occasions, both specifically and in the wider review of Ministry of Defence business.4 The Public Accounts Committee also reported on this issue in 2011.5 The delivery of any military capability depends upon the coordination and integration of a wide range of components (people, training, equipment, infrastructure et cetera). Undertaking a holistic assessment of all these aspects was beyond the scope and resources of this inquiry, and we have deliberately limited ourselves to examining the equipment aspects of the issue.

Our inquiry was launched in July 2020, with a request for written evidence which received 16 written submissions including those from the Ministry of Defence, expert commentators, academic and the defence industry. We heard oral evidence from witnesses across three sessions:

6.As part of our work, the Committee visited the British Army’s Armoured Trials and Development Unit and saw four of the vehicles being procured or earmarked for upgrade. We are grateful to Paul Hough, a Special Adviser on the inquiry.

7.In this report we examine:

1 What does the future hold for tanks?, Army Technology, 2 January 2017; Peck, M. ‘Kings of the Battlefield No More: Are Tanks Obsolete?’, The National Interest, 18 August 2016; Snow, S. ‘The Marines want to get rid of their tanks. Here’s why.’ Marines Corp Times, 26 March 2020

2 Chief of Defence Staff speech RUSI Annual lecture, Ministry of Defence, 17 December 2020

3 Fisher, L. ‘Defence chiefs face battle over plan to scrap tanks’, The Times, 25 August 2020; Korksi, D. ‘Tech, not tanks, should be at the centre of our defence planning’, The Times, 4 September 2020; Shipman, T & Ripley, T. ‘We must sacrifice tanks and sell more arms to fund hi-tech warfare, warns defence secretary’, The Times, 6 September 2020

4 Defence Committee, The Army’s requirement for armoured vehicles: the FRES programme, Seventh Report of Session 2006–07, 6 February 2007 para 92; Defence Committee, Defence White Paper 2003, HC 465-I, Fifth Report of Session 2003–04, Volume 1, 23 June 2004, para 116

5 Committee of Public Accounts, The cost–effective delivery of an armoured vehicle capability, HC1444, Fifty-ninth Report of Session 2010–12, 30 November 2011

Published: 14 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement