Longer Life: The UK Defence Ministry wants to extend the life of its Challenger tank fleet. (UK Ministry of Defence)
LONDON — The UK Defence Ministry has finally begun the process of updating what remains of the Army’s Challenger 2 main battle tank fleet after numbers were cut by 40 percent in the 2010 strategic defense and security review.
Last month, land equipment officials at the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) organization began canvassing industry to gauge what appetite there is to prime a life-extension program on the BAE Systems Challenger 2 to delay its withdrawal from service date 10 years to 2035, and possibly beyond.
In parallel to the Challenger 2 Life Extension Program (CR2 LEP), the British are in the early stages of a competition to upgrade or replace its mobile bridging to restore unrestricted crossing capabilities for tracked heavy forces.
Responses to a market survey being conducted by the MoD to gauge interest in the CR2 LEP are due June 23.
An MoD spokeswoman said the main battle tank program is “in the concept phase pre-initial gate phase [assessment].” She declined to talk about timelines.
Industry executives here said timing depends on the type of program the MoD chooses to run but it was likely to be five to six years before an updated Challenger appears in Army hands.
Mike Pope, BAE’s UK business development and strategy director for combat vehicles, said that to avoid delays, it is important the MoD commits to the assessment phase before the general election next May and the strategic defense and security review that follows.
It’s not clear whether the CR2 LEP is fully funded. Only a £15 million (US $25.2 million) assessment phase is funded so far for the bridging program.
But if the programs proceed, it will be a welcome boost for Britain’s heavy armor even if the Challenger program is mainly intended to overcome obsolescence issues rather than improve capability.
With strategists reckoning Britain’s involvement in state-on-state warfare an unlikely scenario and the Conservative-led coalition government desperate to cut the defense budget, the operational Challenger 2 fleet has been reduced to 227 vehicles, less than the Swiss Army.
Until now, update plans for Challenger 2 had remained on a shelf but the program is gathering some momentum, to which Russia’s recent land grab in the Ukraine will have done no harm.
BAE’s Pope said it’s not clear yet how the program will proceed.
“It may not be a big bang process but a rolling process over time; I believe that decision is still to be taken,” he said.
“Either way it’s all about keeping the existing capability going until the extended out-of-service date. It’s not about improving capability,” Pope said.
The MoD spokeswoman said the “full scope of the program will not be clear until the assessment phase.”
Industry executives here said the majority of the cost of CR2 LEP will deal with obsolescence in the turret.
“It’s well known the thermal sight suffers obsolescence and support problems. The vintage computer is becoming difficult to support, so its optronics and other electronic systems need to be upgraded,” one executive said.
Pope said he expects the MoD’s new generic vehicle architecture will form part of the program as will some work on chassis systems.
What won’t be included is a change of main armament from the L30 rifled 120mm gun.
Britain is the only NATO nation using a rifled gun on its main battle tank.
Britain has considered fitting Rheinmetall’s smoothbore 120mm gun, used on the Leopard 2 tank, but that work has long been on ice due mainly to cost and other problems.
A spokesman for BAE Munitions, the ammunition supplier, said it was reviewing how to support the rifled gun out to 2035.
“From a BAE Systems Munitions viewpoint, we will be looking at the future of our 120mm ammunition in three areas: managing obsolescence; developing enhancements, especially around extending the life of [high explosive squash head] rounds; and sharing our recent developments for the UK MoD,” he said.
A new low-cost 120mm tank ammunition system has been recently qualified by the UK MoD and ordered by the Royal Oman Army, the only other Challenger 2 operator, the spokesman said.
As the design authority, BAE should have the pole position on the CR2 LEP work.
But when Lockheed Martin UK secured the Army’s Warrior infantry fighting vehicle sustainment and update program from under the nose of BAE, it proved Britain’s open market for military vehicles work can throw up surprises.
Pope warned rivals for the prime contractor role, though, that with Challenger 2, “the intellectual property owned by BAE is very much tighter held than in the case of Warrior.”
Lockheed is unlikely to be interested this time though, industry executives said.
The company has its hands full on the Warrior program and the General Dynamics Scout program, where it is providing the turret.
BAE’s armored vehicle’s capabilities have been in reverse here for years.
Completion of an order for the Terrier combat engineering vehicle this year will bring the curtain down on an armor manufacturing effort that can be traced back to World War I.
CR2 LEP and the bridging upgrade are key targets for a heavily restructured business that has seen BAE invest in engineering and systems integration capabilities at sites in Telford and Newcastle, England.
A BAE spokeswoman said the company is interested in only priming the program, but would “almost certainly work with the Defence Support Group [DSG]” to physically undertake the upgrade work.
A spokesman for DSG, the for-sale, state-owned armored vehicle maintenance and repair company, said it has no interest in priming a CR2 LEP bid.
DSG already provides Challenger 2 maintenance and repair for the British Army.
Battle of the Bulge
Challenger 2’s growing weight is the main reason behind the British upgrade effort for its BAE-supplied BR90 close-support and general-support bridging capabilities.
The MoD spokeswoman said the program was prompted by an “increase in weight across the Army vehicle fleet, which means that the weight limit for the BR90 has been exceeded.”
DE&S has asked for expressions of interest from industry ahead of submitting a business case for the assessment phase this year.
The spokeswoman said, “suppliers may choose to provide a replacement or an upgrade” to the BR90 system.
BAE is submitting an upgrade proposal but other bridging suppliers such as General Dynamics and WFEL, owned by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann but British-based, are other likely contenders.
Both companies declined to comment when asked whether they had expressed an interest in the program. ■