LONDON — Britain is to double the number of main battle tanks it is sending to bolster the Ukrainian defenses, the country’s ambassador in London said in a interview with Europe’s Radio Liberty.
But the British Ministry of Defence has rowed back on any suggestion Challenger 2 numbers heading for the Ukraine are to be doubled from 14 to 28 – at least for now.
The MoD has previously signaled they are open to increasing the numbers of Challengers destined for Ukraine, but said Mar. 4 there are currently no plans to do so.
Britain announced it was donating Challenger 2s in January in a move that proved a catalyst for reluctant NATO allies to get off the fence and make similar offers.
Several allies led by Germany, at least in terms of numbers, are donating Leopard 2 tanks.
The U.S. has also pledged to deliver 31 M1 Abrams tanks, although they won’t be delivered until late this year.
Vadim Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador here, told listeners to Radio Liberty the deal to double Challenger 2 deliveries had been struck during a recent visit to the UK by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“If we were promised 14 tanks, then as a result of President Zelensky’s visit, that number will double,” Prystaiko was quoted as saying.
Zelensky, alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, visited Ukrainian troops training on the Challenger 2 at a facility in Dorset , South West England in early February.
Sunak has previously promised British tanks would start arriving in the Ukraine by the end of March.
Doubling tank deliveries from the U.K. would likely spark further concern that some British military capabilities are being adversely impacted by the donation of weapons to the Ukraine.
The British are the second-biggest weapons supplier to the Ukraine after the U.S., having dispatched thousands of anti-armor and anti-air missiles, long-range artillery and a plethora of other military equipment.
The drawdown of weapons at a time of when British stockpiles are low anyway prompted Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders, the British Army’s chief of the General Staff, to tell soldiers in a memo recently that delivery of weapons to the Ukraine would leave the military “temporarily weaker.”
Challenger 2 numbers are likely one of the weapons Sanders had in mind, with the numbers of the aging tank being operationally available recently called into question by lawmakers.
The UK Challenger 2 inventory stands at 227 tanks.
A £800 million ($963 million) deal with Rheinmetall BAE Systems sealed in 2021 will see just 148 of those updated to a new Challenger 3 standard, which includes a new turret with a 120-millimeter smoothbore gun replacing the current rifled weapon, new sensors, Rafael’s Trophy active protection system, and other improvements.
Challenger numbers have tanked considerably in recent years. But as part of a wider review of British military requirements in the wake of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there may be a rethink on the amount needed.
The review is expected to be published in the next few weeks, after the government’s Spring budget is rolled out March 15.
Prospects for an increase in defense spending by the government are maybe a little brighter after months of arm wrestling between Defence Secretary Ben Wallace one one side and the Prime Minister and the chancellor on the other. They had argued over the need for a budget rise for the military – not least due to rampant inflation and the weakness of the pound sterling.
The size of the hit on defense funding was made apparent by Wallace late last year when he told the parliamentary Defence Committee that the inflationary and foreign exchange pressures on his budget for the next two years stood at a whopping £8 billion.
For weeks the media have been reporting the MoD were losing the battle for additional funds to help rebuild a military capability hollowed out by years of government underspending on defense.
One media outlet reported an unnamed senior U.S. general privately telling Wallace the British Army is no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force.
The Sunday Times on March 5 reported that Sunak will announce a multibillion-pound rise in spending when he visits U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington next weekend.
The newspaper reported unnamed insiders saying the rise would be worth “several billion pounds” over the next two years, but significantly less than the £10 billion Wallace has been fighting for, particularly to rebuild the Army.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.