LONDON — The UK Ministry of Defence has kick-started a program to update the British Army's neglected Challenger 2 main battle tank fleet with at least three contractors submitting initial proposals to undertake the work.
Challenger 2 builder BAE Systems, along with rivals General Dynamics UK and Lockheed Martin UK, have all confirmed they responded by the Jan. 14 closing date to a pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) issued in December by the MoD's procurement arm, the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) organization.
Germany's Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the builder of the Leopard 2 tank, was previously reported to be interested in the update program but it's not known if the company has filed a PQQ now that buying new or secondhand tanks has been ruled out by the Army.
Company officials could not be contacted ahead of going to press.
Officially known as the Challenger 2 Life Extension Program (LEP), the update, including initial logistic support, could be worth up to £700 million (US $1 billion), said the MoD's Contract Bulletin. The update program could also be applied to Challenger 2s operated by the Oman government, said the Contracts Bulletin.
The contractors are vying for two competitive assessment phase contracts expected to run for two years.
After prevaricating over what to do about obsolescence and upgrade issues on the Challenger for several years, the British have now moved to make good on a pledge in the government's recent strategic defense and security review (SDSR) to update the tank, extending its out-of-service date 10 years to 2035.
The move follows a reappraisal of the threat from a resurgent Russia and the public unveiling last year of the new generation T-14 Armata tank at a military parade in Moscow
The previous SDSR in 2010 saw Challenger fleet numbers reduce to 227 vehicles and the British under-investing in a platform seen by some as a Cold War relic.
That's changing though, according to Ben Barry, the senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
"It's fair to say Challenger 2 has been neglected. Its update was seen as a far lower priority than programs like the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle modernization," he said.
"Three things have changed since 2010. The Army now has control of its budget, priorities and requirements. Secondly, we have a resurgent Russia and finally the advent of operationally fielded active protection systems [on vehicles like the Armata] makes direct fire anti-armor guns and the tank much more important," Barry said.
The LEP assessment phase has still to be formally funded, approval for that is expected at the end of the month, but the MoD said in documentation supporting the release of the PQQ that getting the process underway now would speed the subsequent release of an invitation to negotiate to selected bidders.
The DE&S spokeswoman declined to detail the scope of the update plan citing operational sensitivity. Industry executives though said the update would focus mainly on updating turret subsystems and would not involve replacement of the L30 gun or the powerpack.
Since Challenger 2's entry into service in 1998 the British have considered numerous options to upgrade the machine, most notably replacing the 120mm rifled gun with a smoothbore cannon, which is the standard fit throughout the rest of NATO.
At last September's DSEI defense show in London, British Army boss Gen. Sir Nick Carter admitted the tank was showing its age.
"We certainly have issues with the tank we have at the moment and we should be in no doubt that if we don't do something about it some obsolescence built into it will be challenging," he said.
One case in point is Thales UK's TOGS II thermal observation and gunnery sight where the British are looking at providing a stop-gap capability ahead of the life-extension program kicking in.
"This interim solution will ensure Challenger 2 retains a credible capability through to the LEP; the planning assumption for service entry is 2018," said the spokeswoman.
Big land contract decisions in the UK have gone against BAE in recent years with General Dynamics beating the company to a big scout reconnaissance vehicle contract and Lockheed Martin securing the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle upgrade deal — together they form the Army's premier vehicle programs.
Both companies have set up armored vehicle operations in the UK on the back of the deals.