UK stores unused 900 Cold War Chieftain and 180 Challenger 2 tanks

According to an analysis from Defence24, a Polish publication, it is speculated that approximately 900 Chieftain tanks, relics from the Cold War era, lie dormant in undisclosed British Army warehouses. These tanks, as referenced by BulgarianMilitary.com, hail from a time of heightened global tension, during the Iron Curtain in Europe. 

UK stores unused 900 Cold War Chieftain and 180 Challenger 2 tanks
Photo credit: Flickr

Furthermore, the report reveals a projection that the British Army could potentially have 180 Challenger 2 tanks currently in their possession, going unused. Defence24 indicates that these tanks are available, however, they are not slated for an upgrade to the Challenger 3 model. 

Per the Defence24 assessment, the state of tank inventories across Europe and throughout European NATO member nations does not paint a rosy picture. The differing situations between U.S. and European tank stockpiles have been compared. “The second half of this study [the first part focuses on American tanks – ed.] primarily addresses the European NATO members and others. The occurrence here is less than ideal, with two exceptions, it barely reaches a satisfactory level,” states the Polish report. 

Britain is considering sending a dozen Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine
Photo credit: Army Technology

This report emerges amid increasing concerns voiced by Ukraine’s allies, asserting that their armament supplies are rapidly dwindling. There are further worries that Europe is unable to manufacture the required one million artillery munitions promptly, possibly due to capacity limitations. These concerns coincide with a time when France is not dispatching Leclerc tanks to Ukraine, Germany is conjuring up old Leopard 1s, and Britain ‘has barely salvaged’ 14 Challenger 2 tanks.

What is the picture?

Following the culmination of the Cold War, the British military made some noteworthy reductions in its defensive aptitude, as indicated by a Polish analysis. One significant instance was the withdrawal of their entire fleet of Chieftain tanks, totaling up to approximately 900, by 1995. Furthermore, the British Army also phased out their 420 Challenger 1 tanks by 2001, with 402 units being sold off to Jordan. 

British unit with Challenger tanks will be deployed in Poland
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Complementing the exit of the Chieftain and Challenger 1, the British Army ushered in the Challenger 2 as their replacement. They commissioned an order for 386 main battle tanks alongside 22 control training tanks, which came without turrets, as well as 33 each of Titan assault bridges and Trojan engineer tanks. 

However, the Challenger 2 fleet faced losses over the years. One piece was destroyed and decommissioned in Iraq. From 2010 to 2014, an additional 43 tanks were deemed unworthy of renewal due to substantial damages and excessive wear, resulting in their removal. In 2023, 14 more Challenger 2s were gifted to Ukraine as a part of their military aid – one of which was destroyed in combat. 

Considering these numbers, it’s estimated that the British Army should presently possess around 328 Challenger 2 tanks. At present, 227 of these are actively in service, whereas 101 are in storage. Out of the active fleet, plans are underway to upgrade only 148 tanks to the Challenger 3 standard. This implies that after the upgrade, approximately 180 Challenger 2s should still remain in reserve.

The factories don’t exist

Defence24’s report provides an in-depth look into the current state of the British land military platforms. One key observation was the lack of tank production capabilities within Britain’s current infrastructure. 

Historically, the Barnbow plant in Leeds and Elswick in Newcastle upon Tyne were central to the production of the Challenger 2 tank. Unfortunately, these factories are no longer operational. Theoretically, there is a possibility of reviving these operations by leveraging assets from existing factories like Babcock Defense Support Group and the RBSL [Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land] consortium. 

However, ramping up military production isn’t just a logistical challenge, but also a political one. As Defence24 notes, initiating such decisions can often be daunting in the UK’s political landscape.

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