BRITAIN must invest in its fleet of main battle tanks to meet an increasing threat of ground war with Russia, senior Army officers have warned.
It comes as tensions between Nato countries and Moscow continued to mount, with Russia threatening “nuclear counter measures” over a plan to bolster nuclear facilities in Germany.
David Cameron is currently trying to find a “compromise deal” with Russian president Vladimir Putin over tackling the IS terror group in Syria.
But Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, an increase in Nato air-space incursions by Russian bombers, and the development of a new Russian “super tank” has led senior commanders to admit that the prospects of a conventional ground war In Eastern Europe can no longer be ignored.
The British Army has 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks but, while they are still respected, they are in urgent need of upgrade.
Last year the British Army took part in live-fire Nato exercise in Poland with more than 100 armoured vehicles. Operation Black Eagle “highlighted the British Army’s ability to deploy an armoured battlegroup at short notice anywhere in the world in support of the nation’s allies.”
Some, according to serving members of the Kings Royal Hussars armoured regiment, took more than three months to make ready because they had been mothballed, or cannibalised for parts.
Speaking recently General Sir Nick Carter, head of the British Army, confirmed that the future of the Challenger 2 was being considered at the highest levels.
“We have got issues with the tanks we’ve got and if we don’t do something about it we will have issues – what we will do is in discussion, “ he said.
Senior Army sources confirmed last night that the development of the new Russian T-14 main battle tank, unveiled at the Moscow Victory Day Parade in Moscow in May, had “focussed minds” on the issue.
Boasting exceptionally think armour and an “unmanned turret”, the T-14 is the first of a new generation of power tanks for the Russia Army, which hopes to have 2,300 of them by 2020.
Last week Russia announced that it would be forced to take counter measures to “restore the balance of power” in Europe if the United States carried out upgrade its nuclear presence in Germany by placing 20 B61-12 nuclear bombs at the Büchel Air Base later this year.
Speaking last night Maj Gen Patrick Cordingly who, as commander of the “Desert Rats” 7th Armoured Brigade, led US and British forces to victory over Iraq forces in 1991, said:
“There are 100 nations in the world who have battle tanks – they have them for a reason and for us not to invest in our main battle tank now would go against logic.
“Even in Afghanistan, it would have been usefully to have our own battle tanks. We were forced to rely on the Danish army.
“A tank is more than a weapon system – it also makes a statement. And when you’re trying to reign in another country, it helps to be able to make a statement in this way. “
The 2010 Strategic and Security Defence Review saw most British battle tanks put into storage as planners focussed on “asymmetrical” warfare of the type fought in Afghanistan.
So convinced were military planners of this that BAe was allowed to sell off its tank-manufacturing base in Newcastle in 2012, though BAe retained a rump of 60 specialists at tis facility in Tidworth.
Britain’s armoured base in Germany was also earmarked for closure by 2019, though recently there have been moves to reverse this decision.
Events since then, including the Russian invasion of Crimea have shown Britain and the rest of Nato “must be prepared to revisit Cold War scenarios, and this includes conventional, symmetric warfare in Eastern Europe,” said a source last night.
However, the Challenger 2 will have to jostle for priority against £9bn worth of other armoured vehicles – many intended for conditions like Afghanistan.
They include the troubled Scout and Warrior programmes.
The Scout Reconnaissance Specialist vehicle has already eaten up £4bn.
“The Scout is now so heavy because of protective armour and anti-IED capability that is can’t cross bridges or be airlifted – not brilliant for a reconnaissance vehicle’” said one industry insider last night.
Last night Nick, de Larrinaga IHS Jane’s think tank said: The Ukraine crisis has certainly prompted a rethink. The chance of a symmetric conflict happening has risen, and our ability to deal with it is less than it was during the Cold War.
It needs to be taken a bit more seriously.
“If you look at all the mine resistant, ambush protected vehicles bought for Afghanistan are very little use doing anything cross-country.
“The one area that hasn’t been heavily invested in is the Challenger 2 fleet. Either a life extension programme or a replacement programme would seem sensible.”