In November 2021, Boris Johnson found himself in front of one of Westminster’s countless committees. He could have been answering questions about anything – but on that particular Wednesday, he was talking tanks. Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence Committee and an ex-captain in the Royal Green Jackets, was quizzing the prime minister on the ominous build-up of Russian armour in eastern Europe, and what the government proposed to do about it. The prime minister seemed relaxed. “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European landmass are over,” he said, confidently adding that the British Army would be better served investing in digital technology and cybersecurity. At the time, Johnson was no doubt pleased with his remark. But given events over the past few months, he may now be inclined to re-evaluate.

Despite his claims, tank battles on the European landmass are very much in vogue – as anyone with access to the current news cycle will have noticed. From the haggard shell of Kharkiv to the shores of the Black Sea to the edge of Kyiv itself, Russian tanks are rushing like termites over the broad Ukrainian plain. While the campaign is still in its early stages, they have certainly shown their worth, hammering enemy positions and patrolling captured towns. However, Russia’s Ukrainian foes, for their part, are proving just how vulnerable outdated models can be, destroying dozens of creaking Soviet-era tanks with ease.

And if Johnson’s strategic faux pas fails to inspire a change of heart, reflecting on his own armoured capability could be the prod he needs. For even as Europe’s borders are convulsed by war – with tanks very much included – the UK’s own reserves are seriously lacking. According to one recent study, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces can only muster 227 main battle tanks. To put that into perspective, even minor powers like the United Arab Emirates muster 388, while the US has over 6,000. More to the point, British attempts to redress the balance have ended in frustrating compromises and technical fiascos. Not that the situation is completely hopeless. With good decisions and investments in new technology, the UK could yet develop a flexible and deadly mobile force. And, as surely even the prime minister realises by now, time is of the essence.

Britain’s history of tanks

Up until the end of the Cold War, the British Army enjoyed one of Europe’s most impressive armoured forces. If nothing else, this is clear from the statistics. In 1990, as the Soviet Union tottered and the Gulf War began, the military had around 1,200 main battle tanks. And as Nicholas Drummond explains, this scale can fundamentally be understood by the strategy of the age. “At that time it was all about mass,” emphasises Drummond, a tank expert who himself served as a British officer in the 1970s and 1980s. “You just couldn’t do anything without having sufficient numbers of force. And you couldn’t move without having protected mobility.” That is understandable – with at least 30,000 Warsaw Pact tanks massed on the edge of western Europe, Nato needed enough firepower to shoot back. This was similarly reflected in the types of tanks the UK invested in. Entering service in 1983, Challenger 1 was initially designed to defeat communist armour in central Europe. Among other things, it had anti-tank rounds capable of smashing the hulls of the Soviet T-64s.

Yet, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the US temporarily bestriding the world in its unipolar moment, consecutive British governments have slashed their country’s armoured capabilities. While Challenger 1 was replaced by Challenger 2 during the Thatcher administration – though it would not enter service until 1998, under Blair – by 2001, a British military report indicated that the army would not be procuring an updated version given the “lack of conventional military threats” the country faced. By 2010, officials had announced that the Challenger 2 fleet would be slashed by around 40%. A few years later, with severe budget cuts continuing, the Ministry of Defence even admitted that the army had more horses than tanks – four-legged warfighters outnumbering their steel colleagues by over 150.

To be fair, these cuts were not totally unreasonable. As that 2001 report implies, after all, many in Whitehall thought the wars of tomorrow would be fought against less conventional militants – just as the British Army would indeed face in Afghanistan and Iraq. And to their credit, officials did try to offer troops protection more suited to the backstreets of Basra than the fields of Pomerania, especially when it came to procuring mine-resistant vehicles. However, as Drummond notes, this pivot towards counterinsurgency operations drained the kitty for armoured spending yet further, a fact starkly illustrated by comparing the UK to its neighbours. “We basically plan to have four deployable brigades,” Drummond explains. “Two of those will be what we call ‘armoured brigades’.” To put that into perspective, Italy, France and Germany each boast between seven and ten armoured brigades, encompassing main battle tanks and a range of other mechanised options.

A challenging situation

In June 2021, a leaked government report made some remarkable claims. The document claimed that successful delivery of Ajax, a new armoured vehicle programme costing £5.5bn, was likely “unachievable”. The machine that had been due to enter the field in 2023–4 inarguably suffers from some notable flaws. Chief among them are the noise and vibrations generated by its operation, so strong they make crew members nauseous. During tests, officials forced soldiers to stick to a speed limit of just 20mph – about half the actual top speed – apparently for health and safety reasons. That is shadowed by a number of other problems. Among other things, the vehicle, built by General Dynamics and meant to act as a lighter alternative to traditional main battle tanks, struggles to get over obstacles higher than 20cm. The Ajax debacle vividly speaks to the challenges facing the UK’s armoured force. As Robert Clark, defence fellow at the Henry Jackson Society puts it, “the longer this drags on, the costlier it will be for the government”. Yet, if spending cuts and diverted funds have done much to hollow out the country’s tanks, technical challenges have obviously hamstrung progress too.

Beyond Ajax, there is also the example of Challenger 3. A revamp of the UK’s Challenger 2, they promise to provide more powerful guns, an autoloading system and a new turret. Yet here too, Drummond sees the potential for technical hitches. “The new turret is going to be heavier than the old turret – and yet they’re not increasing the power that the engine supplies,” he warns. “So, it will be a slower, more ponderous vehicle.” Nor is Drummond alone in his concerns. Aside from the tiny number of Challenger 3s forecasted – Whitehall envisages just 148 models will be made – other insiders are similarly frustrated by these and other compromises. As the prime minister’s old foe Tobias Ellwood put it in 2020: “I don’t see a defence strategy here, I see a cost-cutting exercise.”

Of course, all this raises a question: given the UK’s distinguished martial history, what is the reason for this legacy of technical failure? A lack of resources is certainly a factor, but Drummond wonders whether poor strategic planning matters too. He accuses the British establishment of “navel-gazing” and prevaricating over various substandard options. Certainly, the UK’s anti-insurgency U-turn implies as much. Comparing the UK with its Nato allies does too. While London bureacrats stumbled through the 1990s and 2000s, their counterparts pushed ahead with ambitious new plans. Such a case is that of the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). A partnership between Berlin and Paris, it blends a German hull with a lighter French turret. That means the tank may be able to traverse bridges that heavier machines are not able to, as well as having an improved 130mm cannon. In January 2021, the UK Ministry of Defence even began discussions to become ‘observers’ on the MGCS programme – opening the door to potentially adopting it in Britain.

The future in the crosshair

What, then, does the future hold for Britain’s armour? Between Ajax and Challenger 3, the situation does not seem good. Yet, with the war in Ukraine finally focusing minds across the continent, the decades-long purging of the country’s military budget may finally be reversed. More specifically, Drummond does see a number of areas where planners are making good choices. One is a focus on digitalisation. Boris Johnson may have been naive to focus exclusively on cyber, but it is true that technology can improve the lives of tank crews. That is clear in Challenger 3’s digital open structure, which is enabling soldiers to share crucial data with nearby tanks.

This is bolstered by other high-tech features, notably active protection systems that put enemy anti-tank missiles off the scent. At the same time, the UK is also investing in other military vehicles that may finally make up for years of disappointment. Particularly relevant here is the Boxer. Described by the army as an “all-terrain armoured fighting vehicle” this vehicle will be able to barrel along at 64mph for over 650 miles. And though it lacks the firepower of a main battle tank, Boxers can nonetheless be fitted with everything from a 7.6mm light machine gun to a 30mm cannon. Even more importantly, Drummond – who acts an advisor to the German company building the Boxer, but speaks in a personal capacity – praises the fact that the Boxers are wheeled vehicles. That increases their reliability, as they can travel on the same rough ground as traditional tracked tanks. That is just as well. As the Russian military is quickly learning – to its misfortune – that securing flexible, reliable armour is worth it, unless you want to see it go up in smoke.


Challenger 1 enters service in UK armed forces.


UK armed forces possess around 1,200 battle tanks.


The Challenger 2 replaces its predecessor.


British Army report show lack of interest in replacing Challenger 2.


Challenger 2 fleet is slashed by roughly 40%.

Jan 2021

UK MOD show interest in French and German MGCS programme.

June 2021

Ajax labelled “unachievable” in leaked government document.

Nov 2021

Boris Johnson declares tank battles in Europe a thing of the past.

Jan 2022

UK armed forces possess 227 main battle tanks.

Feb 24 2022

Russian tanks enter Ukraine.


First Boxers scheduled to enter service in UK armed forces.


148 Challenger 3s expected to reach full operation capability for armed forces.