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3 Oct 2014
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Tanks for the Memory
by Today's Defence Correspondent Andrew Gilligan
From the moment it came roaring through the First World War mud, the tank became one of the twentieth century's most potent symbols of power and force. The Panzer divisions in the North African desert; Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest; Chinese tanks in Beijing, when democracy demonstrations were quite literally crushed. Even Margaret Thatcher spotted the PR potential of being photographed astride a Challenger tank, heading in the general direction of Moscow.

Nasty Third World regimes will no doubt continue to value the tank as an instrument for creating fear. But for Britain, and the US, it is becoming an anachronism. The legions of tanks which used to defend the old East German border are no longer needed. In an age of small-scale operations - Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone - the tank may just be too big and too expensive. In an age of "expeditionary warfare" when British troops may need to move somewhere very quickly, the tank may be becoming too heavy and too slow. Seventy-tonne tanks are very difficult to move by air; by sea or road, they take weeks to reach a distant combat zone.

Now, for the first time, one of the British Army's most senior officers concerned with equipment has said publicly that the tank's days are numbered. In a speech obtained by the Today programme, Major General Peter Gilchrist, the Master General of the Ordnance, says that today's Army tank, the Challenger 2, will be the last. At the end of its life, it will be replaced by something much smaller and lighter. By then, he says, "we expect that the 70-tonne tank, manifested in Challenger 2 and other Nato main battle tanks, will have had its day. It will be replaced by a lighter system with greater protection and firepower." The cornerstone of the tank's replacement will be something called the "future rapid effect system" - lightly-armoured, perhaps 20-tonne vehicles that can fit easily in a transport aircraft and be in place in hours if needed.

The Army is still planning on the assumption that they may need to fight a "high-intensity" battle of the type they faced in the Gulf War. So there will need to be significant technological advances to give a light, 20-tonne vehicle the same degree of "survivability" and protection on the battlefield as a 70-tonne tank with thick, armoured sides. New kinds of lightweight armour; "stealth" features, perhaps, so it is more difficult for an enemy to see; high mobility and better communications, so it can evade attack more easily. Challenger 2 tanks will probably remain in service for another 20 years before the species finally becomes history.

Rupert Pengelly, technical editor of Jane's Defence Group, who was present for General Gilchrist's speech, says that it was a "significant event." Modern forces, he says, "cannot afford to play the numbers game any more. Virility symbols have their place in armed forces, but those symbols are very hollow if they cannot be got to where the action is, and cannot do anything when they get there."

But Mr Pengelly also warns that the decision eventually to phase out the tank is a "gamble" which "all does rather depend on a whole lot of technological things going right." Nothing can yet equal the seventy-tonne behemoth's capacity to hold ground.

Patrick Wright, author of a cultural history of the tank, adds another caveat. "People talk about the tank as a rational instrument of warfare - you get lots of them, you mass them together and you advance - but it's always had a symbolic dimension as well. It is a monstrous object that crawls towards you and you don't know what it can do to you, but it scares you almost to death. It would be quite wrong to ignore this. The symbolic force of this weapon makes it very well attuned to modern peacekeeping-type operations. It may take two months to get it there, but if you put a tank on a bridge things tend to settle down."

Can a twenty-tonne something provisionally called a "future rapid effect system" ever be quite as sexy as this?

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