Early in 2023, the U.S., UK, and Germany agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced main battle tanks for use in a counteroffensive designed to drive Russia out of their country. These tanks, the M1A1 Abrams, Challenger 2, and Leopard 2, represent a massive increase in capability for Ukraine’s armored corps. Contrasted against Russia’s struggles and losses — the Russian army has reportedly resorted to pulling 70-year-old T-55s out of storage — these tanks are expected to be major difference-makers on the battlefield as the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive continues.
With such high hopes, the recent photo of a knocked-out Leopard 2 spread consternation among casual Western observers. Many worried that these modern tanks are not all they are made out to be, and Ukraine will suffer much heavier losses than expected without gaining territory as they attack Russian positions in the south and east.
Further analysis, however, reveals that these tanks are already performing to the level expected. Their capabilities are not in question.
Introducing the Challenger 2 MBT
The Challenger 2 is the third British tank to have the designation, following a WWII era design and the Challenger 1, the British Army’s mainstay during the Gulf War. Development began in 1986 as a private venture by Vickers to replace the Challenger 1.
While the British Ministry of Defense initially considered purchasing the M1A2 Abrams and the Leopard 2, the Challenger 1’s performance in the Gulf tipped the scales in favor of a homegrown third-generation MBT. The design and development process proceeded mostly without difficulty, and the Challenger 2 entered service in 1998 after demonstrating that it exceeded all requirements.
Specs & Capabilities
Building on new technologies and lessons learned from the Challenger 1, the Challenger 2 is a remarkably capable tank. Armored with second-generation Chobham composite armor, it is highly resistant to anti-tank weapons. The addition of Explosive Reactive Armor only increases its survivability.
Should the tank take a hit, automatic fire-suppression systems give the crew a chance to perform damage control or escape the tank entirely. These features give the Challenger 2 a huge advantage over its Russian counterpart, the T-72, which, due to the location of ammunition for its autoloader turret, has a propensity for sympathetic detonation in case of a hit, with catastrophic results.
On the offensive, the Challenger 2 is equipped with the L30A1 tank gun, a 120mm NATO standard MBT weapon.
Unique among NATO MBTs, the L30A1 is rifled, meaning it has grooves along the interior of the barrel that will impart a spin on projectiles fired from the weapon. While other tank designers have moved away from rifling in favor of fin-stabilized ammunition, the British Army prioritizes high-explosive squash head rounds fired from rifled barrels for extreme accuracy at long ranges.
This doctrine allowed a Challenger 1 to claim the longest tank kill, knocking out an Iraqi tank at nearly 3 miles during the Gulf War.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.