Replacing the Chieftain

The Archive at The Tank Museum is a Place of Deposit for the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Armoured Corps, and regularly receives declassified documents from the Ministry of Defence.

The Archive team have recently catalogued documents that relate to the replacement of the ageing Chieftain Main Battle Tank.

The Chieftains began to be replaced in 1994 with the introduction of Challenger 2, which went into service in 1998. The last Chieftain, 00FD90, finally left service on 22 March 1996.

It was a long and drawn-out process, with the Chieftain serving alongside Challenger 1 for many years, whilst government officials, the Ministry of Defence, and industry all wrangled over what this new tank would be, and exactly what was important for the Future Main Battle Tank programme, and ultimately the overall cost of the project.

Amongst the runners for contention for the replacement of Chieftain were Leopard 2, Challenger 1 (upgraded), Challenger 2, Abrams M1A1, and the French Leclerc.

One document, Chieftain Replacement Options – Programme Costings and Appraisals, provides the thinking behind the decision making that would ultimately make Challenger 2 (Mark 2) the successor to Chieftain, with Challenger 1 being considered only an interim measure.

This document was written on 25 September 1987, for the Future Tank Steering Group, which formed to thrash-out what the best option was for both the Ministry of Defence, and the Thatcher government of the day.

Challenger 2, Lulworth, May 2007.

Option 1 was the existing Challenger. This was the least costly option at the time, at £1.15 billion and the development expenditure was exactly nil. Also, it would have been the earliest to fulfil its first -off the production line date of 1990.

Option 2 to 5 were to implement variations on Challenger 2 and the current Challenger. The Vickers Defence System (VDS) Challenger 2, Challenger 2 Mk 2, RARDE’s Challenger Mid Life Improved (MLI), and Challenger Product Improvement Programme (PIP.) Challenger 2 (Mark 2) were the third cheapest overall, with the VDS Challenger 2 being the second. The Mark 2 version offered by Vickers came with an updated Fire Control System which improved its overall capabilities, costing an extra £110 million, with a first-off the production line date of 1992.

The Leclerk

Option 6 was the Leopard 2, ranking fifth on overall programme costs at £1.7bn with a relatively quick first-off the production line date of 1991. Option 7 was Abrams M1A1, the most expensive option, coming in at a total capital cost of 2.16 billion. It would have had an early first-off the production line date of 1991. This option also suffered from the most expensive logistical support and whole life costs. The final option was the French Leclerc, being the second most expensive at £2.1 billion with a relatively late first-off the production line date of 1995, only Challenger PIP (1998) was later.

Within the documents was an interesting ministerial note about a meeting between Thatcher and the American ambassador who was insistent on the UK buying Abrams. Thatcher was not on board and mentioned that the Americans didn’t buy our military equipment, so why should we buy theirs. The Ambassador, even offered for the Abrams to be built in the UK, but the lady was not for turning.

M1A1 Abrams

The Tank Museum Archive is the UK’s foremost research centre about armoured warfare. It is a place of deposit for The National Archives and holds documents, photographs, technical drawings, maps, moving images, books, and journals directly related to the Royal Armoured Corps, particularly the Royal Tank Regiment and its predecessors.

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