RBSL to supply UK with Challenger 3

British-German Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) joint venture has been awarded the £800m contract to upgrade 148 British Main Battle Tanks (MBT) into Challenger 3.

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The British Army has unveiled its new Challenger 3 Battle Tank, which is designed to be one of the most advanced tanks in the world. The new vehicle will be equipped with the Rheinmetall’s latest smooth-bore 120mm High-Pressure L55A1 main gun, similar to the one fitted on German Leopard 2s. Firing the kinetic energy anti-tank rounds and programmable multipurpose ammunition, it marks a departure from Challenger 2’s signature rifled gun. This means greater interoperability with the other NATO members, highlights Nick Reynolds, Land Warfare Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI): “This will enable it to use the latest ammunition, as is used by the United States and other NATO partners”. The gun will be capable of firing high-velocity ammunition capable of travelling at faster speeds and have an increased range. The upgraded tanks will feature a new automatic target detection and tracking system as well as thermal long-range cameras for day and night imagery. Reynolds also comments: “Hopefully, we would see an integrated active protection system to protect the vehicle from incoming projectiles.” The upgrade will give the vehicle a new turret with enhanced front and side turret protection, while keeping its old hull, albeit with an upgraded engine with a new cooling system enabling the vehicle to reach speeds of almost 100 km/h. A new hydropneumatic suspension will increase accuracy while on the move. For the electronic architecture, a modern data bus should be provided for the distribution of video data, among other things, with interfaces conforming to the Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA) and improved human-machine interfaces.

The programme will commence in 2021, with an expected initial operating capability by 2027 and aiming to be fully operational by 2030.

The UK’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace says the "far more integrated vehicle" will allow personnel "to deliver immense warfighting capabilities in battlespaces filled with a range of enemy threats". "It won't just be a vehicle on its own, it will be a vehicle that will be able to queue targets, talk to other parts of the battlefield in a way that, in my day, would have all gone back to a brigade through a battalion headquarters," the former British Army officer, added. He said Challenger 3 will offer a "fuller picture" of the battlefield to those operating it.

Plans on improving Challenger 2 began in 2005 as the Capability and Sustainment Program (CSP) to keep Challenger 2 competitive until the 2030s. These plans already included designs to replace Challenger 2’s rifled gun with a smoothbore Rheinmetall L55, a previous version of the gun that will be fitted into Challenger 3. However, due to a lack of funding, it was not until 2014 that the program was formally reorganised into the "Challenger 2 Life Extension Program" (LEP). In response to the program, BAE Systems in 2018 presented Black Night as a comprehensive upgrade, sporting an active protection system (APS) and a laser warning system, as well as a multitude of other upgrades to imaging and targeting systems. A year later, Rheinmetall presented its own upgrade, notably more substantial than BAE’s, which also included the L55A1 cannon. BAE and Rheinmetall merged their British operations into Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) in June 2019, leaving Rheinmetall's proposal the only option available without a complete replacement of the UK’s Challenger 2 fleet with non-indigenous models. RBSL’s proposal made its public debut at DSEI 2019. Even with this, however, there were still rumors, that the British Ministry of Defence could ultimately decide to purchase the German Leopard 2.

In the command paper Defence in a Competitive Age the British Ministry of Defence in March of this year confirmed the plans to purchase Challenger 3, opting to retire its entire Challenger 2 fleet, along with other legacy platforms, such as Warrior infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). They are to be replaced by Ajax developed by General Dynamics, Boxer produced by ARTEC GmbH (made up largely by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall) as well as Challenger 3.

According to RBSL, 450 jobs will be created and sustained within the UK supply chain, and a further 200 jobs will be created and sustained within RBSL. The work will be led out of RBSL’s Telford manufacturing facility with engineering support from Heavy Armour specialists based at Telford and other RBSL sites in Washington (North East UK) and Bristol.  RBSL will work with suppliers across the UK. The contract will provide the UK with the opportunity to explore new technologies for integration in future capabilities and will protect the UK’s national skill base in defence and engineering, RBSL said, with the potential to enable exports worldwide.

By Kevin Klemann

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