The Challenger Main Battle Tank (MBT) was the main battle tank of the British Army from 1983 to the mid-1990s, when it was superseded by the Challenger 2. It is also currently used by the Jordanian Armed Forces as their main battle tank after heavy modifications. The variants for the Jordanian military are upgraded using an unmanned turret called the Falcon Turret.
The Challenger design by the former Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment (MVEE) near Chobham in Surrey originated in an Iranian order for an improved version of the Chieftain line of tanks in service around the world.
With the fall of the Shah of Iran and the collapse of the UK MBT90 project, the British Army became the customer and the tank was further developed by MVEE to meet Western European requirements. For a short time the tank was named “Cheviot” before becoming “Challenger”, a name reused from the Cruiser Mk VIII Challenger tank of the Second World War. The Challenger was built by the Royal Ordnance Factories (ROF).
The most revolutionary aspect of the Challenger 1 design was its Chobham armour which gave protection far superior to any monolithic Rolled Homogeneous Armour (RHA), which was the then standard of tank armour material. This armour has been adopted by others, most notably the American M1 Abrams.
Additionally the Hydrogas suspension fitted provided outstanding cross-country performance through the long suspension arm travel and controlled bump and rebound behaviour offered.
Challenger 1 entered service with the British Army in 1983 and production ceased in 1990 at a cost of around £2 million each. In 1986, ROF Leeds (and the Challenger production line) was acquired by Vickers Defence Systems (later Alvis Vickers).
Jordan initially purchased 274 Challenger 1 tanks. Under an agreement signed in March 1999 another 288 surplus Challenger 1’s were supplied to Jordan over a three year period, which enabled the Jordanian Centurion Fleet (known locally as Tariq) to be replaced.
The Ministry of Defence were keen to show off the capabilities of the Challenger 1 in the Canadian Army TrophyCompetition (CAT ’87), held at Grafenwöhr, West Germany in June 1987. The best performing team in preparatory competitions had been the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, however their Challengers had not been fitted with Thermal Observation and Gunnery Sight (TOGS), which would put them at a disadvantage.
The Royal Hussars (PWO) had a squadron fitted with TOGS, however, they had been training at BATUS in Canada with Chieftains, instead of training with Challenger and TOGS for CAT ’87. Twenty two new Challengers with TOGS were specially diverted from the production line for the competition, resulting in teething problems.
At the competition itself, the Royal Hussars managed some creditable scores but overall, their three “Troops” were placed last in the league table. In a statement to the House of Commons on 14 July, Mr Ian Stewart, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said; “I do not believe that the performance of tanks in the artificial circumstances of a competition, such as the recent Canadian Army Trophy, is a proper indication of their capability in war.” Following poor results in 1985 with Chieftain, and in 1987 with Challenger, the British Army decided in December 1987 to withdraw indefinitely from the competition.
A requirement for a new MBT was later issued, and proposals were put forward for the new specification included an improved Challenger from Vickers, the American M1 Abrams, the French Leclerc, and the German Leopard 2.
The Vickers Defence Systems design, designated Challenger 2, was eventually selected. This tank was significantly more capable than its predecessor, based on the same basic MVEE-designed hull but with a new turret based on the Vickers Private Venture Mk7 design and improved Chobham armour.
Withdrawals of British Armies Challenger 1 began in 1998 and it had been completely replaced by Challenger 2 by 2001.
221 Challenger tanks were deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Granby, the UK operation in the Persian Gulf War. In the original deployment, the 7th Armoured Brigade included two armoured regiments, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, both equipped with 57 of the latest Mark 3 version of the Challenger 1.
They were modified for desert operations by a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) team and civilian contractors at the quayside in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia. This fit included additional Chobham Armour along the hull sides and explosive reactive armour (ERA) on the nose and front glacis plate. Modifications also included the provision of extra external fuel drums and a smoke generator.
There were major concerns about the reliability of the vehicle. In addition there were serious worries about how a tank designed to perform in temperate climates would stand the rigours of desert warfare. Before the commencement of the Gulf War deployment only 22% of Challenger 1’s were operational because of faults and lack of spares.
On 22 November 1990 it was decided to add the 4th Mechanised Brigade to the force, under the umbrella of 1st (UK) Armoured Division. The new brigade had a single Challenger regiment (The 14th/20th King’s Hussars) equipped with 43 Challenger 1 tanks and reinforced by a squadron of the Life Guards.
They were equipped with the Mark 2 version of the tank, which was upgraded by armouring the storage bins for the 120 mm charges as well as the additional armour fitted to the Mark 3’s.
During Operation Desert Shield it was decided that the 1st (UK) Armoured Division would be placed under the command of the US VII Corps. This corps would form the armoured fist of the Coalition forces, tasked with destroying the bulk of the Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait.
The forces of VII corps crossed the Saudi border into Iraq, and then crossed into Kuwait. The 1st (UK) Armoured Division was the easternmost unit in VII Corp’s sector, its Challenger tanks forming the spearhead of the advance. The division advanced nearly 350 km within 97 hours, destroying the Iraqi 46 Mechanised Brigade, 52 Armoured Brigade and elements of at least three infantry divisions belonging to the Iraqi 7th corps in a series of battles and engagements.
They captured or destroyed about 200 tanks and a very large number of armoured personnel carriers, trucks, reconnaissance vehicles, etc.
The main threat to the Challenger was deemed to be the Iraqi Republican Guard’s T-72M tanks; each British tank was provided with twelve L26A1 “Jericho” depleted uranium (DU) shells specifically for use against T72Ms, but during the course of the Coalition’s ground campaign none were encountered as the division was withdrawn beforehand.
In action the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Thermal Observation and Gunnery System (TOGS) fitted to the Challengers proved to be decisive, allowing attacks to be made at night, in poor visibility and through smoke screens.
In total the British Challengers destroyed roughly 300 Iraqi tanks without suffering a single loss in combat. The Challenger, in comparison with the M1A1 Abrams tank deployed by the US Army, was more fuel efficient and achieved far greater serviceability. Brigadier Patrick Cordingley, the commander of 7th Armoured Brigade, said afterwards that “Challenger is a tank built for combat and not competitions.”
A Challenger achieved the longest confirmed kill of the war, destroying an Iraqi tank with a DU round fired over a distance of 5,100 metres (over 3 miles) – the longest tank-on-tank kill shot recorded.
Challengers were also used by the British Army in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Operation Joint Guardian, the NATO-led drive into Kosovo.