Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tanks for the memories

The British Army’s main battle tank is back in action

Artillery Row

At long last, the time has come for former British Army tank crews to prop up the bar, wax lyrical about the glory days and maybe even get some belated recognition for just how cool their job was. 

“You said our day was done! That the tank was an outdated dinosaur!” the bleary-eyed former tankie would be well-justified in exclaiming. “But let me tell you that Challenger 2 can really shift once those turbos kick in, not to mention the magic carpet-like sensation from its hydro-gas suspension working at speed across cross-country … ” 

After I left the army in 2010, it seemed tanks were all but irrelevant. The emerging modern battlefield was apparently all about drones, technology, cyber warfare and smart, savvy soldiers tapping away at their laptops. The British Army continued to reduce its number of tanks with every review of defence.

Tanks provide close to that ideal Aristotelian balance that all militaries seek

Now, though, there is a squadron of Chally tanks — as it was affectionately known by those of us crewing it — heading to Ukraine to join a load of M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks supplied by the US and Germany respectively. 

Ukraine has been asking for tanks after finding that once it had broken through Russian lines its military wasn’t able to exploit and advance into depth. This is what you need to do in war to win. It also lets you get “inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle”, whereby just as they have made a decision, it is rendered irrelevant because the sway of battle has suddenly shifted to their disadvantage. Now they are burdened with having to make a totally new choice. It keeps the enemy harassed, confused and wears them down physically and mentally (similar things can happen in less than harmonious marriages, apparently). 

Tanks, especially modern ones, are perfect for exploiting through and beyond enemy lines — first brilliantly displayed by tank commander supremo Heinz Guderian with the Blitzkrieg at the start of WWII that sideswiped France. They also aren’t too shabby at providing a defensive role given their degree of protection and firepower. Russia is reportedly planning to launch a big offensive any day now. Tanks provide close to that ideal Aristotelian balance that all military designers are seeking between protection, manoeuvrability and firepower. 

In short, it appears that tanks are back, baby — as are those heady times of Cold War-infused military doctrine. It’s all largely due to what is happening in Ukraine.

“The battles there have continued to demonstrate that armoured vehicles, although not without risk, underwrite mobility, survivability, and lethality in the close battles of modern warfare contributing to combat credibility and deterrence,” states the British Army’s web site. “The enduring utility of armoured platforms combining the holy trinity of firepower, protection and mobility continues to play a critical and central role in delivering the Future Soldier vision.”

The Future Soldier initiative represents the most substantial transformation of the British Army in over two decades, says the UK Defence Journal, with tanks retaining a “central role” in the army’s vision of the future. This will include 148 of the army’s existing Challenger 2 main battle tanks being upgraded to Challenger 3, “becoming one of the most protected and most lethal tanks in Europe meeting current and emerging threats until at least 2040”.

It’s hard not to leave the military with a tank-sized hole in your heart

It’s enough to give you goosebumps. Tank nerds can argue all they want about which country has the best tank and whether tanks are obsolete. There is no arguing with the dynamic aura of the modern main battle tank. It’s all starting to come back to me, with Chally in the spotlight: the frenzy of activity by the operator on the other side of the turret, loading the round and bag charge. “Loaded!” screamed above the roar of the engine’s turbos kicking in. “Target!” from the gunner, confirming he has an enemy in his sight picture. “Target go on!” from the commander — then the massive breech block recoiling in a blur into the turret after the thunderous explosion of the tank shell firing. The fumes of cordite from the coaxially mounted machine gun swirling in the turret. The hull going up and down like the clappers as it charges over the ground with the stabilised gun uncannily steady before it blasts away, returning to a position of effortless poise as the turret gracefully turns to find the next target. The holy trinity, indeed. 

“There is an undeniable, terrible charism about the tank — the same for all war machines, from the A-10 to a nuclear submarine,” one of my fellow tank commanders wrote to me after we had left the army. We were both confronting the challenges of settling into drab and indifferent civilian life. He wrote a war novel based on his experiences, but of course couldn’t find an agent or publisher interested at the time in tanks and what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Whether you drive it or operate the turret or command it, the feel of gigantic power is exhilarating. You are no longer subject to mortality but a dealer in it.”

After experiencing that, it’s hard not to leave the military with a particularly tank-sized hole in your heart. Let me tell you when that absence ached most: during those insane Covid lockdowns when protection overruled everything, with manoeuvrability and firepower — which in the civilian realm I’d define as agency and the ability to be proactive — utterly side-lined. It was enough to make any former cavalry soldier weep (British tank regiments still speak of themselves as cavalry; it’s far sexier and more romantic, after all). The inertia, the total lack of movability, being utterly fixed — all those debilitating constraints we were taught during tactics classes to inflict on the enemy, we brought on ourselves

During the pandemic, my Chally-based fantasies increasingly competed with those about the women one couldn’t meet. Such freedom of movement! Such power, agency and ability to fight back! After being exposed, and for so long, to the antithesis of liberty and autonomy during the pandemic, no wonder so many of the younger generations seem particularly troubled and defeated.

It makes me very thankful for my time with Chally 2, in spite of most of it being spent lost with my crew close to mutinying at least once every 36-hour period on exercise. Part of the attraction was the synthesis of man and machine as experienced from the turret, or from the Iraqi night sky as the Basher-75 gunship circled in its holding pattern, omniscient and all powerful with night vision and radar systems and its bristling array of weaponry trained on insurgents below. There was something seductive about such moments, as well as reassuring, knowing your back was covered, or that assistance could be called on no matter what. 

“If we don’t sympathize or intuit any of this on a personal level, we fail to understand just how psychologically seductive war machines are,” my friend wrote. “And hence will be no use at preventing or stopping their use.”


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