The Challenger 1’s service career started out with much publicity. Some readers will certainly agree that the Conservative government of the day ended up believing their own publicity, and this resulted in the Challenger’s capabilities being overestimated just in time for the CAT87.
The three years that followed CAT87 saw the Challenger under a dark cloud, and comprised a period when Britain’s MBT was underestimated as an effective weapon system. It was not until early 1991 that the record was set straight about the Challenger 1. It was (by reason of its fire control system) not quite the super tank it could have been, but it was by sheer virtue of its firepower and protection, still one of the world’s best in its day. Crewed by dedicated professionals, this was not proven in the artificial arena of gunnery competitions, but in the harsher world of the real battlefield.
Faith was restored in the Challenger 1 by Operation Granby, and the type served the Royal Armoured Corps for nearly another decade (often in harm’s way) before being replaced by the Challenger 2. The Challenger 1 still serves the Jordanian armed forces as the Al Hussein and it will serve for years to come. In Volume 2 of Robert Griffin’s Challenger 1 story from Kagero Publishing, the story is set out with a fine selection of photographs, many being from the collections of people who were there. The story of the CRARRV recovery vehicle is also included, along with a fine selection of colour plates showing the Challenger 1 gun tank’s storied and continuing career.
The Challenger Enters Service
In 1985 the British Army had its new tank into service, although initially only 4 regiments would be equipped and the rest soldiered on with late model Chieftains. Although Challenger 1 was not perfect and still had faults, it was far better than the Chieftain especially in terms of protection and mobility. The Challenger was accepted with some acclaim in the press too, for naturally it was seen as a job saver for ROF Leeds’ large workforce and also as a natural successor to the already potently armed Chieftain. The optimism the new tank was accepted with was short-sighted because it had one large failing that would limit the Challenger in many eyes to mediocrity amongst its shining peers, the M1 and Leopard 2.
Like Chieftain before it, Challenger 1 was of interest to the armies of many nations, but sadly the expected sales did not ensue. It may be said that Royal Ordnance PLC and Vickers in years afterwards, were poor tank salesmen. One nation with an interest in the Challenger at the time of its introduction was Egypt, and as a result of a meeting held in the United Kingdom between Lieutenant-General El Orabi (the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces) and the British Ministry of Defence, it was agreed that Challenger 1 should be put through a series of trials for the Egyptian Armoured Corps,as requested by the Egyptians. The trials were to take place early in the United Kingdom in December 1985, after the type had been in regimental service in the Royal Armoured corps for nearly 18 months.
The trial would consist of three phases:
Phase 1: Automotive and Maintenance phase at R.A.C. Centre Bovington.
Phase 2: Gunnery Phase- R.A.C. Ranges Kirkcudbright.
Phase 3: Automotive Running and Obstacle Crossing Phase-Catterick Garrison.
The automotive phase at Bovington was marred by heavy rainfall, making the cross country course heavy with mud and large puddles, so the trial committee agreed that the trial should be a 50/50 split between cross country and road operation. Due to the conditions on the cross country track the actual split ended up as a 37/63 split; but this portion of the trial was deemed a success with the Challenger performing as per the trial requirements, and only normal operational maintenance tasks were required to keep the tank operational. While the automotive trial was running, the members of the Egyptian military delegation were given constant updates and briefings as to what was going on.
The gunnery phase of the trial was designed to show the Egyptian team the accuracy and effectiveness of the L11A5 gun and the standard ammunition types used. The ammunition natures employed consisted of HESH (High Explosive Squash Head), APDS (Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot), APFSDS (Armour Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot) and SH/PRAC (Squash Head Practice). These were to be fired from a static vehicle engaging static targets, then from a static vehicle engaging moving targets and finally from a moving vehicle engaging moving targets. The engagement sequences were also designed to show how the trunnion tilt compensator in the gunner’s sight could compensate for the tank’s armament being fired on a side slope. Weather-related problems beset the gunnery phase, including the cancellation of a night firing sequences, all of which would not seem to indicate that the Challenger was an all-weather weapon system capable of operating 24 hours a day. One would wonder if the Egyptians had developed misgivings by this stage. The coaxial machine gun and smoke discharger drills were not demonstrated either.
A crew from the R.A.C. fired most of the practice engagements for the trial although an Egyptian gunner did fire some of the serials. The DS/T firing involved firing eighty rounds at fixed and moving targets, at ranges up to 2500m the hit rate was 92.5%; the rate against a moving target was astonishingly 100% and 85% was achieved from a moving tank against a moving target. The firing of APFSDS munitions gave acceptable accuracy scores but the main issue was that despite the grouping of the rounds fired being very close, the actual mean point of impact was very low on the target. It was accepted that the grouping did show how accurate the L11 gun was. The SH/PRAC firing trials had a very bad start, firing twenty eight rounds- and scoring no hits, which caused consternation. The ammunition batch was withdrawn and deemed faulty. With a new batch of ammunition things improved and the hit rate was deemed acceptable, but first impressions may have counted. The R.A.C. crew showed that it was possible to load with the standard separate bagged charge ammunition at a commendable rate of 8 rounds a minute consistently. Two serials fired by the visiting Egyptian gunner both had a 100% hit rate.
The final automotive phase then took place at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, and was designed to show the Challenger’s impressive obstacle crossing capability; but looking at the report results, the course chosen seems to have been uninspired. The Challenger crossed a series of obstacles which did not trouble it, having crossed more arduous ones during a demonstration in the Middle East earlier in the year. That concluded the trials and although the hospitality must have been laid on thickly, the actual sequence of events (one would suspect) probably did not impress the visitors. Cancelling trials for bad weather seems irregular, and foolish in light of the need to prove a weapon’s capabilities…which along with the accuracy issues with the practice ammunition probably made the Egyptians decide against buying the Challenger 1. It would not be last time Vickers bungled its chances of selling a British tank.
The Challenger’s first real test in British hands was waiting in the form of the NATO tank gunnery competition known as the Canadian Army Trophy (CAT) and the end result would be a scandal. The Royal Armoured Corps was keen to restore its pride after the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had come last in CAT 85 equipped with the Chieftain, so CAT87 was seen as the perfect opportunity to “sell” the Challenger. Sadly all did not go to plan. Much has been written about the actual event and space precludes a full write up here (an excellent account is available in the Osprey New Vanguard on Challenger 1 by Simon Dunstan), so suffice it to say that the Challenger came a very poor last in the event and of the many myths that have grown around it, some have some basis in truth.
Although the Challenger hit more targets than most during its battle run, its engagement times were painfully slow compared to the hunter-killer equipped Leopards and Abrams. The slow engagement times were blamed by many in the defence press on the 3-piece ammunition the British used, but in reality the problems were centered on the IFCS system and the turret’s poor ergonomics. In essence the Challenger was the wrong tank at the wrong time, trying to win a competition against tanks equipped with stabilised gunnery sights and panoramic commander’s sights. The Challenger went to CAT 87 using more or less the same fire control system as Chieftain had before it due to its Shir 2 lineage, the commanders sights on the Challenger had been tweaked to try and help it in the competition: but with sights only stabilised in two axes it was never going to win.
One innovation arising from the run up to CAT 87 that proved successful (and has carried over to Challenger 2 ) was the fitting of the “Chase Modification”; this was invented by S/Sgt Charlie Chase of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, and was simplicity in itself. Chase modified the breech closing mechanism to work so that when the loader completed his last part of loading (pulling the breech safety guard to the rear) this closed the breech. Prior to this the loader would have to close the breech using the breech closing lever after engaging the safety guard. The new method was faster and worked very well, but it would take vision devices of the order initially envisioned for MBT 80 to have rectified the weaknesses exposed in the Challenger’s fire control system by CAT 87.
The sensationalist British press of course had field day, as did the armchair experts in the defence press. The author can recall being in the RAC Centre just after the CAT87 shoot and listening to people saying “never mind politics, let’s just buy the Abrams”, but these were not ordinary soldiers voicing this opinion. Sales of the Challenger were doomed from the end of CAT 87 and the government were quickly forced to reappraise the domestic MBT program. In the RAC however life had to go on, the Challenger was still new and deliveries continued: 1985 had seen the 16 remaining Royal Ordnance Factories privatised into Royal Ordnance PLC, from whom Vickers purchased ROF Leeds in 1986. Vickers were still committed to existing contracts, so purchasing a new tank from a UK supplier was not an option in the 1987-88 timeframe (and buying abroad was not an option considered politically acceptable). While the Ministry of Defence saw the need to replace the Challenger as well as the Chieftain in the long term, it would have to bide its time and make use of the Challenger.
During the 1985-87 period the RAC had to soldier on with two very different tanks, which did not save money as hoped, but actually increased spending because the logistics were complicated by having to maintain two different sets of spares in the supply chain. Eventually in 1988 the government had to concede that a new MBT to replace the rest of the Chieftain fleet was required, and a competition was set up using versions of M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, a new Vickers project tentatively named Challenger 2 and later the French Leclerc, to see which would satisfy the new General Staff Requirement 4026 Chieftain Replacement Program. While the Leopard 2 and M1A1 were both trialled for the requirement the political intent was to keep the new MBT British.
On the 20 December 1988 at 15:32 the then Secretary of State for Defence made the following announcement “After the most careful consideration I have decided to give Vickers Defence Systems an opportunity to demonstrate that it is able to deliver Challenger 2 to specification, to time and cost. Subject to satisfactory contract terms the government will fund a development phase which will last until September 1990 when the final decision will be made. While this was good news for Vickers the Americans and Germans felt they had been cheated (Leclerc was never a serious contender, not because it was a poor tank but simply because its crew of 3 men was not to UK requirements). While the Challenger 2 held great promise the intended fleet would be a mix of both Challengers 1 and Challenger 2, again a bit of a fudge. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 very quickly put the Challenger 1’s future in doubt and caused a reappraisal of how many tanks were needed in BAOR in short order.
World events were again about to step in and alter many things because in August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and as part of the international effort to remove him the UK initially deployed 7th Armoured Brigade (initially under US command) then deployed the entire 1st UK Armoured Division (comprised of the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 4th Mechanized Brigade, which arrived in December 1990 in-theatre) to the Persian Gulf. The Operation Granby deployment would eventually number 43,000 men in the largest army deployment since the Second World War. Much like the Falklands Campaign of 1982, it showed up errors and weaknesses in British operational capabilities. Two of 7th Armoured Brigade’s Armoured Regiments (The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and The Queens Royal Irish Hussars), both equipped with Challenger 1, were dispatched to Saudi Arabia in September 1990 while the coalition assembled.
The 7th Armoured Brigade deployed both the QRIH and SCOTS DG as reinforced regiments with 57 Challenger 1s each supplemented with a full 14 tank squadron attached from the 17/21st Lancers and with a reinforcement pool of 43 more Challenger 1s drawn from The Life Guards available to replace any battle casualties. The infantry component was provided by the 1st Battalion The Staffordshire Regiment in 45 Warrior Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicles. The 4th Mechanized Brigade included the 14/20th Hussars with 57 Challenger 1s reinforced with a full squadron of The Life Guards with an additional 14 Challenger 1s. These tanks were deployed in battle groups with the 1st Battalion Royal Scots and 3rd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers each with 45 Warrior Mechanized Infantry Fighting Vehicles. […]