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Demise of British tank industry foretold admitted

Can't make flintlock muskets any more, either

Comment Oh woe! The country which invented the tank (Blighty) may soon no longer have a tank industry! The end of yet another era is at hand. It's just like Concorde! And the Vulcan, Lightning, etc. Let gloom be unconfined - Santa won't be bringing any more British tanks for Christmas in years to come.

Or so says the British tank industry, anyway. The last fortnight has seen several reports in the business press on the possible imminent doom of UK tank-making, following a recent MoD budgeting announcement by Defence secretary John Hutton. In addition to pushing back any serious spending on the Navy's planned new aircraft carriers, Mr Hutton also effectively kicked into touch the long wrangled-over Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) "Utility Vehicle" (UV).

The FRES UV was to be something of a miracle: an armoured off-road ride tough enough to keep our soldiers safe, yet light enough to be air freighted. Given that even 60-tonne Main Battle Tanks like the current Challenger - too heavy for realistic air freighting - can be opened up by basic roadside bombs or buried mines, this was always going to be difficult to build.

But a lot of money was going to be spent on it. Overall, the whole FRES programme was expected to see £14bn or more of taxpayers' cash handed out in the next decade or two, producing the UV and accompanying miracle-tanks to replace much of the Army's current, embarrassingly aged combat vehicle fleet.

In addition, needless to say, that £14bn could also have made the British tank industry bloom like a rose. At the moment, this industry is effectively moribund. The various grand old names of yesteryear - tank-builders Alvis and Vickers, and the former government cannon factories, Royal Ordnance - are nowadays amalgamated as BAE Land Systems. There are at least five massive, decaying old sites still open - Newcastle, Barrow, Leicester, Telford and Wolverhampton - but nowadays fewer than 2,000 employees left working at them, mostly maintaining and supporting existing vehicles.

Now, with FRES UV kicked into touch and no consolation bar a vague assertion that the Army will focus first on FRES Scout, the rump UK armour industry can see no certain income ahead of it. On cue, the usual suspects push the industry line:

"Tanks for the memories", says the FT. "Threat to Britain's last tank maker," thunders the Mail. "A bitter blow to Britain, particularly because the country invented the fighting vehicle". Bloomberg says "Britain, where the tank was invented during World War I, may be unable to build armored vehicles".

It's true that Blighty invented the tank, but in strict point of fact our tanks have never done us much good. World War I was won without making any serious use of them. The most successful British tank of World War II was actually a US import, the Sherman. Perhaps as soon as 1944, close air support was beginning to elbow tanks and artillery off the battlefield throne, before the armoured juggernaut had even properly come together. (Self-propelled artillery and proper armoured infantry vehicles were still rare then. Even more so were logistics chains which could extend fast enough to keep up with them.)

Certainly by the 1970s, just as fully-equipped armoured warfare was starting to become a reality, it was becoming more and more obsolete. General Sir Rupert Smith, commander of the last division-strength armoured force ever put into the field by the UK in 1991, stated in his recent book The Utility of Force that the last ever battles to be settled by tanks - as opposed to air support - took place in 1973. Not in the Iraq invasion of 2003, nor under his own and Norman Schwarzkopf's command in 1991: but in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, nearly four decades ago.

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