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Commander of British cavalry's final charge in '91: "Actually, tank war was over in the '70s"

But all the same there are good reasons why the Utility Vehicle plans got put on hold. The original concept of FRES was for proper armoured vehicles light enough to be flown to a war rather than having to be shipped by sea and land - hence the "Rapid Effects" bit. But experience in the last few years has shown - as anyone really could have told the Army - that this is fantasy. A vehicle light enough to be airfreighted in a medium transport plane** can't be armoured heavily enough to resist common roadside bombs, heavy buried mines etc. Indeed, even a 60-tonne main battle tank can be knocked out by such means.

Meanwhile, again, experience in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few years has shown that there probably isn't any one fleet of armoured vehicles you could buy that would be suitable for all or most wars - there certainly isn't one that would be the right one for both of those. Both America and the UK have wound up buying two different fleets largely off the shelf in recent years.

The days of old, where you could be sure you were buying largely for a war on the German plains against the Red Army, are gone. Even if we were still playing Cold War Tank Battle on a nice flat place without too many cities, there are those who would say that the heavy tank and its supporting cast - scout tanks, infantry combat vehicles etc - have largely had their day.

The man who commanded the British armour for what will probably turn out to have been their final operation at full divisional strength - General Rupert Smith, in the 1991 Gulf War - has stated in writing that in his opinion the last real tank-on-tank battles ever seen took place in the 1970s. By his time, the real work was already being done by battlefield air power. Pressed on this by your correspondent a couple of years back, the general said he wouldn't scrap Blighty's tanks now - but nor would he replace them. This is a very common view among modern British soldiers we've spoken with - some of them even cavalrymen.

Perhaps General Smith is wrong, and the many other tank sceptics are wrong. Maybe the main battle tank still has a useful role to play, somehow. But that doesn't mean that recce/scout tanks do. They are competing for business with more and more rivals lately - helicopters, of course, but also ground-scanning radar and infrared aeroplanes both manned and unmanned, satellites, and now even stratosphere-prowling solar powered wingships and dirigibles etc etc.

No doubt there will always be a place for a tough, sneaky recce soldier able to get out onto the ground and see for himself - if necessary unleashing a hefty bit of firepower on his own account rather than just calling down the big hammer from the skies. Certainly the recce cavalry regiments would argue this.

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