Demise of British tank industry
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.
Tanks proper - specialised Main Battle Tanks, designed to fight their own kind - are finished, as dead as the all-big-gun battleship (another British innovation). Fighting tanks can't survive under hostile skies, and under friendly skies they have no purpose.
But armoured vehicles are still a big deal, as the past several years have shown. Buried mines and roadside shaped charges can blast through just as much armour as a tank cannon's hypervelocity penetrator. Thus, British and allied troops still prefer to ride behind heavy protection if they can. They also like the ability to get about offroad.
But how much mobility, and how much armour? In Afghanistan, there are lots of places where nothing much but a mule can get along. Often enough, troops operating in these places choose to have no armour whatsoever on their vehicles - quad bikes, Wolf Landrovers etc - if they even use ground vehicles at all. By contrast, there are places in Iraq where the choice is all armour and almost zero mobility - there are vehicles in service there which can't really go off road at all.
It might just be that there is no one-size-fits-all-wars solution, even in counterinsurgency fighting.
Then, apart from the real world, there are the demands of the possible future worlds, usually closely related to the needs of certain service communities to carry on existing. If all you had was FRES UVs, operated by ordinary Tom-Dick-&-Harry soldiers, people might question the need for specialist tank units. So in fact there is talk of FRES Scout and FRES Heavy: in order that the present British cavalry, now mounted in antique Recce tracks and Challenger battle tanks, can have a distinct future to look forward to. No matter that robot surveillance-planes would seem to have stolen the Scout's job as conclusively as air support has stolen the Heavy's, we nonetheless plan to have both.
And while one may beg leave to doubt that we really need Scouts and Heavies as such, it is fair to suggest that more serious ground threats can still appear. Portable guided missiles, able to launch from afar to blast through any practical thickness of armour from above or aside, are already common in Western armies. Our soldiers will need an option for dealing with this threat, which will start to become more and more common - the Israelis are already encountering it.
Frankly, this isn't a debate which is going to be solved in a hurry. There almost certainly isn't any one design - or even any vaguely-related series of designs - which could sort the British Army out even for the counterinsurgency wars it will definitely fight in the next decades. Even if there was such a solution, the Army's squabbling subcultures could never agree to adopt it - their separate existences very largely depend on the differences in their present vehicles. The cavalry are no more likely to admit that tanks are outmoded than the navy is to admit that a surface warship is mainly useful for carrying aircraft. (The big-gun battleship mindset is far from dead, in fact.)
One thing's for sure, though. Our armoured-vehicles industry is actually pretty much moribund. Our defence-electronics and subsystems business is sound, but far from comprehensive - and it needs to use overseas bits. As a result, we cannot build the fighting vehicle of tomorrow on our own - certainly not the proper one, able to track incoming guided weapons and frustrate them somehow. We couldn't even build a jazzed-up old style main battle tank on our own; not that it matters. Nobody needs frontally-armoured flat trajectory hypervelocity guns able to shoot sideways going over cabbages at 60mph any more. Nobody should really worry about the loss of that particular set of design skills.
So it's pretty foolish to mourn the lost era when mighty Blighty could make its own tanks, the more so recalling that our best ever for-real combat tank was the Sherman.
The other thing to remember is that the present state of the UK tank industry is a matter of conscious choices made over the past eight years and more by its owner, BAE Systems plc. The money which might have allied BAE Land Systems with Europe to build a real contender (imagine a British/German tank, now) was spent instead in the States. So it hardly becomes BAE Systems to blame the government for the passing of Blighty's (nonexistent) tank superiority. ®