PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Tanks – For The Memory?

By Paul Cornish

The UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is approaching completion. UK defence reviews are usually accompanied by dire warnings as to the effect of any budget cuts on an individual Service’s capability or on defence as a whole. By some accounts, the fate of the UK’s 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks (MBT) is in doubt. Unfortunately that decision, and others, might be driven not by good strategic sense but by structural problems in the UK defence debate.

The first problem is a widespread lack of knowledge of, and interest in the purpose of a given military capability. For example, some might claim that the MBT has no role in modern warfare; that it belongs to a past era of armoured and mechanised warfare. But I am not confident that this era has yet been consigned to history. And if I’m right, then the MBT certainly still has a role. The modern MBT is a mobile, well protected and very destructive battlefield weapon system. It is also, admittedly, vulnerable; there are plenty of ways in which a 60+ tonne machine can be destroyed – mines, missiles, smart munitions etc. But in the last resort, the most dependable means with which to destroy a tank is … a tank. Rather than make questionable assumptions about military history, the better question to ask is whether the decline of the MBT is universally accepted – and it isn’t.

This brings us to the second problem – incomplete (or, at worst, tendentious) threat analysis. It would be wrong to claim that geopolitical adventurism, antagonism and even militarism have disappeared from Europe over the past 30 years or so. It would also be difficult to argue that the MBT no longer has a role when it would certainly feature in any large-scale military operations in eastern, central and western Europe. Russia has invested very heavily in armoured warfare, with a fleet of about 2,800 ‘active’ tanks (which it is modernising) and another 10,000 or so in reserve. For one European country at least, tanks are still in fashion.  It cannot be said that today’s Europe is stable and predictable any more than it can be said that MBTs are defunct. A genuinely ‘threat-based’ review (as is promised) would suggest precisely the opposite.

The third problem is best described as techno-fetishism. Part of the argument against the MBT seems to be that it stands in the way of 21st century technology. Certainly, this is a period of great invention and innovation, particularly in information and communications technology. But to argue that we should abandon ’the old’ because it’s old and embrace ’the new’ because it’s new, is simplistic. Innovation is about the application of ideas (and inventions) to the present, thereby achieving some improvement (practically or organisationally). Generally, however, innovation is not about changing the present overnight. Although it can at times have momentous impact, innovation is more often cautious and incremental. And when it comes to security and defence there’s a lot to be said for being cautious and incremental. The MBT is obsolescent; of course it is – it’s a human invention destined to end up in a museum. But there is a difference between obsolescent and obsolete.

The final problem is that of cost and ‘affordability’. The level of defence spending in the UK is not a law of nature – it is a political choice. Rather than trim capabilities to meet a declining defence budget, under the spurious reasoning that the threat picture points in this direction (when it does not), or because the military-technological future has arrived (when it has not), government should instead be hedging against unpredictable and undesirable futures which might nevertheless come our way. Government should be choosing to invest in Armed Forces to ensure they have the latency and flexibility to meet the broadest range of conceivable challenges, rather than assuming that we can relax and take a strategic holiday for a few years. The UK has tried this twice on a large scale – once in the inter-war years and once in the late 1940s – both times to our strategic disadvantage.

The fate of the MBT, and any other military capability, should be decided neither by quasi-historical projections, nor techno-fetishism, nor cost – but by strategy. Strategy is an attempt to engage with a future that is not merely uncertain, but fundamentally unknowable. But it must nevertheless be engaged with – decisions must be made in the present for the strategic posture of the future. It’s at this point that cash-conscious governments like to tell themselves (and the rest of us) that perhaps the future is less unknowable than is supposed, that they have the singular skill of peering into the future and finding, when they do, that the future is, uncannily, not too worrying and can, most conveniently, be managed on an even more limited budget or with some technological ‘fix’. Fine – but I’d prefer a MBT to a crystal ball any day.

Professor Paul Cornish served in the British Army’s 1st Royal Tank Regiment in the 1980s