Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.
So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?
The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.
Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.
A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.
Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?
Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?
Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?
Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.
So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.
Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.
Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?
I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.
What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?
Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?
And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.
There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.
Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.
We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.
My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war